We can’t say we weren’t warned. “Be sure you come to the tour with an empty stomach…” Walks of Italy said.
GOOD ADVICE! The Florence Food Tour scores a huge hit for foodies like us who enjoy not only eating and drinking locally when we travel, but seeing more of the behind-the-scenes view of Italian food. Every happening on the tour was epic. From our first meeting under the shadow of the gigantic sculpture of Dante Alighieri in the Piazza Santa Croce to the final decision of choosing which creamy gelato flavors to taste before we stumbled off in a food coma for the remainder of the afternoon.
Our three and a half hour tour of Italian food bliss began with our group of 6 moving through the still quiet streets of Florence at the cool and pleasant time of 9:30am. From Dante’s shadow we would not look back…onward to the food!
Elvira, our well-versed Italian guide, kept us entertained with notes of historical as well as culinary importance during our trek through the streets to our first destination at the antique market in the Piazza dei Ciompi. Here we learned of the origins of Florence’s Fish Market near Ponte Vecchio and viewed the original Loggia del Pesce commissioned by Cosimo Medici to Giorgio Vasari.
The neighborhood around the Church of Sant’ Ambrogio welcomed us while we admired the simple facade of the church and watched locals going about their daily business of shopping in and around the Sant’ Ambrogio market. We couldn’t help noticing a food stall on the Via del Verrocchio doing a brisk morning business. The sign outside reading Lampredotto e Trippa didn’t raise any eyebrows – yet. More on that later!
Our group was led into the charming enoteca (wine shop) called Alla Sosta dei Papi where we were greeted with a spread of crostini, olive oils, and of course only in Italy – wine at 10am! More than simply an exclusive enoteca where special vintages can be ordered and purchased, this shop also provides excellent vino sfuso or wine in bulk. Here you may bring your own bottles to be filled and refilled, corked and labeled and go on your way.
We were invited to enjoy a glass or two of all of the varieties on offer – Montepulciano, Montalcino, Chardonnay, Rosso Toscano Chianti, and Nero D’Atola. And did I mention that it was only 10am? Nibbling crostini with spreads of tuna, herbed olive oils, and mild peppers made for scratch by “momma”, we relaxed and chatted in the Italian way.
Plates of panzanella, Tuscan bread salad, were presented to each of us. Rich in olive oil, fresh basil and crunchy onions, the traditional Tuscan dish made a perfect accompaniment to the wines. While we were enjoying our time in the enoteca, several Italian ladies came with their own bottles to replenish their home stocks of wine. Elvira explained that in Italy, “A meal without wine is just eating!” Then came glasses of the Vin Santo! Sweet, strong and incredibly delicious when bits of crisp biscotti are dipped in – oh, momma mia!
Fortified with several glasses of liquid courage, we ventured back out to the streets for a stop at what Florentines call cucina povera or peasant food – the Lampredotto e Trippa stall. Very popular with the locals, we were happy this hadn’t been our first stop on the tour. Lampredotto, or the fourth stomach of a cow, was visible in all of its glory behind the glass. Despite how it looked, Elvira coaxed us to give it a try. Choosing a spicy picante and olive sauce, even the most squeamish of our group (that would be Cheryl), pronounced it quite tasty. Dipping a huge hunk of fresh bread in the flavorful sauce helped dispel a little of the initial apprehension (and chewiness!) of the meat.
Now it was time to venture into the Sant’ Ambrogio market where our next host was waiting patiently – as most Italians do – for us to arrive and taste his wares. Full of hand gestures and much Italian fanfare, Mario proudly presented tray after tray of amazing meats, cheeses, and olives. With each flourish of Mario’s enthusiastic Italian description, Elvira faithfully translated for her American and Canadian group.
We sampled cheeses of every age, from classics aged 36 months to fresh bites just weeks old. The meats included salami, ham, and even thinly sliced wild boar prosciutto (salty, but with an excellent taste).
The commentary with Elvira and Mario was almost as much fun as the eating itself. A tray of olives arrived, from the brightest green to wrinkled brown, but each one with a taste and a story all its own. Our tummies were stuffed to capacity, so surely the tour must be almost over? No! This is Italy. The eating had only just begun!
Travelers are told that to find the best places to eat, go where the locals go. This was certainly the case as Elvira took us deeper into the market and we managed to snag the last available table at the Trattoria da Rocco. Huge wicker-wrapped bottles of Chianti were plunked down in front of us and the absolutely delightful Rocco himself came over for hugs, kisses and to see what we wanted to eat.
Eat?! Even though we felt full, we were STRONGLY encouraged to order several primi’s and secondi’s (first and second courses) to share. Choices were Papa del Pomodoro (tomato soup with bread), chickpeas in thick broth, panzanella salad with local barley, lasagna, and meatballs in pizza sauces. Of course we ordered one of each! Sharing this feast while enjoying Rocco’s smiling antics made the market come alive. Although, he seemed highly offended that we declined his offer of poached pears for dessert. We just didn’t have any available space!
A brisk walk through the outside Sant’ Ambrogio vegetable market helped to ease our painful stomachs just a little. Truly a local’s market, we were tempted by delicate zucchini flowers competing with ripe figs just moments from bursting with sweet juices. The fresh porcini mushrooms from Sicily, “Would be excellent in a sauce,” was the translation from an eager market seller we were given.
Suddenly Elvira stopped at a busy market stall and decided here was something we just could not leave Florence without trying. It was grape schiacciata, or bread made from the first grapes of this years harvest. Made as a celebration of the Tuscan vineyard harvest each year, this strictly seasonal bread was certainly not to miss. The schiacciata was both sweet and salty, and the purple juices that stained our fingers made a wonderful souvenir of our day in Florence.
As with the ending of any meal in Italy, it was time to enjoy a stand-up espresso coffee. Elvira chose Cafe Cibreo for its ambiance and popularity as well as being a part of one of Florence’s best dining venues. Jostling among the busy waitstaff while we sipped our espressos was a perfect cap on an incredible food day.
But alas, we weren’t done yet! In Italy there must always be dessert. This time we were led to the closet-sized gelateria of La Carraia 2 at Via dei Benci #24. To say the gelato here was wonderful would be such an understatement. Even after all that we’d consumed, this gelato was sublime! Flavors like After 8 Mint, melon, and pistachio called out to us to taste even though we knew we’d be napping on the train ride home. Freshly made, creamy, and deliciously cold, this was Italian gelato at it’s finest!
So after three and a half hours of foodie bliss, we felt as though we knew a little more about the local culture and food of Florence than when we’d arrived. We experienced the city in a way most tourists don’t get to see – through the eyes of someone who lives there. We ate and drank the Tuscany we had come to experience. It was amazing. Thanks Walks of Italy for letting us tag along!
A special thanks to Walks of Italy who provided this tour to us for review purposes. As always, the opinions expressed are based on our own experiences during the tour.