As a discreet destination, Florence can captivate the tourist’s attention for endless days. The Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia are required elements of the curriculum, and experiencing the splendor of the Battistero di San Giovanni will no doubt occur numerous times as the nearby Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore is like a beacon, drawing visitors to the Piazza della Signoria, the crossroads of the city. Florence, however, is far more than museums and statues. The aura that pervades the narrow stone streets and the ubiquitous clay-red tile roofs gives one the sense that here in this most sophisticated Tuscan town, civilization itself woke up again after the darkness of the middle ages was lifted. And with it, the surrounding countryside produced the grapes and olives and vegetables and veal and on and on and on that today serve as a tangible connection to the lives of the Medici and their court.
Italian food, and specifically that found in Tuscany, is a collage of colors, textures, and tastes that, in its simplicity, is distinctly different from the cuisine in other parts of Italy. A simple salad of arugula adorned with kernels of corn and avocado shavings formed with a melon-baller becomes a masterpiece when it is dressed with the Modena Balsamic vinegar that tastes like nectar. Ravioli with a pink sauce, known as rose, can transport you to another place, particularly if you add practically any Multipulchiano or Classico wine to your table. And veal! I would characterize my recent trip to Florence as the search for the ultimate veal dish, and I found about 10 of them, every one slightly different, but each superb.
Any ristorante you choose will have a menu that will be flawless, and, in fact, the pride the Italians have in their food emanates from strong family traditions. The smaller and more quaint the ristorante, the more unique and tasteful the dish is likely to be. On our first evening inFlorence we happened onto the very charming Ristorante Paoli on the via de Tavolini. Their menu describes Paoli as nel cuore diFirenzecon l’antica tradizione della buona cucina Toscana. Italian is such a logical language: in the heart of Florence with the ancient traditions of the best kitchens of Tuscany. And was this ever a find! This first stop on my tour of veal led me to the scaloppini alla cittadina e piselli, and Jan had a perfect risotto. The dessert trolley capped our first Tuscan meal with a nearly over-the-top chocolate cake and tiramisu. Unreal.
One beautiful evening, Jan and I walked the side streets near the Duomo looking for a small, “neighborhood” cafe that might have a claim on the locals rather than tourists. It was not easy in this section of Florence since the streets were filled with Americans, Japanese, and Germans. Tucked away on the Via dello Studio, the Ristorante Il Caminetto beckoned with small twinkle-lights draping an arbor in its “garden room.” Yes, there were tourists in evidence, but some “regulars” were sitting at tables near a small bar, and to us, this little place fit the bill. The Caprese di bufala salad was so fresh it barely required dressing. And when I asked our waitress for her suggestion, she pointed to the Scaloppina al limone and the spaghetti al ragu. It was so good that we very nearly went around again for seconds.
Jan’s travel notes record the memorable day we spent at the Villa San Michele, a short (private) bus ride from town up the hillside of Fiesoleto this magnificent 15th century monestary, the façade of which was designed by Michelangelo. This is one of the Orient-Express Hotels masterpieces and should not be missed. The real appeal for a day visitor is their Ristorante San Michele. The location, the service, the food, and the total experience remain my most vivid memory of our trip.
Here is an unusual ristorante we found ourselves in the Eurostar Italia Alta Velocita train from Milan to Florence. This proves my point: there is NO bad meal in Italy. By getting a first class ticket, one can reserve a table in the restaurant car that has a special menu made every day. Everything presented from Spaghetti al Pomodoro e Basilico and Gnocci alla Romana to the Fettine di Manzo con Rucola e Panchino (thin sliced beef fillets with rocket and cherry tomato) could not have been better. And it was brought to the table by waiters and waitresses on serving platters while traveling at 150km per hour. After a long flight from Boston to Zuricha and then to Milan, getting on the Eurostar to Florence with this first meal and glass of Classico was just the right way to start our vacation. Seven days of this experience was almost too good to be true. Each meal better than the last. But to truly prove my point of this article, our last dinner in Italy was at the airport hotel called First Hotel Malpensa Airport in Milan. In order to get the early flight out the next morning, we spent the night near the airport, and arriving there at nearly 9pm, we were looking for a late dinner. The desk clerk directed us to their little restaurant in the basement that was devoid of windows, but with tables set with wine glasses and white cloth napkins. Yet another fabulous veal dish and a Caprese di bufala was a total surprise in this less-than-atmospheric setting. The dessert was unbelievable: chocolate semi-fredo. The meal was so good that I made a point of telling the owner that his kitchen could match any that we experienced in our exploration of Florence–no small feat.
So, on this brief gastronomic tour of Florence, let it be said that this is truly a sensual extravaganza. The sights, sounds, tastes and sheer beauty of this ancient city will remain with you long after you leave for home. In fact, I now find myself searching the Internet for more information on the Italian Renaissance to supplant my long-lost college textbooks, and I am quite sure that any Italian meal I have from now on will in some way be compared to the ristorantes di Firenze that we enjoyed so much during this most memorable trip. Buon appetito!
My husband Jeff enjoyed the gastronomy of Florence with great enthusiasm. From well-established restaurants in the heart of Florence, to more local trattorias moving away from the city’s center, to delectable dining on a train to a fantastic dinner in an otherwise unimpressive airport restaurant, each meal delighted him in new and fantastic ways. In the end, he came to the conclusion: you can’t get a bad meal in Italy.
For more about traveling to Florence, click here.
Related: Travel to the coast of Capri and read about the variety of restaurants offered with a water front view: The Complete Guide to Capri Part I