I just returned from a nine day trip to Florence, Italy, with my family and thought I could jump back into blogging by writing about what we enjoyed about the food over the course of our stay.
As a quick introduction, since I have not done much writing lately, we try to visit Italy every year or two since I grew up in an Italian family – my parents are immigrants – and we’re trying our hardest to teach the language to our daughter and also have her experience some of the culture directly, even if infrequently. She’s also only three, so we have to pace ourselves!
Over the course of the past nine days, we visited some old favorites, tried some new ones, and walked away with what I hope is information useful to your own trip planning. If I may digress for a moment, I am not much of a breakfast eater, and neither does Italy have much of a breakfast culture, so we’ll focus here on lunch and dinner options. If you do like American-style breakfast and want to stick with that on your own trip, you can often find versions of it at American chain hotels – or go local, grab a pastry (or a schiacciata with prosciutto, you’re on vacation) and an espresso, and hold yourself over until lunch.
When to Eat
Normally I would not be this prescriptive about when to eat, but in Florence and Italy in general, your meals out happen at certain times of the day. If you happen to have an apartment or a kitchenette, you can work around this a bit by making some food yourself, which is especially useful with small children.
I bother to mention that option because lunch hours at restaurants start at 11:30 or noon and end around 2:30 or 3:00. Dinner is commonly at 7:30, but sometimes 7:00, and runs until anywhere from 10 to midnight. By and large, you will want to plan your meals out during these times. Most restaurants will close between 3 and 7:30, while some will scale back to a thinner menu of snacks and antipasti. Some restaurants serve food all day, and I will encourage you to take a default position of “tourist trap” on these – some are not, but assume it until proven otherwise.
There are many places in Florence open only at lunch. Da Nerbone in the Mercato Centrale closes at 2, when the ground floor of the market itself closes, and is a long-standing destination for a traditional tripe or lampredotto sandwich. I prefer lampredotto myself, for having a better flavor and texture, but I recommend trying both and deciding for yourself.
My absolute favorite place in Florence for lunch, though, is Trattoria Sergio Gozzi. They are open from 12-3, and I’d encourage you to show up a bit early. On all but the slowest of days in the city, there will be a wait. Go in, make sure you get up to the counter, and put in your name and party size. Then, stick around, because if they can’t find you when it’s your turn, they will move on to the next and you won’t hold your place on the list. Those aren’t the tourist rules, I watched it happen to locals as well – the only exception being, from what I could tell from the conversation, a regular.
The food itself is traditional Tuscan and Florentine, heavy on meat options. The menu is handwritten and changes daily and I’d encourage you to try anything that sounds good, since it’s all fresh and house made. Their ragu is particularly good, and I’m pretty sure my wife orders the gnocchi with that ragu any time it’s available. Speaking of ragu, it’s worth noting that it differs greatly from the Italian-American version in that there is almost no tomato – it is truly a meat-based sauce and absolutely delicious. This is also a great place to try Bistecca Fiorentina, a rare-grilled porterhouse from Chianina cattle, if you plan to only eat once that day. Personally, I think their ribollita is the best in town, and I tend to order this traditional bread-thickened vegetable and bean soup once a day when we’re out there. House wine is perfectly good (and inexpensive) here. Prices in general are fair and affordable.
An honorable mention for La Casalinga, either for lunch or dinner, is also in order. Stick to items in capital letters on the menu, as those are are specialties, either daily or otherwise. The fresh pasta, all made in house, is quite good. Lunch here for me is a ribollita and a tagliata – literally meaning cut, a medium rare grilled beef sirloin sliced and covered with arugula and pecorino shavings, and one of the homemade desserts. We’ve been known to have lunch and dinner here on consecutive days!
If Sergio Gozzi is my favorite place for lunch, Osteria Cipolla Rossa is my favorite for dinner. They are also open for lunch with mostly the same menu if you prefer, but this is definitely a place to order a few courses and indulge, which I prefer to do at dinner if I’m going to do it at all. Cipolla Rossa has, for me, the best pasta in Florence. Some dishes are traditional, some are a more creative take, but most of the pasta is fresh and house made (as opposed to dried) and really well done. I tend to stick to the daily specials and I’d encourage you to try any of those, but a few items have earned a permanent place on the menu and are great choices. The gnocchi verdi (green gnocchi) in a Parmesan zabaglione – a slightly thick, whipped egg yolk based sauce (sometimes a dessert or custard base in other dishes) – with black truffle shavings is one of my favorite things to eat in all of Florence. Similarly, the petto di pollo con burro in tegame – a chicken breast cooked in a pan with brown butter – is really simple and really awesome. You don’t find a lot of chicken on menus compared to the US, and in general, boneless skinless chicken breast bores me, but this is a seriously good dish. The wine list is extensive and fairly priced here as well.
We also revisited Terra Terra, and I’ll give that an honorable mention for the homemade desserts – especially a ridiculously good Tiramisu – and the Sardinian menu in general. If you are there for dinner, stick to that small menu of specialties and you’ll eat well. They also cook a Tuscan menu, but why not eat what the kitchen specializes in making?
Recall my statement that a restaurant open all day is by default a tourist trap. If you need something counter to that, consider Fiaschetteria Nuvoli. This is a small place with a counter upstairs open all day, plus a cellar open at lunch and dinner (but they do close at 9!) and randomly throughout the day. This is a place to find really good, fairly priced classics in the very center of touristville. Try the porchetta, complete with crispy skin, and roasted potatoes.
I’m leaving this one open-ended. We had some other great meals and I’ll work on getting those written up as well, in addition to some strategy on planning meals with your kids, getting by with limited Italian skills, and some other thoughts to make your next visit great. I also have a second part coming with what to avoid, which will be more categorical in nature (with examples of the worst offenders, of course).