Florence Markets #1: Mercato Central
It’s hard to capture the charm of Florence in simple verse and its beauty inspired poets and writers to immortalize it in their prose. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett eloped to Florence to get married and lived there many happy years afterwards.
Unlike Rome, that took a little getting used to, Florence was a love at first sight. Walking through the ancient streets among magnificent palaces and works of art and in the footsteps of history’s most influential figures was a transforming experience.
Florence is the birthplace of the renaissance and home to iconic art and architecture. Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Michelangelo’s David, Boticcelli’s Birth of Venus and the powerful sculptures of Giambologna are just a few of the magnificent art that you see in Florence. Many of the artists and scientists who lived in Florence are also buried there, in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo Galilei among them.
We spent almost a month in Florence staying in gorgeous apartment across the river from the Uffizi gallery.The centro storico in Florence is compact and easily managed on foot. We did not need a car, walked everywhere and called a taxi only once, to take us to an opera performance in the new and modern concert hall at the edge of town.
I could talk about historical monuments, art, architecture and music in Florence but alas, this is a culinary blog so I will tell you about the markets. We made our way to the market shortly after arrival, and many times afterwards.
The main food market is Mercato Central, a two level indoor market in the middle of Mercato San Lorenzo, a huge outdoor market selling leather goods and clothing. There are various logos there, but I didn’t see any Prada booth, if you get my drift. The San Lorenzo market is big and busy but the only reason for me to go there was the Mercato Central and unless you pay attention, you can easily miss it as the entrance is slightly obscured by the leather-selling tents outside.
Mercato central is a two level market with produce, bakeries, meats, fish and more on the main level and an Italian style food court they call Piazza del Mercato on the second level. I have to admit that I spent most of my time on the second level (first floor in Italian terms). Don’t be misled by the term food court, this was nothing like the food courts we are used to here. My head was spinning from the beautiful food options and the sheer scale of this operation.
The market is an art deco glass and iron structure originally designed by Guiseppe Mengoni, the same architect who designed the magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Sadly, the architect fell to his death from the roof of the Galleria on the last day of construction. The building is unique with its modern architecture, especially so considering it was constructed in 1874. The main floor is framed by large arcade windows and feels like a village as you walk through the “streets” with the gorgeous display of food. The second level is a large space of 3000 square meters and 500 seats. It has red iron frame and green vertical mullions between the windows under blue coloured roof. It’s a beautiful, bright space allowing plenty of natural light.
Walking inside your senses are pleasantly assaulted by the colours, sounds and aromas of the market. I tend to gravitate towards the produce of course but there are butchers, seafood stalls, sausages and charcuterie, bakeries, fruits, cheeses and oils, all beautifully displayed and fresh as can be.
The main floor is a good source for take out foods. Fresh pasta, gnocchi, prepared dishes, pizza and more are available and very tempting, but don’t miss the second level.
Going up to the second level (first floor in Italy), especially at lunchtime, is something to experience. Packed with stylish Florentines and pulsating with energy, the food court lunch offering is simply magnificent. Remember, you are in Tuscany. Anything from fresh pasta, seafood, vegetarian bar, truffle bar, Sicilian specialties, cheese, pizza, gelato and more are all offered here in great abundance and of the highest quality.
Also located on the second level is a professional cooking school La Scuola de Cucina Lorenzo de Medici offering both professional and non professional programs. You can stand outside the glass wall and watch the chefs in training work in the state of the art professional kitchen, with the chef-instructors supervising the stations. They offer cooking classes for non professionals which unfortunately I missed this time. They also offer Lunch or Dinner with the Chef, consisting of a cooking demonstration of a main dish and dessert at lunch or dinner which you then enjoy with a glass of wine.
We were at the market a number of times and tried something from most of the restaurants of this amazing place. We even went there early in the day for coffee and cornetti, when the floor was empty and only early risers showed up for their morning coffee. Between the market on the main floor and the food floor above, this place is culinary heaven. I recommend that you go at lunchtime though, to get the full effect.