Returning travelers and foodies find much to savor in this Renaissance city.
Visiting Florence is as much about the cuisine as it is about the art, architecture and history. So much of the city’s culture is reflected in its food, and visitors are finding myriad ways of exploring it—from cooking alongside Italian chefs to shopping like a local at the San Lorenzo farmers’ market to ferreting out the most authentic regional dishes at area eateries. And while Florence’s dining scene is evolving to meet the changing needs of a more global, sophisticated clientele, it’s often the tried-and-true veteran restaurants that still deliver the best of traditional Florentine fare.
Relishing The Regional
Tuscany, the region of which Florence is the capital, is one of Italy’s top areas for food and wine tourism, with wonderful opportunities to experience both through restaurants, food festivals and hands-on cooking tours. The region’s cuisine has its origin in simple, peasant fare. Bread, olive oil, wine, tomatoes, beans, mellow cheeses and local game (boar, deer, rabbit) all figure prominently in the best dishes.
Italy’s regional foods are tied to the country’s culture and history. And there’s a certain joy in the exclusivity of tasting precuts produced only in a small geographic region or during a limited season.
|Where to Stay: The Noble Suite at Four Seasons Hotel Florence has views of the Giardino del Borgo.|
For instance, during Tuscany’s fall wine harvest (or vendemmia), the traditional schiacciata con l’uva (a rich, wine grape pie) is made. A bread dough is filled with luscious Concord grapes, which are baked into the bread, creating a kind of natural jam. But the only time you’ll find it is in September at a pasticceria in Florence or Chianti, according to Joyce Falcone, Italy Destination Specialist at The Italian Concierge, in Aspen, CO.
Similarly, the region’s olive harvests take place in the fall, turning out the artisan oils that elevate so many dishes. Toasted bread with olive oil (fettunta), for instance, is typically associated with November, just after the oil has been pressed. And one of the staples of the Tuscan table—white beans with sage and extra-virgin olive oil—wouldn’t be the same without the oil from those home-grown olives. Pinzimonio (raw vegetables with olive oil) is at its best with in-season local vegetables and fresh-pressed oil. Olive oil festivals featuring traditional dishes proliferate in late fall and into winter.
Often, visitors don’t realize how regional the cuisine of Italy is. Tour operators and culinary operators focus on these differences, highlighting the cuisine unique to a region. One such operator, Culinary Quests, arranges cooking and culinary-focused tours in a 14th-century villa complex outside Florence, where chef-led cooking courses and visits to local markets are part of the itinerary. Guests roll out pasta, make classic preparations like wild boar ragu, and learn about the wines and produce of the region. According to Founder Laura Haltzel, appreciating the cooking and food of a culture is an excellent way of really getting to know a culture.
Among the other essential dishes, which showcase the Florentines’ uncomplicated, hearty approach, is ribollita, a cabbage and bean soup that turns into a classic comfort food with the inclusion of day-old Florentine bread. This crusty, unsalted bread figures in one of our favorites as well—panzanella, a bread salad with vegetables. Tripe, braised beef, the famous Florentine T-bone steak, liver, dried cod and stewed squid are also among the regional dishes worth trying.
|Frescobaldi offers true Tuscan dishes and a complete panorama of wines produced by the Frescobaldi family.|
Dishing it Out
Luckily, the Florence Tourist Board is making it easier to find these regional meals with a program to certify restaurants serving traditional dishes in and around Florence. These eateries sport a “Cucina Fiorentina” logo and are likely to offer the kinds of dishes typical to the region. Of course, this is not just an old-school, regional cuisine kind of town, especially given the rapid pace of restaurant openings in the past few years. There were 759 restaurants in Florence in 2000; now there are almost 1,500, according to the Florence Tourist Board.
Not one to ignore restaurant trends, Florence has embraced the turn toward more casual eateries, such as the popularity of the bistro-style wine bar, where lighter meals and a wide selection of wines are served. We like dei Frescobaldi, a newish entry on the corner of Piazza Signoria, where there’s a warm setting, classic Tuscan dishes and plenty of wines by the glass. Another contender in this category is Osteria Tornabuoni, a modern take on the traditional trattoria, set in a 15th-century palazzo in the City Center.
Speaking of more casual eateries, the gourmet burger trend has found its way to Florence as well. LungArno 23, which opened last spring, offers plenty of wines by the glass and organic burgers crafted from the proprietor’s own cattle, an Italian breed called Chianina. The stylish setting features a wall of wine bottles, wood floors and river views.
In fact, design figures heavily in many of the best newcomers, whether casual or formal. We like chef Marco Stabile’s newly remodeled Ora d’Aria in Santa Croce, where the unique design complements creative menu offerings—like a three-way pigeon variation, a crispy suckling pig with orange sauce and pappardelle filled with smoked rabbit ragout. The two-year-old Four Seasons is also strutting its dining pedigree with Il Palagio, complete with opulent vaulted ceilings and Chef Vito Mollica’s regional tasting menus. We’re partial to the baby lamb coated in a pine-nut-and-mint crust with glazed sweetbreads.
Meanwhile, designer Roberto Cavalli’s restoration of Caffé Giacosa gives Florentines a laid-back, slick spot in which to sip cappuccino and eat pastries. Cavalli also opened the Cavalli Club on Piazza del Carmine in 2008, a restaurant, bar and disco designed for a see-and-be-seen crowd. Another big-name Italian designer, Ferragamo, is behind the Fusion Bar and Restaurant at the family’s Gallery Hotel Art. An appropriately fashion-forward crowd fawns over its fusion fare and contemporary artwork. Finally, chef Umberto Montano, the toque behind the trendy Alle Murate near the Duomo, opened Terrazza Bardini in a 16th-century villa surrounded by a garden with sculpture exhibits. We love the terraces overlooking the Arno, the live music and, most importantly, the top-notch seafood.
Sadly, with impressive newcomers sidling up to longtime veterans, we’ve seen a slight change in reservations as well. Some spots are taking them earlier in the evening than in the past, with an expected turnover of the table before the night is over. That’s a departure from the days where a table was yours for the night; depending on where you dine, lingering over a digestivo may not be as easy as it once was.
For getting around the city, we suggest Amrent, which is a short-term car rental company based in Tuscany. Amrent also organizes transfers from Milan and Rome to Tuscany and vice-versa. Luxury travel advisors can contact Sales Manager Alessandro Matulli ([email protected]) with questions or to reserve.