A few things I learned while in Florence may help you should you ever find yourself there—how to order a quarter liter of the house red wine in competent Italian (“un quarto vino rosso della casa”) and to always avoid eating anywhere all of the other diners are American. The rest has to be experienced. And that I did.
Although I brought a “list” of “must” eat places given to me by a friend of a friend whose friend recently lived in Florence for a year, I am certainly glad I stayed with a local possessing a really good palate. That’s because I tried two places off the “list” and both were full of Americans (see rule #2, above) and average food. The following is a list of places that didn’t make “the” list, but should have:
The night I arrived at my B&B in the San Gaggio area altrarno and south of the Porta Romana, I was looking for a nearby place for a bite. My hostess told me about some places a tourist might like, but we eventually got over that. After ruling out the nearest and best trattoria as already too packed for reservations, she recommended a pizzeria that I returned to three more times afterward—Pizzeria Il Pipistrello on Via Senese.
Although extremely local, one waitress spoke English well enough to help me order and at least one waiter did as well. That night, I ate the absolute best thing in the form of flat round dough, cheese, sauce and meat I’ve ever had. It was called Pizza Maialona con Bufulo, it featured three kinds of pork meat—salami, ham, and sausage—and buffalo mozzerella, and it was heaven. This was one of those dishes you start craving again as you leave the restaurant. In an amazing show of restraint, however, I didn’t eat it again until my third visit.
On my second trip to Pipistrello, I tried the comparatively austere but equally fabulous salami and ham pizza. And on the fourth and final visit, I mastered the positively mind-blowing “house” pizza, featuring just about everything and an egg baked in the center. Ummm. Filling. I found the prices to be reasonable. I ate and drank very well for a bit less than €15.
Over the next several days, I also ate twice at a wine bar across from the Palazzo Pitti featuring an extraordinary menu, called Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina. Besides several fine Chiantis and Sangioveses, there was for a starter a gorgeous terrine of fois gras topped with sage and served with crostini, on a reduction of vin santo (that was reminiscent of a light cane syrup but with stronger molasses-like flavors as well) and scattered rock salt. The contrast of textures and sweet with salt was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And it was good.
For mains, I had triangles of fresh pasta stuffed with ricotta and spinach and topped with shaved black truffles one night, and on a different night, a wonderful steak tartare with orange and mint. Here, the prices were a bit steep for the portions. I found it difficult to get out of there for less than €35.
On the gelato front—two were noteworthy in my estimation. The first is the best: Vivoli near the Museo del Bargello and the Teatro Verdi. You pay in advance, and though it is packed with locals, the servers know enough English to hook you up with what you want. Here the gelato is served only in cups, and it is magnificent. The first time I visited I tried hazelnut and pistachio. The second, hazelnut and chocolate-hazelnut. All flavors were the best versions of their kind I’ve ever tried.
The second gelateria was also better than any other, except Vivoli. It was called Gelateria La Carraia and was near the Arno and the Ponte alla Carraia. Here, I tried the Tiramisu mousse combined with the espresso. It was heaven in a cone. Soft and light and *uh* words fail. With either of these, you can’t go wrong. Vivoli was €2.50 for about 5 oz; La Carraia charged €1.50 for a small cone.
Like Gola e Cantina, another great favorite of mine violated the rule I’d been given about “don’t eat within sight of any famous tourist destination.” While Gola e Cantina is near the Palazzo Pitti, Ringo is near the Ponte Vecchio on the Borgo San Jacopo, and it’s three umbrella-covered tables outside sit pretty much in the street. Yes, there is a sign above the door that reads: “Hamburgers, Cheeseburgers, Hot Dogs.” Ignore all that. The food here is really good anyway.
The first time I shared the bruchetta with pomodora, basil, and ham, and ate the Insalada con Bacon as my main. OMG. Both were incredibly fresh, the second featuring avocado, round slices of very small zucchini, tomato, and Italian ham.
At the very strong urging of my hostess, on my second visit to Ringo, I violated a rule I had no intention of breaking: the “thou shall not eat American food in Europe” rule. But in this case, I’m glad I did. In fact, the hamburger at Ringo is among the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere. It was served on a firm egg-washed bun with tomato, pickles, catsup, onions, and mustard or vinegar or something else really wonderfully tangy. Nothing is served on the side but a fork and knife, which you will need. It is so good, I actually ate it again a few days later. Just to be sure, you understand.
One thing to be aware of at Ringo, is that each dish is made by one person and is served one at a time. So each time I ate with two other companions, we were served at different times. And it turns out, the shared starter plate was a really good idea. The cost was very reasonable at about €80 for three including at least two glasses of wine per person and several bottles water for the table.
Another place I ate more than once was the local trattoria I couldn’t get into on my first night—Ruggero. For a starter, I tried the ground chicken liver in olive oil spread on crostini (reportedly very traditional, and actually very delicious). For the main, I was served breaded veal in an onion-tomato gravy with large, flat green beans in bacon. Again, very good. By the second visit, all I wanted was a salad, which is understandable given all of the other stuff I’d been eating until then. That day they had one featuring copious amounts of sliced mushrooms. I asked for a side of sliced salami, which request they graciously obliged.
Finally, for the lunch of my last full day, I tried a place that reportedly hosted Sarah Jessica Parker on her visit to Florence—Cambi (or Antica Ristoro di Cambi, if you want the full treatment). There I ate the most famous dish of the city—Bistecca Florentine (por un, per favore). What I received was a 750g delicious, rare T-bone, marinated somehow into a state of fabulousness not attainable at, say, Shula’s. I was advised to go traditional with the sides and so had white beans I sprinkled with salt and fresh ground black pepper and then drizzled with EVOO (fagioli con olio di oliva). Solid.
I must say, this is the only place I ever felt I absolutely had to ask for a take-away box. I wasn’t sure if this was considered rude, but they were very obliging and I enjoyed the remainder of the steak the next morning with breakfast. I can’t imagine how big the Bistecca por due must be!
These were not the only places recommended to me, but by the time I dodged the various Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday closing days of sundry establishments, the eateries listed above were the ones that made the cut. And, believe me, the five pounds I earned are not regretted in the least. Florence was a beautiful place to bulk up and make food memories to last a lifetime.