Italian Iter | Florence

Giotto's Tower
We arrived on a bustling Saturday when Florence’s narrow streets were particularly packed with leather hand bags and tour groups. I had forgotten about transportation on wheels. Suddenly surrounded by growling motorcycles and careening bikes, I had to remind myself how to share the streets after Venice’s pedestrian paradise.

We stayed a short walk east of the Duomo on a street where every door and window was shuttered, save for the corner convenience store where John bought a shaving razor. The street may have been unwelcoming, but we loved our AirBnb, a sunny, spacious, top floor apartment.

Food and Drink

We ate very, very well, but there were some awkward moments. At Vivanda (listed below) we had a 7pm reservation, but were told multiple times that we needed to finish by 9pm even before we had ordered. We wanted to say: We’re American; we can eat and be out of here in 30 minutes if necessary! Also, at the Florentine happy hour buffets, it’s either buffet or nothing. At one such place, when we really wanted to rest our legs and have drink, the woman behind the counter politely asked us to leave since we weren’t planning to eat. I’m always fascinated by the protocols of food in other cultures. In the US, everyone wants to make a buck; we’ve never been turned away from a mostly empty restaurant or bar.

A directory of favorites:

Mercato Centrale – Downstairs is a traditional market, where John had a boiled beef sandwich at Il Nerbone — definitely worth the long line. Upstairs is a food hall, very New York. At Marcella Bianchi’s Il Vegetariano e Vegano, we had phenomenal veggie burgers, like one with eggplant and spicy mayo. We ate food from a few of the stalls and everything was excellent. No pressure, no reservations, but there is always a line for the bathroom.

All’ Antico Vinaio  – This sandwich spot has opened up three storefronts on the same street to accommodate its steady business. John loved his porchetta sandwich, and while there was no stated vegetarian offering, a man begrudgingly made a sandwich for me with artichoke spread, roasted zucchini and eggplant.

Eby’s – Because sometimes you just want sangria and empanadas.

Archea Brewery – Great selection of house brews and guest beers with friendly bartenders.

Gosh – Visit this bar for the fabulous flamingo themed wallcoverings.

Il Santino – One side is a formal restaurant and the other side is a winebar, which is where we went. We had a delectable Tuscan cheese plate and tried different wines. From our seats at the tiny bar, we watched three women handle the orders coming in; they’d chop herbs, pour wine, use a hand-turned slicer on cured meats. The best of kind of theater!

Vivanda – At this tiny vegetarian-friendly spot, the server might tell you to hurry up at first, but eventually she will relax, smile, and leave you alone. We had an excellent dinner — pea fritters, asparagus ravioli with sausage, farro bowl with pesto.

Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina Across from the Pitti Palace, this winebar offers exquisite food (scallops; crustless zucchini tart) and wine (an orange pinot grigio). I really only want to return to Florence so that I can eat here again.

Recipe – Farro Salad

Inspired by Vivanda:

Mix warm cooked farro with pesto — any pesto whether made with basil, radish greens, beet greens, etc. Throw in chopped walnuts, olives, and grated Parmesan to taste.

For a more substantial salad, add sauteed zucchini, beans, chopped tomatoes.

Recipe – Olive Caprese Snack

Inspired by Il Santino:

Chop a tomato. Toss with red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Let sit for 30 minutes.

Slice a loaf of good bread. Smear olive tapenade, like Divina Kalamata Olive Spread, on a slice. Top with the marinated tomatoes. Pull apart a ball of buffalo mozzarella and arrange the pieces on the tomatoes. Garnish with shredded basil, salt, and pepper.

Top Five Sites

I visited Florence for two days back in March 2006 on a college trip. This time, I had the chance to explore much more of the city. John and I especially enjoyed:

Seeing the most magnificent sculpture on Earth. We also visited the Medici Chapels, but beware:  the Basilica di San Lorenzo is a scam. Go to the back — not to the church entrance! Otherwise you’ll have to buy two separate tickets.
Basking in the gold of Botticelli’s luminous paintings at the Uffizi. Photo source: Wikimedia, Google Art Project.
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
Walking along the verdant, villa-lined Viale Machiavelli and Viale Galileo. We started at the Pitti Palace and walked up and around to peaceful San Miniato al Monte, where the monks were singing. Our excursion ended with this splendid view from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Firenze street art
Celebrating the work of living artists. Blub always depicts his iconic subjects underwater. We loved Florence’s playful street art, which gave the city a little edge along with its awesome vintage stores and hip arts center in an old prison near Sant’Ambrogio market. We also enjoyed exploring traditional workshops, like I Mosaici di Lastrucci (inlaid stone mosaics — no grout used) and L’ippogrifo stampe d’arte (etchings and prints).
Blessing the vines
Sampling the bounties of Tuscany! Through Viator, we signed up for a half-day tour of two wineries: Tenuta del Palagio and Famiglia Mazzarrini – Poggio Amorelli. At the tastings, we enjoyed not only Chianti Classico, but the more experimental “Supertuscan” wines along with aged balsamic vinegar, olive oils, pecorino cheese, and bread. It felt great to ride in a bus and let someone else make all the decisions for us!
Toilet Troubles

A very quirky washer/dryerIn Florence my misadventures did not concern a toilet, but a different piece of hardware in the bathroom of our AirBnb: the combo washer/dryer. Although our host had given John a thorough orientation and even supplied us with the manual, we still missed an essential step. For the thing to dry, it must be on “1/2 load”. We thought we’d run it over night and wake up to dry clothes. Instead we stayed up half the night wondering where the machine was in its endless 14-step cycle. Fed up, we found a huge drying rack and used that instead. However, for the second load, we used the proper setting. The clothes turned out to be about 40% dry. Better than nothing! It was worth it to have clean clothes!


Social Encounters

Another restaurant anecdote: We arrived at the exact same time as another couple. Although all the tables outside were empty, we were seated next to each other. They were mid-20s; he was American, she was South African, which we deduced from her accent and stated dislike of Afrikaans rap. In such close quarters, just a few inches apart, John and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop and, of course, judge. The other couple closely followed the art market, but neither were artists — she was on break from law school; who knows about him. He was trying to remember the name of the artist whose painting recently sold for more than $100 million. I can’t remember what clues he gave, but John said “Basquiat” out loud. He said it again louder. They ignored him.

Notes for Next Time

Take the train in for the day and go all out for the prix fixe lunch at Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Stop at Mercato Centrale and buy a bunch of goodies to go. Escape to the Tuscan hills.
Chianti country viewContinue reading: Rome