Florence food tour with “Italy Customized”
One of the best ways to get an insider view of a city’s food scene is to do a food tour with a local guide. We chose Italy Customized, a Florence based custom tour company run by the lovely Linda Sorgiovanni. Linda also owns the Florence franchise of Urban Adventures, a company offering tours in over 105 destinations around the world. Between her two companies she offers food, markets and aperitivo tours in Florence as well as wine tours in Tuscany, available both privately and to groups.
We met Linda at Piazza della Republica, the site of the Roman forum and the center of the ancient Roman city. The piazza is framed on the west side by an archone (arch) over via degli Strozzi’s entrance to the piazza. On the north side there are two iconic cafes. One is Cafe Gilli (1733), built in the belle epoque style with elegant chandeliers, arches and an impressive green marble coffee bar. In the mornings the place is packed with locals lined up for morning coffee which they drink standing up at the bar. The other is Caffè Paszkowski, founded in 1846 and known for concerts that they hold throughout the year (we are going to one tomorrow). On the south side you will find Caffè delle Giubbe Rosse, another historic establishment where the literary elite used to gather. For a modern touch, there is an Apple store to the left of the arch and La Rinascente department store on the opposite side.
Window shopping at Cafe Gilli
Cafe Gilli has an impressive pastry shop and although we didn’t go in we stood at the window and Linda pointed out the many local specialties they offer. Cantucci (mini biscotti), Panforte which is a Siena specialty, pan ciocolato, mini panetone, peppery pampepato (similar to Christmas cake), turrone with nutella (Piedmonte) and more. “When you look at these pastries you can see how medieval ingredients like raisins, pine nuts and almonds made their way into the foods we eat and that tradition continues to this day” says Linda. “panforte has fruits and nuts, panetone has dried fruits, turrone has almonds. Cantucci, also containing nuts, is the oldest product here historically and the custom is to dip it into vinsanto, not coffee” she says.
We extracted ourselves from the delicious looking pastries in the window and made our way toward via de Tornabuoni, a fashionable street named after one of the powerful noble families who also married into the Medici dynasty. It’s all in the family it seems. Via Tornabuoni is where you find most of the high end designers shops: Hermes, Prada, Gucci, Ferragamo, Prada, Dior, Max Mara and more. It is a wide street, historically important and lined with stunning palaces that still belong to the Italian aristocracy. We walked into Palazzo Strozzi, an immense structure covering an entire block with a huge entrance court framed with stone columns. The coffee shop on the right is an interesting place to sit with a cappuccino and a pastry and watch the going on.
Our destination was the Palazzo Antinori, residence and offices of the famed wine making Antinori family since the 1500’s. The palazzo, a beautiful building built in a period that ushered in the rinascente (renaissance) is located in Piazza Antinori in front of the beautiful San Gaetano Cathedral. In the past this was where the Antnori family stored and sold their wines and a horse drawn cart piled with fiascos of chianti is still standing at the entrance, witness to a not so distant past. The main floor of the palazzo is open to the public and tells the story of the Antinori wine making history. You can watch a film in one of the rooms that takes you from the 1300’s all the way to the present and the new 100 million Euros winery they built in Chianti Classico, not far from Florence. Whether you like their wines or not, they ushered in a new era in winemaking. Their Tignanello was the first sangiovese wine to be blended with non-traditional varieties (cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc) without white grapes and the first sangiovese to be aged in French barriques. They have their critics, but still, they are an iconic wine producing family in Chianti and form part of the wine making story of Chianti, past and present.
Moving on from the Palazzo Antinori we stopped at a landmark bar, Procacci Alimentari, located next to Todd’s on Via de Tornabuoni. Procacci, founded in 1885 by Leopoldo Procacci specializes in truffle products and is considered one of the most historic local alimentari in the city. It was taken over by the Antinori family who preserved the integrity and history of this iconic shop. The panini tartufati, or ‘truffled’ sandwiches they still serve became an institution in Florence and people line up for them even today. We settled at one of the few high tables with a glass of bubbly prosecco and the famed mini panini tartufani, made with soft butter bread. We talked about truffles, prosecco and Italian food culture and looked at the exquisite selection of wines (not only Antinori wines) that line the shelves at the bar. There was no mistaking that we were in Florence. A very Italian feel to the place.
That entire Tornabuoni neighbourhood is rather exciting with grand palazzi, beautiful shops, gorgeous restaurants and small food shops on side streets. The everyday and the glamorous live happily side by side here in Florence. A good example of that is Via della Spada, a narrow street off Via de Tornabuoni where we stopped next. Our destination was Forno Top, a bakery, but the street is filled with food shops: butcher, rosticceria, cheese, legumes, bakery and pastry shops, not to mention small restaurants and coffee bars. Italians tend to buy food daily and would stop at these small specialty shops for what they need for dinner that night. The food is exceptionally good and fresh and the turnover very quick.
Forno Top, meaning top oven, is a small but busy bakery where everything is made in-house. You can find typical Tuscan style bread made without salt (salt was scarce in those days and the tradition remains) as well as a wide and delicious selection of Focaccia and Schiacciate topped with appetizing combinations that change daily: pear and gorgonzola, olives, tomatoes, zucchini and even potatoes. Linda explained that focaccia refers to the thicker flatbread we are familiar with in North America and is usually only topped with olive oil, salt and herbs. The schiacciate is a thinner, more crisp version that is topped with the various toppings. They also had focaccia nero, an ink-black focaccia, “made with the addition of carbonized vegetables that give it the black colour” says Linda. “A lot of the breads and biscuits here are made with olive oil and hand ground grains, carrying on tradition from centuries ago. Ancient grains such as kamut and farro, and walnuts, pine nuts and raisins are all medieval ingredients that link the food of the past with the present”. We enjoyed a tasting of several of the breads and some of the sweets and had a lively one-way conversation with the gal behind the counter who was complaining about costs of food at some of the restaurants nearby.
From the bakery we walked through a couple of side street to a small but well stocked La Bottega dell’ Olio, a specialty olive oil and vinegar shop. The shop owner Andrea was on hand to educate, answer questions, offer tastings and recommend the right product. “Oil changes from area to area and food from a specific region are considered best with oil from that region” says Linda. This means that olive oil from Sicily is good with sea food, while oil from Tuscany is best with their local meats etc. Linda says that generally they buy a gallon of local oil for general use and then supplement it with smaller bottles from different regions for specific foods. Andrea buys oil from small producers and samples all the products before buying. November he says, is a good time to visit the store because the new harvest is then celebrated and the new oil is available.
One of their top olive oils is Laudemia which Linda calls “the Chanel no.5 of olive oils”. Laudemia is a brand representing a small number of olive oil producing estates around Tuscany that joined together to promote excellence in production of oil. They devised strict regulations that rigorously control the entire process of olive oil making, from management of olive groves, harvesting, extraction, production, to bottling and storage of the oil. At the end of this process the oil has to pass a rigorous test by special control bodies and two strict tasting committees who select only the best extra virgin olive oil from the best producers for the sought-after Laudemio designation. The Laudemia oil we tasted was incredibly green, I have not seen oil so green before, and had spicy, peppery notes. Andrea says that the colour would become darker after a while, but this oil was very fresh, hence the colour. We tasted a few oils, each with a different weight on the palate, from light to heavy, and the flavours were unique to each one. I find olive oil tastings an eye opening experience, the difference between varieties is quite pronounced.
We also tasted balsamic vinegars from Modena and Reggio Emilia. Balsamic is made from the must of the Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. The aging process is much like the sherry production done in solera-like system and the vinegar becomes more concentrated as it ages and moved to smaller barrels on the bottom. Balsamic vinegar that is aged for more than 12 years must be bottled in a specifically shaped small bottle. We tasted a few vinegars aged between 8 and 15 years. It is interesting to taste them side by side as they are quite different from each other in viscosity and flavour. Generally Italians use red wine vinegar rather than balsamic on their salad and reserve the balsamic for drizzling over fruit, cheese, vegetables or even meats. Some of the Laudemia olive oil and the aged balsamic vinegars are certainly going home with me.
The next stop was at a small artisanal meat shop Alimentary Uffizi on Via Lambertesca where the father Allesandro Campolmi sells meats and olive oil that are produced at his son’s Azienda Agricola Terre di Narni in Umbria. We started with bruschetta drizzled with olive oil from the azienda on which he sprinkled hot pepper and went on to taste a few of the various products, along with Chianti wine of course. The intimacy of the food between the producer-seller-consumer is a very romantic concept.
As we were walking around Linda pointed out the little doors or windows on many of the palazzi walls. Known as buchette del vino these door used to be a form of “take out” in centuries past. People would knock on the door and for a small price would have their glass, mug or flask of wine filled to go. Some of the windows even display operating hours.
The final stop was on the same street at Gelateria Carapina, a small Florentine gelato shop where they make the real, pure gelato, not the fluffy one that is piled high in the display cases and is full of stabilizers. The Carapino gelato is made daily and stored in stainless steel cylinders under the counter. There were several flavours and the most unusual one today was a semi savoury grana padano gelato, which is what I proceeded to order, combined with another scoop of caramel gelato to sweeten the blow. Other unsual flavours they make (different every day) are pecorino and vinsanto, pear and gorgonzola and I believe they said fresh mozzarella as well, these being in addition to the usual flavours that include chocolate, vanilla, fruit flavours and more. The shop is modern and stylish and has a devoted group of followers. My gelato was served in a cone and was particularly soft so it melted over my hand and camera (hence no images) but we quickly salvaged the situation by turning the gelato into a paper cup and wiping my sticky hands with wet paper towels. The gelato had an interesting flavour and smooth, if too soft texture. I’ll have to try it again in Rome where they opened a couple of shops.
This concluded our food tour and Linda dropped us off at the end of the street near the Ponte Vecchio. The center of Florence is rather small and you are never too far from anywhere. We walked home talking and thinking about the experience of tasting the foods and learning about Italian culture. Linda also left me with an insider list of restaurants, food stores, markets and kitchen shops to visit, some of which I have already been to and will post about next.
I hope you enjoyed joining me in the adventure.
“In Italy, they add work and life on to food and wine”