I dined at a new “Italian” restaurant in my hometown. Supporters of it touted its “authenticity” on Facebook. I’m always skeptical when people claim that something is “authentic” Italian. Have they been to Italy? If so, have they immersed themselves enough in the culture to ascertain legitimacy? Do they mean it’s authentic Italian or Italian-American? Which region is the food authentic to? Pasta in Bologna is different than pasta in Naples. Northern Italians tend to eat differently than southern Italians. Despite these claims of genuineness (which actually served as a deterrent for me), I tried the restaurant and found its food tasty. It was authentic Italian-American cuisine, which was perfect because I was eating it in the States. When I want authentic Italian though, I dream of Tuscany.
Lovers of the rich food we call Italian may be surprised when dining in Italy where cheese-laden pizzas, cream and butter sauces, and meat-heavy pasta dishes are rare. Although Italian cuisine is quite regional, there are some constants—dishes are generally comprised of only a few exquisite ingredients, pasta and meat are served as separate courses, pastas are not overly sauced, and the name of the game regarding cheese is balance. There are many wonderful places to eat in Florence that practice that food ethic.
In Florence, you will find ancient dishes connected to the rich land of Tuscany. Bistecca alla Fiorentina (from Chianina cows who grazed on the nutrient-rich grasses of the region that produces Chianti wine) perfumes the city as grills heat up around dinner-time. It is served medium-rare, dressed simply with salt and olive oil, and melts in your mouth like beefy butter. Bread-based hearty soups like pappa al pomodoro or ribollita are Florentine favorites. Boars (cinghiale) roam the Tuscan countryside and are porky perfection in pasta dishes featuring cinghiale ragu. Make sure you fare la scarpetta—scoop up the leftover sauce with Tuscan bread. The salt-free slices are a perfect vehicle for wiping your plate clean.
You can get a great sandwich at stands across the city. Lampredotto (the fourth stomach—because the others weren’t as good) is a local favorite. The sandwiches are served on crusty, chewy rolls with a parsley sauce and chili oil. Have the vendor dunk the top of the roll in the broth for you. I find lampredotto okay, but prefer my panino con bollito (boiled beef roast). This sandwich is one of the first things I eat when I get to Florence and one of the last. No meal would be complete without stopping off for the dessert that the city is probably best known for—gelato. With less air than its American counterpart, it’s remarkably creamy and rich yet lower in fat than ice cream so you can feel good eating it.
Although I’m always finding new favorites, here are a few of the places that I think are the best restaurants in Florence. Many of these are places that I keep going back to over and over again; some of them just made the list for the first time this year.
Cafes: Caffe Gilli, Caffe Rivoire, and Caffe Scudieri are all elegance and history personified. Gilli has a great cappucino. The thick and rich hot chocolate at Rivoire can’t be missed (see the picture). The pastries at Scudieri are perfection. Not as stately, but just as delicious is La Loggia degli Albizzi. This café has great pastries at good prices.
- La Fiaschetteria: My husband found this restaurant years ago. We were looking for a place that wasn’t touristy, had good prices, and served pasta (for me) and pizza (for him). We’ve been going back ever since. It’s a small little gem that we keep revisiting over and over. I enjoy their cinghiale pasta and Jon loves their pizza. Both of us usually start the meal with bruschetta al pomodoro (toasted bread topped with tomatoes).
- Osteria Buongustai: This female-run restaurant serves great pastas and has a nice selection of bruschetta. My favorite is lardo di Colonnata. Who knew fat could be this good?!?
- Pizzaman: With a wood-fired oven, the pizzas coming to your table are charred perfection. Serving Napoli-style pizza, my favorite is the Margherita with fresh mozzarella, piquant tomato sauce, a drizzle of fine olive oil, and a sprig of basil. Yum.
- Trattoria Enzo e Piero: This restaurant is known for their lasagne, but come early as they sell out. I’ve enjoyed other pasta dishes there, too, as well as good wine. The prices are moderate.
- Trattoria Sergio Gozzi: This restaurant is open for lunch-only, sadly depriving the city of its immense talents at all other times. I adore the pappa al pomodoro soup here. Although the menu changes daily, I have never had a pasta dish that I didn’t enjoy. The chicken salad gives a lite diversion from carbohydrate-heavy fare. If they have peposo on the menu–a peppery stewed beef–you should probably order it. This would also be a great place to sample the city’s famous bistecca alla Fiorentina. If you can only come here once, I would come hungry and sample a lot of dishes with your dining companions.
- Trattoria Sabatino: This family-run restaurant right outside the San Frediano gate serves home-cooked food that is so low-priced it makes me wonder how they do it. The low prices don’t mean low flavor though. The last time we dined there Anthony Bourdain was filming an episode of Parts Unknown.
Gelato: The places that I think serve the best gelato in Florence are (in order with my favorite first): Gelateria dei Neri, Gelateria la Carraia, Perche No!, and Vivoli. All of these places serve up creamy, rich gelato in small batches. They are decently priced and know what they are doing. Their flavors explode. You really can’t go wrong with any of them, but the fondente (dark chocolate) at Gelateria dei Neri makes the price of the flight worth it for me.
Panino: I don’t know the name of my favorite sandwich stand, but it is easy to find. It is a red stand (there are generally two women working) located on a corner within the San Lorenzo market outside of the Mercato Centrale. Inside of the market is Nerbone–a restaurant famed for their sandwiches–which is good, but not as good as this red sandwich stand outside. The prices are great, the service is quick, and the food is amazing. Get the beef sandwich (panino con bollito) with both the green and the red sauce (verde and piccante). Fabulous! If you’re looking for wine and a sandwich, try I Fratellini. This restaurant is literally a hole in the wall, but serves cheap wine and tasty low-priced sandwiches filled with good charcuterie. Hang your wine glass up on the rack on the outside wall when you leave.
I hope that you are able to try out some of these eateries the next time you are in Florence. I’m always on the look-out for new Florence restaurants to try so please leave your favorites in the comment section. Buon appetito!
**Our friends at The Tour Guy offer Florence food tours. These are a great way to sample the riches of the city with a knowledgeable (and fluent) expert. If you use our link, you will save 5% on their small-group tours.
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