Bright and early (for me, at least) on a Monday morning, I left my hotel and headed toward the Duomo, detouring down a side street to meet up with my group from Florence Food Tours. Over the next three and a half hours, our guide, Antonio, led us on a walking tour through the heart of the city. Along the way, we sampled some of Florence’s best treats.
Our first stop was ChiaroScuro to begin our morning as Italians do: with espresso! Antonio told us that espresso is typically made from a blend of two beans – arabica and robusta. However, we tried each kind separately, including eating the beans themselves. The arabica was lighter, smoother, and had less caffeine; the robusta more bitter, more caffeinated, and sharper. To be honest, though, both were strong to me. Per Antonio’s suggestion, I started by drinking my espressos plain to get a clearer idea of the flavors, but ultimately I had to dress them up with a bit of sugar to finish them off.
Next, we headed to Antica Pasticceria Sieni to sample three sweet treats sweets. First, a panforte, a pastry made with dried fruit and honey, traditionally eaten at Christmastime. Second, a pralina, a chocolate candy with nuts and (really strong) rum inside, which was possibly my favorite of the three. Third, an edible chocolate cup with zabaione cream inside, which seemed to be the favorite of everyone else in my group.
Then it was off to Florence’s bustling Mercato Centrale, where we made several stops. First up was Bottega Marconcini, my favorite visit of the day. There, we tried a variety of wonderful local products.
We started with an olive oil tasting, trying two varieties. I liked the laudemio, the lighter of the two:
Then it was on to wine and cheese. We had a pecorino, made with sheeps’ milk, and a white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimigniano, which was dry but had a full, fruity taste. I loved this course; I could eat pecorino cheese forever.
Next, we tried a parmigiano cheese, made with cows’ milk, and strawberries with balsamic vinegar. Strawberries with balsamic was a recurring theme of this trip to Italy, and I adored the combination.
Then, we received a platter of Tuscan ham, which is known for its saltiness; I definitely could tell that it was saltier than the prosciutto I had enjoyed earlier in Bologna. We also ate some delicious truffle paste on bread, and washed it all down with a nice red wine, a Chianti Classico.
We walked through the market to our next stop, I’Painaio, where we tried schiacciata, Tuscany’s version of focaccia. We had two pieces: one plain, and one with olives. Though I don’t usually care for olives, I actually thought both pieces were quite good.
After our bread, it was on to Nerbone for heartier fare. We were given three options: ribollita, risotto, or spaghetti bolognese. I knew that ribollita was a classic Tuscan vegetable soup, so I opted for that. I did not regret it – it was was hearty and flavorful (though not very photogenic).
Our last stop in Mercato Centrale was Alto Bio, a small shop where we sampled two kinds of cantucci biscotti (one plain and one chocolate) and a sweet wine. These biscotti were different than those I’ve had in the US, as you could bite into them without fear of breaking a tooth. They were softer and chewier and delicious.
Our last stop of the day was a sweet finish at Antica Gelateria Fiorentina. I decided to go for the most unique flavors I could find and wound up with ambrosia (made with yogurt, cinnamon, and honey) and buon talenti, a Florentine special made with eggs and cream.
I’ve struggled at times to connect with Florence’s culinary scene; the city is, of course, quite popular with tourists, and this means there are a lot of restaurants catering to tourists as well. The truth is, I’ve had much more luck finding amazing food in spots like Bologna and Rome. And that is exactly why I enjoyed this tour: I found new local specialities that I hadn’t heard about before, and I tried a higher quality of food than I might have found otherwise. Florence may be known more for its art, but its food can be damn good too, if only you know where to look.