Florence for foodies

by radiohelen

Florence is home to some fabulous places to eat, but they're not always easy to find. To save you valuable time and effort, here are my tips on the best places to head for guaranteed good food

After a budget flight to Pisa, we arrived in Residence Michelangiolo, a beautiful building that looks like a private house and feels like the owner’s home. We stayed in a room with incredibly high ceilings that was once a reception room. My only quibble was the yellow bedspread but that’s more a matter of personal taste than any real complaint.

And so to eat...

The market

If you are only in Florence for a weekend, then the market has to be your first stop. San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale is at the centre of a maze of tiny roads and has a number of little cafes inside it, all serving beautiful food amongst mountains of produce that make you want to cry (not there and then, but when you get home and compare them with the unloved, unappetising offerings in the supermarket at home). The vegetables here are the very essence of vegetable, earth clinging to them here and there, warm to touch, and sprayed with water, which intensifies the colours. The meat counters are visceral experiences: meat in cuts you have never seen before, and ready-made options that make you want to set up stove right there and then. Pick a cafe you like the look of and mangia! Remember to buy biscotti and vin santo from Pana da Lory, taste and buy some old balsamic vinegar and, if you have a refrigerator in your hotel room, pick up some pasta fresca, ready for a fabulous dinner on your return home.

The gelateria

Italy is the home of gelato and some say that the ice cream at Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche 7) is the best in Italy. While I can’t vouch for that (I haven’t eaten in every gelateria in Italy yet – although it’s a thought...), it is ice cream I would return for. Vivoli also has the advantage of being situated just one block back from Santa Croce (at the opposite end of the piazza from the church), so you can combine culture and education with ice cream indulgence. It is a little hard to find, but follow the trail of ice cream cups and it will lead you to nirvana. There are no cones at Vivoli but the choice is vast; if you cannot find something you like here, you have no soul. I have, over a series of visits, tried chocolate, hazelnut and chocolate, peach and strawberry. They were all excellent. Vivoli is open Tuesday-Sunday, 09:00-01:00; closed in August and January to early February (www.vivoli.it; +39 055 292 334).

The lunch spot

Lunchtime can be a bit of a let-down when you are a tourist. You are either too busy sightseeing or stuck in a tourist trap. Sage travellers always say you should eat where the locals eat - but it can be a lot harder to put into practice than it sounds. So let me point you in the direction of Ristorante Self Service Leonardo, upstairs at Via de Pecori. It is wedged in between smooth marble-faced shops and can take some finding, but persevere and you will be rewarded.

You climb uninspiring stairs and enter what looks like a school canteen. Friendly old guys beaver away, producing good food for Florence’s workers, with lots of shouting and banter. My Italian wasn’t up to working out exactly what they were saying but the winks and nudges suggested it may have been risqué in nature! They also speak English, but they didn’t let on until later.

We loaded up our trays and paid a ridiculously small amount for a monster lunch of the kind of quality you don’t get in the UK any more - freshly made bruschetta with tomatoes and the chicken liver pâté you only get in Florence, lots of different pastas, lovely lasagna and lots of fresh fruit salads. Ristorante Self Service Leonardo is the kind of “authentic Italian experience” you will wax lyrical over when you get home.

The dinner venue

Dinner in Florence is a whole other matter, and by far the most fun I have had there was in a restaurant called Il Latini, at Via dei Palchetti 6/R (www.illatini.com). Get there early, as queues start to build up by about 8pm and they don’t take reservations. Tip: it is not the place to take your new vegetarian lover. Another tip: go hungry from breakfast – you will need the room, because you are about to be taken on a gastronomic ride.

The place is dark and haunches of pig sway gently from the ceiling, scenting the air with musky sweetness. You are seated at vast communal tables with strangers who in the next two or three hours will become your friends. Language barriers can be overcome with the help of large bottles of vino communale. A waiter comes round and asks you what you would like. Meat is big here and it doesn’t seem to matter what you order, they bring everything and you just share - rostini, bruschetta, salads, Parma ham, deep-fried artichokes, roasted meats, desserts, fruit, grappa and more. It is a good old-fashioned Renaissance feast.

I ended up being served tasty morsels by an Italian architect while secretly topping up the wine glass of a disapproving American IT consultant’s husband. My husband was fed dessert from a German lady’s fork and spent some time giggling with a refuse mogul from Louisiana. It didn’t cost the earth either; I can’t remember how much, but I remember being pleasantly surprised. My only other advice would be, get them to order a taxi for you – taxis are like hens' teeth in Florence in the evening.

Florence has many wonderful places to eat; these are my favourites and I have no doubt you will find your own. Whatever you do, I say to hell with la bella figura – eat and be happy!