Inspired by the majestic cinematography of Merchant Ivory’s sweeping A Room with a View, my heart pounded on first seeing Florence and the iconic Duomo from the plane window. When, as a romantic and impressionable adolescent, I holidayed there with my parents, I dragged them in the August heat around countless art galleries and museums like an amateur Andrew Graham Dixon, and any down-time by the pool would have found me with my nose buried in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Nowadays, my approach to the city is altogether more relaxed: my steps are not frantically in search of Renaissance secrets and instead I am apt to enjoy leisurely lunches with a large glass of Chianti in one hand and the other resting in that of the man I love. It is a city that changes imperceptibly whilst those that revisit her learn to appreciate the lesser known corners and the joys of familiarity. This is my guide to the best that the city has to offer…
The majority of the more gastronomic and non-touristy restaurants can be found on the south bank of the Arno. Munaciello (Via Maffia) is a particular favourite of mine; candlelit and lined with intriguing objects from handcrafted automatons to a black and white television set, and a washing line hung with football strips making a nod to the national obsession with soccer, there is something surprisingly romantic in the quirky and enchanting ambiance that makes me return every time I visit Florence. Thankfully the restaurant never changes and, with authentic and generous Neopolitan pizzas from Carmine Candied, the master of the wood burning oven, the pizzas never fail to have me salivating and booking my next holiday. Don’t miss the spinach and ricotta stuffed crust!
Ristorante La Giostra, meaning carousel, was opened over twenty years ago by Hapsburg Lorena princes with a passion for Italian cuisine. With the motto “in food we trust” and Prince Soldano still acting as host, there is a wonderfully hospitable atmosphere, as evident by the multitude of guest photographs lining the walls. The food is classic and a homage to the finest Italian ingredients.
The L’Incontro terrace bar, belonging to the 5-star Rocco Forte Savoy Hotel, has a prime location on Piazza della Repubblica, making it an ideal destination for a relaxing lunch or an after dinner Espresso Martini (try it with rum).
The Colle Boreto, (Piazza Strozzi), is located in the most fashionable area of the city and is a well established meeting place for sophisticated tourists and well-heeled locals. Expect to see Armani-clad gents and ladies with excessively large Prada handbags, smoking Davidoff cigarettes and enjoying an Aperol Spritz during aperetivo from 6.30pm – 9.30pm; simply order a cocktail and enjoy a complimentary taste of authentic antipasti from the buffet.
If you’re looking for more local atmosphere, Volume (Santa Spirito), with its vintage juke box complete with Ray Charles’ ‘Hit the road Jack!’ is the choice of a more Bohemian Florentine crowd. Open until 1am on weekends, don’t miss the wide selection of sweet and savoury crêpes made to order by their in-house Parisian chef.
Recently opened, Smalzi (Piazza Duomo, 15A) is a wine bar like no other; located opposite the Duomo, this modern concept wine bar allows you to serve yourself from slick wine dispensers holding a selection of 32 white, rosé and red wines available in three sizes; a sample, a half glass or a full glass. A wonderful opportunity for wine lovers to sample locally produced Italian wine in the heart of the Chianti region, enjoy Smalzi’s suitably decadent truffle or foie gras sandwiches and stare at one of Italy’s most iconic buildings in awe. You can even buy your favourite wine as a bottle to take away.
Best For a Light Lunch
Verrazzano – Any ‘cantinetta’ owned by the Cappellini family, owners of the Castle of Verrazzano, the renowned wine producers, has to be worth a visit. Since taking over the historic Semellino Bakery, with its old wood burning oven and beautiful marble and walnut interior, they have specialised in exquisite breads and pastries. We sampled a tantalising selection of freshly baked stuffed focacce perfectly washed down with a glass of Verrazzano 2009 Chianti Classico. Bellisimo! If you fancy dessert, Perché no! Gelateria is located opposite.
Founded in 1939, Perché no! is an artisan gelateria who don’t buy in their ice-cream like so many other tourist-trap-cafés in Florence, but instead make their wide range of flavours each morning using only natural ingredients and absolutely no colourings or flavourings. It is an uncompromising process that makes their gelato stand out above a tremendous amount of competition. Don’t miss their divine pistachio ice cream made using only the finest Sicilian pistachio nuts. If it’s good enough for Nigella…why not!
Located on Piazza Della Signoria, Rivoire opened in 1872, when the city was the capital of Italy, and quickly became an institution renowned for fine chocolate and pastries. Although Florentines prefer to enjoy an espresso at the bar inside, the views of Michaelangelo’s David (a copy, alas) and the Neptune Fountain, coupled with plenty of opportunity for people-watching, make sitting on the shaded terrace a must on a hot day.
Pegna (est. 1860) is located a stone’s throw from the Duomo (Via dello Studio 8) yet it never fails to amaze me how many times I struggle to find it! A must for any food lover, with its traditional wooden shop fittings, Pegna is the miniature Florentine answer to Fortnum & Mason – and almost as famous. Exquisite displays present a tempting selection of fine wines, confectionery, cheeses and other delicacies – I defy any foodie to leave without a bag full of Tuscan and regional specialities.
Santa Maria Novella have just celebrated their 400th year as a renowned perfumery and pharmaceutical supplier. With luxury cosmetics and fragrances to reviving health supplements and flavoured liqueurs, the imposing interiors are quite unlike any shop I’ve ever seen and the scents are quite literally ‘divine’, even if the rather aloof staff and price tags do seem obscenely commercial.
Florence is a city renowned for leather, but it is best to remember that much of the items on sale throughout the city are no more than poor quality and mass-produced goods originating from sweatshops across Italy for the tourist market. FP (Flavio Pelletterie) on the other hand, and despite it’s rather obvious location on Piazza Duomo, is a family business offering handcrafted works to surpass any Italian designer label.