“MANGIA MANGIA!!!” Something not so uncommonly heard as you roam the streets of Florence. I suppose Italian restaurant owners think that just talking about eating will remind passersby that their stomaches are empty and need filling…pronto!?
There’s a remarkable amount of differences between dining out in the U.S. and dining out in Italy, that it’s hardly comparable.
I feel as though going out in Italy is more about the food, and less about the experience. While in the U.S., surely the food is important, but Americans love being waited on and dining lavishly. It’s all about feeling like a “princess.” The food could taste like pond scum, yet if the room was decorated like the Monte Carlo, you bet the dinner wait for that restaurant is at least 3 hours. While Americans must have perfect service, a server waiting on them to the T, Italians do not put emphasis on this. In fact, I find it hard to even find a server or get their attention if I do find one. Their philosophy is more of a “I’ll take your order when I get around to it and you’ll get your food when you get it.” But the food…thats a whole new story. Since time is not important in Italy, rather, relaxing is key; the food is made to perfection, compared to the American philosophy of “as quick as possible!”
Not to give my restaurant at home a bad reputation, but I was a server at Mikes Crab house and Restaurant this past summer and it is ideal for representing the common American disposition towards atmosphere > quality of food. Their known for their crabs, which are outrageously overpriced, but everything else on the menu is typical at best. Mozzarella sticks, crab cakes, everything standard in Maryland and nothing is made specially. But because it’s situated on the South River, with a huge dock bar and tons of tables right on the water, the place is packed inside and out; easily top five most busy restaurants in the summer in Annapolis. Hey, I’m not complaining since it brought me enough money to come to la bella Italia, but I think it’s a great example of the American restaurant attitude.
I’ve finally adapted to the Italian mentality of dining out: I bring my own water to avoid paying for tap water, I order everything at once (in fear I may never see the waiter again), and wine is always my standard beverage of choice. I’ve learned that “Trattorias” are where you want to eat and anywhere with “Ristorante” slabbed onto their exterior is where you want to avoid- because who needs reminding that its a restaurant when it should be painfully obvious? Not a good sign. Trattorias are family-owned, so family recipes and the like are prevalent here. Im not saying all places that say “Ristorante” are bad, just be careful not to fall into a tourist trap where the food is not authentic.
One of the best places for a fancier dinner in Florence is La Giostra which is located at Borgo Pinti 12/r. Brad Pitt has been known to eat here, and if that isn’t reason enough to eat at La Giostra, then maybe I can sell you on their food! Wonderful pasta dishes with seafood and the infamous Florintine Steak is made to delicious perfection here. The typical Florentine steak is made with beef from Chianina cows, the huge white cattle raised in Val di Chiana, near Arezzo, Italy. It tends to be a rather big hunk of steak, so sharing with two or three people is recommended. If you think your cooking skills are primed enough and want to attempt at making the Florentine Steak in your own home, refer to this site for the directions…and er..goodluck making it as well as the restaurants in Florence!
Another great Trattoria is ZàZà,which is nestled in the Piazza del Mercato centrale, 26/r. Take it from Ellie Clayton’s experience, a Global Experiences intern in Florence who is one of ZàZà’s biggest fans, she says, “The Ravioli in Creamy Walnut Sauce was by far the best meal I’ve had in Italy so far!” Their also known to give out free champagne: impeccable food..free drinks…can’t beat that!
My favorite things to eat in Italy are gelato, paninis and pasta. But only at certain places will you find the hidden treats that have the “WOW factor.” There are three places Im literally obsessed with and go weekly (if not daily). The lucky three include: Gusta Pizza/Panini (they have the same owners and are located close to each other, yet different buildings), The Oil Shoppe, and Mama’s Bakery. A close runner up is Cafe Petrarca. This cafe is practically my home as I live on Viale Francesco Petrarca where it lies only a few minutes down the street from my apartment building. This is the most authentic italian cafe I’ve been to. Noone speaks english, and 95% of the customers are Italian, probably because it is located out of the touristy center. Another benefit to it being outside of the center are the cheap prices: everything is about a euro and the pastries and food are amazing. Everytime I go in I try a new pastry and fall in love. New favorite hobby: bringing my laptop to do some work at Cafe Petrarca, enjoying a cafe latte or two, and sitting back to watch the Italians gocrazy as they all bustle in for lunch rush.
The Oil Shoppe is at 22 S.Egidio. Paninis with all of your favorites and more are served hot and flavorful: double turkey with brie, zucchini and balsamic vinaigrette, or chicken and mozzarella with tomatoes and lettuce…and if you don’t want one of the perfectly crafted sandwiches on the menu you can build your own with the ingredients you want. All of this for only 4 euro and I promise you will be more than satisfied. Same situation for the salads, which might I add are much bigger than the typical salads you’ll find around Florence.
This is quite a small place and is somewhat of a secret treasure as you will not find many tourists in there. Many study abroad students have discovered it (me, for example) and many Italians eat here as well. It is only open for lunch, however and it gets really packed. So try to get there around noon or you’ll be stuck in the line all the way to the door.
By far the best traditional Italian panini’s in Florence accessorized with Alberto’s famous olive oil. Another perk of The Oil Shoppe is that they have cappuccinos in different flavors!!! I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I saw that. I’ve been missing the scrumptious flavored coffee’s from Starbucks back home so when I saw this on the menu I was so happy I’d finally have my craving cured. They offer “caramelcino’s,” “cinnimacino’s,” and “chococino’s,” as well as regular coffee.
Next up is Mama’s Bakery. I. LOVE. THIS. PLACE. (repeat) I have just discovered this after hearing some friends talk about it and quite frankly, I am incensed I didn’t find it sooner. I’ve been talking about what I would bring from America to Italy, and vice versa, the entire time I have been here. Mama’s Bakery has done just that: brought the best of both countries into one little adorable bakery. Decorated fun and cutesy with hearts and silly old fashioned posters, shouting things like, “ Drink coffee-do stupid things faster and with more energy!” make it a great atmosphere to enjoy some traditional American coffee (a break from espresso shots). The establishment is owned by an (yet again) adorable American and Italian couple, and is placed near Santa Spirito Square, off of Via Della Chiesa. The menu consists of American specialties and Italian specialties. Warm perfectly toasted bagels (most likely the only place in Florence you will find such a thing) which can be paired with your choice of six different cream cheeses: chive, vegetable, cinnamon raisin walnut, blueberry, plain, or jalapenos. If your like me and your favorite way to eat a bagel is with eggs you can order that with cheese and prosciutto on your choice of a sesame, everything, plain, onion or poppyseed bagel. Their sweet treats are to die for and freshly baked by “Mama.”
For the holiday season they are having cinnamon buns every Wednesday and Saturday (but go in early-no later than 11, because they go fast, especially on Saturdays.) More treats include: pumpkin pie, banana bread, festively decorated cookies and cupcakes (in carrot, red velvet, vanilla or chocolate flavors), lemon squares and more. Their open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. every weekday and Saturday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Sundays to our dismay.
Last but definitely not least, Gusta Pizza and Panini’s! These two genius establishments are located in the Piazza San Spirito close to one another. Gusta owners are originally from Naples (regarded as the best place for pizza in Italy) so I’m assuming this is where they learned the secrets to making the best pizza…EVER. The sauce and cheese make love on this perfectly fire oven burned pizza. Its also a nice touch that they make your pizza in a heart shape…sorry guys I think this may be only for the ladies 😉 There are an assortment of different toppings and all are made with fresh mozzarella. The basil leaves positioned sweetly on top add the perfect amount of flavor. Gusta Panini is just around the corner, just a little nook in the wall, and has hot paninis with turkey, mozzarella, brie, prosciutto-you name it. What you really need to order here is the pesto sauce, the best pesto I have had in Italy. Any panini on the menu is mouthwatering, just make sure to try one with their pesto sauce. Once again, small little places are the secret to the best food in Italy.
When i first arrived in Florence and discovered aperitivo’s I thought it was too good to be true. I mean, you buy one drink and get unlimited food? C’mon this is such a steal…think again. Now, to be fair there are some aperitivo’s that are definitely worth going to, but most are mushy, cold lumps of something they try to pass as food. If your just looking for a little bit of food before you hit the clubs, and want a drink to start off with, an aperitivo is ideal. If your looking for authentic, delicious Italian food, steer clear from aperitivo’s. If you do go to one, get there at 7 p.m. or no later than 7:30 because they dont put the food on warmers and the food will be disgustingly cold which makes the hardly edible food even worse. I’ve been to Kitsch which is on San Gallo and has the biggest buffet of food I have yet to see at an aperitivo. Go here if your looking for a cheap way to fill up your growling stomache. More decent aperitivo’s include: Oibio on Borgo de Greci, and Colle Bereto in the Piazza Strozzi 5/r. Moyo on Via de’ Benci 23r also has an aperitivo on Thursdays starting at 7 p.m. with discounts for students and any other time or day of the week stop in for lunch or dinner for great salads, burgers and more!
Sushi lovers who are craving some california rolls-Kome is an Asian cuisine restaurant with an aperitivo on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Situated on Via Dei Benci 41/r, Its a lovely and somewhat romantic vibe on the lower level of the restaurant with swanky couches and candles. For 10 euro’s you get two glasses of wine of your choice, three pieces of sushi and a japanese buffet. This is not the place to go if you want a lot of sushi as you only get three pieces, and the buffet is usually only two dishes at a time and refilled with the same rice dish most often. The food is good, though and I recommend just going to the main restaurant level if three pieces of sushi isn’t going to cure your craving. Its a bit expensive if you get a lot, as they charge by color plate you choose off of the circulating track with plates of all different assortments of sushi. Typically there is only about three pieces of sushi on each plate and the plates tend to range from two to five euro’s each.
Finally to top off your delicious meal with no other than Italy’s finest-gelato! For the best of the best in Florence head to Grom which is right near the Duomo, or La Carraia Gelateria on Piazza Nazario Sauro right on the corner across the bridge.
Article by: Kerri Dress
Global Experiences Intern at DotFlorence