It was like seeing your dentist in the supermarket. Flying from Newark, the last thing I wanted to see upon landing in Florence was standing there in all its glory, IKEA! And it was not your average IKEA, no. This was a mean and scary one. I mean the Airport is located in its parking lot! I did not come 4182.6 miles which included a scenic tour around Charles de Gaulle on a shuttle from hell to eat Swedish Meatballs. I needed to see pizza ASAP and 90 minutes later I did.
When in Florence, or Rome, or anywhere else pretty much, leave your eating habits behind. Forget the bread with butter, your evening cappuccino, your well done steak. Eat and drink like a local and let the chefs do their thing without asking for alterations. When we went to Portugal a few years ago we kept hearing about the Portuguese obsession with Bacalhau, and how they can make it in 365 different ways, for every day of the year. Well, we must have picked the 2 worst days. Tried it once and hated it just enough to try again at one of the top spots in Porto, and hated it even more. However, the opposite was true with Porto’s famous 5 meat beast, Francesinha. I expected to hate it but absolutely loved it. For every Bacalhau there are 10 Francesinhas sitting there waiting for you. A statement borderline offensive.
Anyway, here are 10 items to try in Florence. Some unique to Florence, some unique to Tuscany, while some aren’t unique at all. Hey, its my list and I’ll do what I want to. But feel free to comment on anything that I’m missing of course. In no particular order…
1) Pizza/Bakery. Yes I know, I know, Pizza is not a Florence thing. Leave it to Rome or Naples. But it doesn’t mean there’s no great pizza here. Try Pugi while visiting David or San Marco. Grab a number, and while you wait look at all the Foccacia and Schiacciate coming out of the oven. Then point to what you want, point to your mouth, show them the size you want with both hands (like an NFL referee showing how many inches are left for the first down) and you are all set. The smells alone at Pugi is worth going. Another popular pizza option is Gusta Pizza near the Pitti Palace
2) Bistecca alla Fiorentina – This is a no brainer and required eating by local law. A massive bloody rare Chianina raised Porterhouse cooked to perfection. Cooking it any differently will result in what I call a Paris Hilton – Pretty to look at but with zero substance. My personal preference however in the region is Tagliata style, which is sliced Chianina and served with with olive oil and spices. Just about every Trattoria in Florence offers it seems like. All’Antico Ristoro Di Cambi and its 21 day aged Bistecca, Trattoria Mario, and Sostanza are good bets
3) Pappa al Pomodoro. Tomato and bread sounds as sexy as a George Costanza pose, but surprisingly delicious when done right. Garlic, Basil, Pepper, spices are added accordingly to create this beautiful dish. Try it at Da Ruggero. And while you at it try the Ribollita, essentially bread, white beans and veggies.
4) Crostini – Talking about bread, more please. You wont find many great bread baskets in Florence or Italy as a whole but I love everything else they do with the bread. The Tuscan Crostini, rich buttery liver goodness is the perfect starter. Especially when paired with savory Salumi like the fennel studded Finocchiona (so so good). Try the liver crostini at La Pentola dell’Oro, or better yet the entire assortment plate they offer.
5) Pollo al Burro at Sostanza – Perhaps the most celebrated single dish in Florence. Chicken with butter! Or is it butter with chicken, not sure. Rest assured there’s plenty. Check out this dish and the rest of our meal at Sostanza here
6) Panini – This goes hand in hand with #9. In Italy Panini simply means sandwich (other than sandwich made of sliced bread) and trying all the various sandwiches in foreign countries is always fun. Try any of the tripe stands all over town, Bollito with Salsa Verde (Boiled beef with green salsa) in Nerbone, top notch ingredients in legendary ‘Ino, and something we truly enjoyed: mini sandwiches at Procacci. They are known for the truffle sandwiches but we really enjoyed the rest of the lineup as well. Don’t eat the biscotti sampler.. you will wind up buying a case for your entire family and your neighbor, even though their dog is annoyingly wakes you up early in the morning and is ugly. Had to get it off my chest
7) Pici – Pici is more of a regional dish and you will see Pici predominantly featured in the country side. Its essentially a thick round spaghetti, very “meaty”, very delicious, and very absent in the USA. When we learned how to make Pici in Montelpulciano our instructor made us add a little big of egg, though normally its eggless. Try it anywhere with any ragu like cinghiale (wild boar).
8) Anything in Mercato Centrale – Here I am torn. I need help from the locals as I see 3 options. A stupendously cheap full meal at Nerbone (inside the market), or just walk around the market and try everything in sight including the cured meats and cooked on the spot fresh seafood. Or, both of the above. 2 trips here would be ideal
9) Tripe – Ok, I have to admit, this is my Bacalhau in Florence. Meaning I wasn’t exactly crazy about what I tried. The plate of Lampredotto I tried at a restaurant that shell remain nameless was the worst thing I ever ate in Italy. Lampredotto is made from the fourth stomach of the cow. Maybe I’m just a first and second stomach kinda guy, or maybe this tripe thing is not for me. Either way, I tried it, I hated it, and I’m taking you all down with me. I mean, YOU may like it. Thats what I’m trying to say
10) Gelato – I started with something that isn’t so much a Florence thing and I’m ending with something thats definitely is. Some of the best Gelato in the world is right here, but you need to do a little homework in order to take advantage of this artisanal craftsmanship. We tried all sorts of Gelato all over town. Pretty much anything that starts with “Cara” is good (cara I think means delicious ice cream!) as in Carabe and Carapina. Gelateria dei Neri was another winner
What not to try in florence:
1) Swedish Meatballs