I woke a little bit like a kid on Christmas morning the day we planned to travel to Florence. A two hour drive north, we had to leave early in order to take full advantage of the markets and specialty food shops before they closed for the afternoon siesta at 1pm. In particular I wanted to visit the Mercato Centrale, an imposing purpose-built space opened in 1874. Yes, I’d read that the nearby Sant’ Ambrogio market might be friendlier, but this sounded like a spectacular one-stop-shop kind of place that would showcase the very best of Tuscany’s famous produce.
After two hours of white-knuckled driving up the A1, we spent what seemed like the same amount of time driving down pedestrian-packed one way alleys trying to get through Florence to the Mercato and more importantly, the parking lot underneath it. Maps were no help and when I tried Google Maps it told us to park immediately and walk the rest of the way. We probably should have, but ever determined, we continued driving in circles until we succeeded. Time for just a quick cappuccino before we headed into the fray (and while we stood at the bar more than a couple of market workers stopped by for a quick glass of wine).
It is a lovely space and I kept saying over and over how terrific it would be to live nearby and be able to do our daily shopping here. Markets are among my favorite things, but in a location where I’m not going home to cook, I miss the banter with the sellers and the trading recipes with fellow shoppers as my basket grows steadily heavier with goodies to take home and cook. We did pick up a small block of lardo and some sliced bresola that was out of this world. A huge block of parmesan joined our basket and I flirted with the idea of getting a truffle or two.
At this point I saw a group of fellow foodie Americans on tour being led through the market to one of the olive oil stalls where they were presumably trying the different kinds of oil on sale. This is why I’m guessing locals prefer Sant’ Ambrogio down the road. There are a few too many signs in English offering vacuum packing for your salumi and cheese and too little actual shopping going on. It’s all a little Borough Market v. Maltby Street Market in feel. Nonetheless, here in Florence, I am a tourist. I loved watching the fishmongers cutting up squid tenticals for their lunchtime fry-up and the lady dissecting all manner of tripe to be stewed (I did consider trying one of the famous stewed tripe sandwiches but lunch was already planned and I couldn’t ruin my appetite). The plump porcini mushrooms were tempting as were all manner pasta and butchered game that almost glittered inside its display cases.
Outside we were quickly swallowed up by the street market stalls selling everything leather, kitsch and crap. Here the walkways were crammed with tourists bargaining but curiously no spillover from the food hall that is its centerpiece exists. The one very popular result of the nearby market is Trattoria Mario, its windows papered with the many accolades it’s received in the press and elsewhere. Shut up tight as a drum when we first walked by, it was already almost full when we arrived for lunch ten minutes before they opened. We were seated at a very small four-top, there was barely room for me to take off my trench coat. Soon another couple was seated with us and I peered around them to try and make out the menu on the wall (why oh why did I forget my glasses?). After much debate I settled on a light pasta for my lunch with tiny little shrimp and cherry tomatoes as a sauce. My husband ordered a fish dish with asparagus – it’s still unclear to me which fish it was. Both were delicious if a little unremarkable. What was incredible was the battle-like precision with which the food was prepared and served. Numerous uncooked bistecca fiorentinas were taken from the kitchen to a scale and then back to the grill for cooking (they were priced by weight), our dishes were out of the kitchen in less than five minutes, and general dilly dallying was obviously not appreciated. Service was more than friendly but very military in its approach. MacDonald’s counter staff could take a lesson in getting their “fast food” diners in and out like this!
After filling our bellies it was off to see the sights, for which there are many better places for you to read up on. The great Duomo (my husband’s only comment was that the guy who commissioned it was a real a**hole), the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffuzi. I kept remembering my old favorite A Room With a View and Aunt Charlotte who insisted they must have views from their pensione rooms. Those were the good old days! Tourist season not yet in full swing, it all felt crowded and somewhat overwrought. However, keep me focused on the food and I’m happy. We wandered quite far east and took refuge in a lovely cake shop Dolci & Dolcezze off the Piazza Beccaria. Pistachio green walls and sparkling chandeliers spread light like pixie dust on all of the lovely confections in their cases. And then finally, we stopped on the very chi chi Via Tornabuoni, where amid the Versace and Gucci shops is a little gem, Procacci which has been around since 1885. They sell all things truffled here, including delightful concentrated pastes to mix into everything and anything back at home. A small jar of truffled butter and a little chopped truffles with porcinis to take back home and remind us of a lovely day spent among the monuments of this incredible city.