I am by no means an expert when it comes to where to eat in Florence. We live so far away from the Tuscan capital that we only visit every couple of months, but I had a fantastic invitation recently from The Tour Guy! Giulio and I went on their foodie tour in Rome a couple of years ago and loved it. So when we heard they were launching a new tour in Florence, we were so excited to come along!
I’m a bit of a food tour skeptic. Actually, I’m a bit of tour skeptic in general. Giulio and I are the worst people to travel with. We are fixated with food, so we can spend hours researching a restaurant and if, heaven forbid, it’s closed when we get there, we go into panic mode! We cannot just walk into another restaurant at random! Seriously, we act like the sky is falling and I have actually seen Giulio get depressed when something he’s eaten isn’t particularly good. We recently went to Amsterdam with my mum and she wanted to murder us because she is the exact opposite. She likes to just walk around until something catches her eye! Dear god, just the thought makes me sweat.
So I was surprised at how much a food tour can actually be. We had a blast with the other lunching ladies – Giulio was the only guy – it was hilarious! And we learnt so much about Florence’s culinary history. I thought it was all Bistecca Fiorentina and wine, but they actually have plenty of amazing dishes, which I am about to share with you… along with plenty of tips on how to tell an authentic eat from a dodgy tourist don’t!
Tour or no tour, put this knowledge in your travel cap for the next time you visit Italy’s Renaissance capital.
Coffee, schiaccia and cantucci
There are so many mum and pop bakeries in Florence. These family-owned eats are a great place to pick up a snack for breakfast or between meals. You can take your pick from seasonal treats like the amazing budino di riso, which is the love child of a rice pudding and a custard tart or try cantucci, the famous half-moon shaped biscuits that are flavoured with almonds and sometimes, preferably, chocolate!
Schiaccia on the other hand is the Tuscan version of focaccia. It’s basically pizza dough that’s been pressed (schiacciata in Italian) to create a thin rectangle, then baked in the oven with plenty of olive oil. Its characteristic indents are made by hand and are sometimes filled with rosemary or olives!
Salty flatbread goodness, schiaccia is always best the day it’s baked, so if you plan on visiting a Florentine bakery, get in before lunch or there won’t be any schiaccia left!
Also while we’re on the topic of tips, when it comes to an espresso, you usually drink it standing up at the bar. It shouldn’t cost more than €1 (although in Florence, they sometimes charge €1,50!!!) and it’s usually no more than 2 tablespoons of pure black, jet engine fuel! If you feel like a little milk, say “un macchiato, per favore”, while if you want a cappuccino outside breakfast hours, order one! I don’t agree with this, the barista will give you a dirty look nonsense. Who cares? I drink cappuccinos all the time and no baristas have murdered me yet!
Lampredotto isn’t exactly the most attractive of Florentine dishes, but it’s one of its most iconic. I’ve never been a squeamish eater, but I admit the first time I saw this, I thought, really? I dunno… And, I’m the girl who sucks snails from their shells without blinking.
Lampredotto is basically the cow’s fourth stomach. It’s like tripe, but more tender and less cow-ey. I hate tripe because it tastes like, well… insides… but I can stomach (ha ha stomach, get it?) lampredotto because it’s a lot less intense.
The history behind this iconic sandwich is pretty interesting. Basically, the poorest residents couldn’t afford meat or fish, so they made do with the poorest cuts – offal. They braised the tripe in a rich broth of tomatoes and vegetables. For a ‘taste of the sea’, they added a few chopped anchovies to a vibrant sauce of parsley and garlic – salsa verde – which is traditionally served with a lampredotto sandwich.
- Follow the crowds. The last thing you want to do is go to a place that doesn’t really have a good turn around. Old tripe does not equal deliciousness.
- Don’t assume you have to order it in a restaurant – Florence’s best lampredotto sandwiches are still traditionally sold from small carts.
- If you’re a little wary, order extra salsa verde. The strong flavoured sauce really cuts through the fattiness
- Traditionally, the bun is dipped in the ‘brodo’ (stock) before being stuffed with lampredotto, so remember to ask for that – and a little chilli if you like things hot!
And order a glass of red while you’re at it. There’s nothing like drinking on the streets of Florence with a plastic cup of pretty passable 1 euro red wine!
It wouldn’t be Italy, if there wasn’t pasta involved.
One of my biggest bug bears when it comes to pasta is the idea that you can’t drown it in sauce and cheese. I come from the south of Italy and over there we drown everything in sugo (tomato sauce) and layers of cheese and chilli. So when I get a pasta dish here in Tuscany and it’s an anaemic red, I roll my eyes. I like my lips to be dyed red with sauce by the time I’m finished!
Another thing that drives me nuts is the concept of al dente. Al dente means ‘to the teeth’, but modern restaurants have taken that to mean raw when they’re busy. The pretty much just dip the pasta into the hot water and remove it five seconds later convinced the stupid foreigner will think it’s al dente. If you need a knife to cut your spaghetti, it’s raw not al dente, so complain!
Types of Tuscan pasta and their sauces to try:
- Pappardelle – Large, very broad tagliatelle, a favourite in the Maremma! It’s made with flour, olive oil and water. Order it with porcini sauce, wild boar ragù (ragu di cinghiale) or hare sauce (ragu di lepre).
- Pici – Pici are similar to spaghetti, although the pieces are stretched by hand and can reach three metres in length. They’re also made without egg and served with a tomato and garlic sauce (pici all’aglione)
- Tortelli – These are like big ravioli. They’re filled with mashed potatoes or ricotta and spinach. They’re served either with meat sauces or butter and sage (burro e salvia).
- Gnudi – This is basically the ravioli filling. Gnudi means nudi (naked). So either just ricotta and spinach dumplings or potato dumplings. They’re also served with butter and sage or a meat sauce.
Steak!!! Not a big fan of huge chunks of meat, but when in Florence right?? You really can’t visit the city without ordering a Bistecca Fiorentina, but they are notoriously easy to stuff up, so do your research and find somewhere that everyone recommends. Preferably somewhere with a wood stove. Giulio and I went to a restaurant here in the Southern Tuscan countryside where they cooked the steaks in the fireplace in the middle of the dining room! It was great, smoky, but great.
A Bistecca Fiorentina is traditionally made with Chianina beef. I’s an ancient heritage breed from the Val Di Chiana where it was a working cow. These cows are gigantic – some can reach to nearly 2,000kg! but Chianina cows are notoriously expensive to breed, so the chances that you’re going to get a real Chianina and not one that’s either 0.00001% Chianina or not even Chianina is rare. Not that that matters.
Technically Bistecca Fiorentina refers to the way the meat is cut and cooked not the breed of beef. It’s simply a really thick t-bone steak. A traditional steak should be 4cm thick and 800g at least! It should have a nice bit of fat and be a lovely bright red. Sometimes, the restaurant will show you the steak before cooking it!
But important note, Bistecche Fiorentine are not cheap. Even the pretend Chianina will cost you by the gram, so expect to pay upwards of €30.
Bistecca Fiorentina tips:
- Order it medium rare because otherwise they’re going to burn it to a crisp just to spite you.
- When I say medium rare, I really mean rare. The outside is charred and crispy, but the inside is pink and almost mooing.
- If the steak is swimming in its own juice, it means it wasn’t left to rest long enough. That’s not a good sign!
- I’m no food ogre, but the Florentines really get snarky if you put anything on your Bistecca Fiorentina. All they add is a pinch of salt – no rocket, no parmesan, not even olive oil.
- Don’t chat, eat. I was sitting next to a Florentine lady who kept berating me to eat my steak before it got cold. Couldn’t even take a breath. I almost drowned, I was stuffing so much meat in my mouth.
Also don’t be surprised if they serve the bone in a separate plate. That’s so the locals can see it really was a T-bone steak and also so they can suck the bones and get to the little pieces of meat on it. Suffice to say, Giulio was the only one doing that! Can’t take him anywhere 🙂
Gelato was invented in Florence or so they say. As most stories go, it is credited to Bernardo Buontalenti, a native of Florence, who delighted the court of Catherine dei Medici with his creation. Although his gelato was just ice flavoured with lemon juice and it was another non-Florentine a little later in history who decided to modify the recipe with the custard base we know and love today.
It wasn’t until recently that I realised gelato and ice cream are two different things. Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream, which is just confusing because gelato is actually made quite differently. It starts out with a similar custard base as ice cream, but has a higher proportion of milk and a lower proportion of cream and eggs (or no eggs at all). It is churned at a much slower rate, incorporating less air and leaving the gelato denser than ice cream.
Gelato is served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream, so its texture stays silkier and softer. Because it has a lower percentage of fat than ice cream, the main flavour ingredient really shines through. It also has less air whipped through it, so you need less of it to feel full and satisfied!
There are tomes and tomes written about gelato, so I’ll only include a few basic tips
- Like I said, gelato is dense and not filled with air, so you should never go to one of those really enticing gelaterias where the ice cream is piled up longing in creamy mountains studded with fruit. They are filled with air! Otherwise they could never achieve those heights! Gelato needs to be kept at a very specific temperature, so it should be presented flat in silver containers or, better yet, covered to protect it from the elements and preserve the flavour
- While we’re on the topic of flavour, think nature. Bananas are not bright yellow, pistachio is not bright green, bubblegum is not a natural flavour. Anything with psychedelic colours is not ‘artigiano’ (artisan) no matter what it says on the sign outside
- A good rule of thumb to judge a gelateria is to order their pistachio. You can judge a gelateria by how good their pistachio is. The flavour should be bright and nutty with a hint of earthiness and just a subtle olive green.
- Gelato aficionados always order a cup, not a cone, to better savour the flavour? I’m not sure about this one! It’s just what they do.
A final little note about ‘vino’ or wine. You’re in Italy, so don’t worry about day drinking. A good Italian polishes off a bottle at lunch and one at dinner! That’s what ‘siestas’ are for. Tuscany is famous for its bold, brash reds, but it makes some pretty decent whites too. I’m not a big stickler when it comes to pairing. If you want to drink white, drink it. If you want red, drink it. Food shouldn’t have so many rules.
Great Tuscan wines to try:
- At an aperitivo, try a Spritz, it’s white wine and either Aperol or Campari. Both are bitter citrus flavoured liquors, but Campari is like being punched in the face, while Aperol is a lot smoother and less strong. Order whichever you prefer.
- For reds, try our signature Morellino di Scansano, the Maremma’s own DOC and look like a real boss in the know. Morellino di Scansano is similar to a Chianti, but if Chianti was a muscular cowboy who sleeps out in the open and wrestles bulls. It’s great with a Bistecca Fiorentina
- For whites, try a Vernaccia di San Gimignano. It’s bright and flavourful with hints of citrus fruits and green olive! Great with pecorino.
- For bubbles, can’t go past Prosecco! The Italian champagne.
Interested in discovering more about Florence’s foodie scene? Check out one of the Tour Guy’s Tours! This post is sponsored by them, but all the thoughts and opinions are my own!