Sampling Italian cuisine is sightseeing for your palate. The tour plan: Start with fresh ingredients and talented cooks, take in a city's personality and seek out a happy dining crowd. Experiencing Italy's cafés, cuisine and wines is a joy, and as the capital of Tuscany, Florence offers a particularly satisfying spread.
Tuscan cuisine is hearty and simple farmer's food: grilled meats, high-quality seasonal vegetables, fresh herbs, prized olive oil and rustic bread. Tuscan riboleta combines these ingredients into a savory bean-and-bread soup. If a dish's name ends with "alla toscana" or "alla fiorentina," that means it's cooked in the Tuscan or Florentine style — usually a preparation highlighting local products.
Restaurant competition in Florence is fierce, so it's easy to find delicious Tuscan specialties at fair prices — even in the most touristy zones. But for the most authentic ambience and better-quality meals, I like to hike across the Arno River to the quiet Oltrarno neighborhood. This is where I find the tastiest bistecca alla Fiorentina — thick T-bone steak, generally grilled very rare and lightly seasoned. The best (and most expensive) is from the white Chianina breed of cattle you'll see grazing throughout Tuscany.
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But dining out is only one option for foodies. The heart of the food scene in Florence is the trendy Industrial Age, steel-and-glass Mercato Centrale (Central Market). Along with all the must-see museums, this market is one of the great sights in Florence. The ground floor is a thriving edible wonderland of vendors selling meat, fish, produce and other staples to a mostly local clientele. And the upstairs is a bustling food court open late into the evening.
I come here to gather fresh mozzarella cheese, olives, fruit and crunchy bread for a casual picnic. But these days, picnickers like me need to be discreet — Florence now bans eating on public sidewalks and doorsteps in its historic center (and violators risk a hefty fine).
At the market's tripe stand, it's easy to see that locals eat just about every bit of the cow … and some bits unique to the bull, too. Tourists may find it hard to stomach, but Florentines' favorite quick lunch is a panino (sandwich) of trippa or lampredotto — the lining from the second and fourth stomach of a cow, respectively — slow-boiled to tender perfection.
Offal sandwiches originated as an affordable source of protein for working-class Florentines. While on lunch breaks from chipping trapped statues out of blocks of marble, Michelangelo would swing by a Florentine market and dig into a bun stuffed with stewed organs. The city's longstanding love affair with this sandwich nearly faded away a few years back, but the recent worldwide trend for "nose-to-tail" eating has kicked off a renaissance of food carts selling this local favorite.
Most carts also offer bollito (stewed beef) and the always delicious — and easier to stomach — porchetta (roast pork with herbs). No matter what you order, watch closely as the food-cart owner pulls the lid off of a gently simmering pot, forks out some tender meat and — if you're lucky — dips the bun in the broth before topping it with spicy and tangy sauces. But if you have the guts … give trippa a try. It's offal.
Cooking classes are an ideal way to learn a thing or two about this region's prodigious culinary tradition. Classes in Florence range from multiday or multiweek courses for more serious chefs to two- or three-hour crash courses for tourists. These are some of my favorite activities in Tuscany, combining a unique Italian experience (learning to cook, say, pasta from scratch) with a satisfying meal, all in just a few hours.
In my experience, the best casual cooking classes are taught in a real kitchen environment (rather than a stuffy classroom or "show" kitchen) and have a spirit of fun and collaboration. Smaller groups allow more personal interaction and hands-on activity. After a couple of hours cooking, everyone sits down to a hard-earned (if not always flawlessly executed) meal. They'll usually send you on your way with the recipes you prepared that day.
I cap nearly every Italian meal with a gelato-fueled stroll. Italy's most flavorful ice cream — perhaps the world's best — is in Florence. I stay away from places with heaping mounds of brightly (artificially) colored gelato and instead look for covered metal tins with muted-hued gelato that's more likely to be homemade. Seasonal flavors are also a good sign. I find the key to gelato appreciation is sampling liberally and choosing flavors that complement each other, like caffè (coffee) and cioccolato (chocolate).
Florence offers a wide array of foodie activities and Tuscan delicacies beyond the usual Italian pizza and pasta fare — be brave and dive in. Consider these edible experiences part of your sightseeing duty. Buon appetito!