Never plan a vacation when you are hungry. If you do, you will surely end up in Tuscany. On second thought, let your stomach guide you. When you consider the region’s sublime natural beauty and Florence’s countless Renaissance masterpieces, it is easy to overlook the food.
But Florence is a great place to connect with the region’s culture and history through its markets and restaurants. From some of Europe’s best fine dining to cheap eats around its global student culture, Florence has something for every budget. Many dishes evolved from scarcity, and the cucina povera of the peasants. Cooking features the best of local ingredients. And the region’s sublime wines are readily available.
And of course, be sure to enjoy the Tuscans themselves, who are passionate about their food, like our friends in the photo above. The hearty enjoyment of the meal is much more important that any fussy preparations or decorum. Here are some of my Florentine favorites.
Snack and street food
Happy hour buffet – Yes, the drinks are expensive, but factor in the heavy snack buffet that might come with it, you’re getting quite a deal. While this is something you’ll find on other Italian cities, it is particularly popular in Florence. Maybe all those students?
Gelato – Yes, ice cream is pervasive in Italian cities, but Florence offers some of Italy’s best. Look for gelato artigianale and be certain to eat house-made gelato. Frutti di bosco (forest fruits = mixed berries) is refreshing on a hot day.
Chestnuts – In the fall and winter, look for nut vendors, especially those selling roasted chestnuts. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there when the vino novello (new wine) is released. They pair well.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina – Top-grade T-bone steaks that come from an ancient Tuscan breed of cow, the Chianina, which grazes in the Tuscan countryside. They are enormous, normally ordered by weight and shared by more than one person at the table. Order a side of potatoes or beans, and a very good local red wine to accompany the event.
Salumi – That favorite Tuscan antipasto, a plate of mixed cured meats like prosciutto and rich sausages. This is nothing like the lunch meat you’re used to at home.
Soup – Soups are not boring here, though they are seasonal. Look for zuppa di farro in the fall. Ribollita is a favorite as well, a hearty soup made of beans, cabbage and white beans. Cannellini beans are a Tuscan staple and a welcome respite from meat-heavy menus.
Panzanella – A delicious summer dish straight out of cucina povera, the thrifty peasant tradition of not wasting food. Stale bread is tossed with tomatoes, herbs, onion, oil and vinegar, and any available extras like beans or tuna. A refreshing summer favorite.
Tuscan wines – Most restaurants and bars have premium wines by the glass, so you can have a proper Chianti Classico or even a Brunello. So rather than ordering a ¼ liter of house wine, look at the list.
Vin Santo – “Holy wine” makes a divine cap to a meal. This sweet dessert wine is a traditional close to a Tuscan meal. Best served with cantucci, tiny biscotti-type cookies with almonds. You can dunk the crunchy cookies into the sweet wine like the locals.
Acqua e menta – OK, it’s not particularly Florentine, but this is super refreshing when you’ve been baking under the Tuscan sun all day. It’s sweet mint syrup mixed with sparkling or still water, and its pleasing deep green lowers your body temperature before you even drink it.