Florence is famous for its amazing cultural offerings, beautiful buildings and romantic setting - but it makes a great getaway for keen foodies too
Florence, or Firenze as it’s known in Italy, is in the heart of Tuscany – a region renowned for its beauty, art, architecture and fantastic food and drink. It’s got cobbled streets, large stone buildings with wooden shutters on squares, fabulous pieces of sculpture and art, and modern fashion boutiques aplenty. Italians are known for their passion, and their phrase ‘la dolce vita’ or ‘the sweet life’ perfectly sums up their attitude. It may be inspired by the beauty of their country, or it just might be in their blood; whatever the source, it's a passion that's reflected in their love of food and drink.
A perfect base
Like all towns, Florence gets very busy, but if you can handle the hordes of tourists and art students milling about, then it’s a wonderful place to visit and indulge in rich, Italian food and drink. There are lots of places to stay in the centre of town that would suit any budget. We stayed at the grand and traditionally styled Hotel Helvetia & Bristol, which is centrally located close to the Piazza della Repubblica. It is an ideal spot, as you can saunter into town, eat and drink till you’re full at the many coffee houses, cafés and restaurants close by, walk your food off along the Arno River and then return for a well-deserved rest.
The hotel itself offers great food: to start the day, a filling European-style breakfast with eggs and bacon, cheeses, sliced meats and patisseries, and for dinner, traditional, local and seasonal cuisine with an impressive Italian wine list. They also offer cookery courses with their chef Enzo Pettè, which are becoming increasingly popular.
Eat till you drop
Venturing out of the hotel, you are hit with an abundance of places to try. On my trip I was determined to stick to local, traditional food. Being in Italy and also being a cheese fan, I had to try some fresh buffalo mozzarella. Finding good mozzarella in the UK is like finding a needle in a haystack, but Italy didn’t disappoint. At the traditional-looking L’Osteria di Giovanni (Via del Moro 22), the simple mozzarella, tomato and basil salad may have seemed very boring to the locals but it was a treat for me. The house speciality was the zuppa di fagioli, a typical Tuscan soup of wine, beans and bistecca fiorentina (quality beef steak).
Another restaurant worth a visit is Restaurant Cibreo (Via Andrea del Verrocchio 8r). The service was excellent but beware: there is no menu; instead, someone will come over to your table and go through each dish. It's a great touch, which shows that they're preparing fresh, local and seasonal food on a daily basis. Do concentrate if you haven’t got a good memory, as there is much to choose from. Some of the delights are inzimino (a spicy stew of calamari), Tuscan ‘peasant food’ such as collo di pollo (medallions of chicken neck, boned and stuffed with a light mousse) or even sashimi-like marinated tuna. I particularly enjoyed the dessert – a flourless dark chocolate tart, which was teamed with a not-too-sweet Italian dessert wine that tasted of morello cherries. This is a very popular venue so reservations are necessary.
If you’re in Florence, you’re likely to be spending a lot of time walking about and taking in the sights. You will, of course, need sustanance and being in Italy it would be rude not to have an ice cream! It is thought that Florence is the birth place of ice cream, created in 1565 by Bernardo Buontalenti. Fantastico Gelato, or Vivoli as it’s also known, is one of the best gelaterias in Florence. A small family business with a fantastic reputation, it is always busy and has a extensive range of flavours, which draw on natural and local ingredients. Try the chocolate - it’s an intense melt-in-your-mouth experience! Tour operator Abercrombie & Kent also offers a behind-the-scenes tour to find out how the delicious ice cream is made according to artisan traditions.
After all that ice cream you may feel a little tired, so a coffee may be in order. The Italians are masters of coffee-making and a cappuccino will knock your block off, let alone a double espresso. They have some beautifully decorated, traditional coffee houses where you can sit and watch the people go by with a beautiful cake.