Florence – my best places to eat and things to see
A Postcard from Florence: my best picks of places to eat and things to see…
Cibreo, Via Andrea del Verrocchio, 8
I loved this place so much, we visited for lunch and dinner in the same weekend. It serves dainty plates of unusual antipasti made to a high standard but without any fussiness. As we sat down, we were brought little bowls of almonds ground with oil and bread, served as a type of spread. Next came the lightest, creamiest, chicken liver pate (the best I’ve tried in Tuscany, where it is a speciality) on crostini. It was served alongside a small square of baked ricotta and borage. In the evening there was fresh sheep’s ricotta, Brussels sprouts lightly pickled in vinegar and oil, sweet carrots with onion but the most unusual and exciting dish was a moulded, strained yoghurt with turmeric, lemon and a little cumin, which we asked for at both meals. A delicate tripe taster was cooked with chilli and vinegar and oil, the daintiest way I’ve ever seen it prepared.
For primi, I ordered an excellent fish soup, make with the heads, like a burrido. Then a most unusual ‘mama’ artichoke, served upside down on the creamiest puree of potato with some parmesan , concealing an egg yolk, almost raw, underneath. Puddings were a small strawberry tart, a caramel pannacotta and a cheesecake topped with Seville orange marmalade that was a delicious as eating brown bread with marmalade and lots of butter.
Museo Bardini, via dei Renai, 57
If you know the Wallace Collection or the John Soane museums in London, this is like a capsule collection/combination of the two. Stefano Bardini, a Florentine art dealer working at the end of last century, amassed an extraordinary collection of Renaissance iconography, furniture, carved chests, weapons, rugs and tapestries and housed it all in a palazzo which he carefully converted into a neo-Renaissance show room for his remarkable pieces. The large rooms, which lead through the top floor of the building, are decorated with beautiful floral frescoes and doorways, windows and mouldings which were reclaimed from ruined churches. Venetian and Tuscan woodcarvings from 15th -17th Centuries adorn the ceiling. The decoration of the palazzo alone would be a sufficient reason to visit, but to also discover all the other treasures inside makes it an unmissable destination.
Alla Vecchia Bettola, 34r Via Luigi Ariosto
Here I was served a plate that was as near to perfection as any starter I could ask for. Fillets of fat, salted anchovies with curls of the purest, unsalted creamy butter and pieces of bread, toasted over the fire. If bread, butter and salt is your thing, this is nirvana.
I also shared mouthfuls of the zucchini flower and gorgonzola risotto which was also on offer, then ordered a whole bistecca Fiorentina, for myself, which was one of the best I’ve tried. Contorni were fried zucchini flowers and zucchini trifolate with a touch of tomato. I had no choice but to order the home made tiramisu and cantuccini for pudding.
Chiesa di Santo Spirito, Piazza Santo Spirito
Brunelleschi’s final masterpiece, a triumph of simplicity and one of the most uplifting churches in Florence. The blue-grey chevron marble floor of the side chapel is an inspiration of timeless colour and pattern. It reminds you of the pleasure that can be found in the simplicity and grandeur of church architechture. The piazza on which the church sits is my favourite of the whole city, and where I used to live. As well as simple trattorias and cafes full of locals, artists and the more bohemian residents of the city, there is a good weekly food market and a bric a brac Saturday market, which are both worth visiting.
il Chicco di café, Via della Chiesa 16r | Angolo Via delle Caldaie
This place is so small and unassuming I would have imagined it was just a coffee bar. Like La Vecchia Bettola, it has shared tables (often more fun when there’s just two of you). Lola, the elderly chef/patron is still at work in the kitchen and we were served by her son. They just managed to squeeze us in – it was Saturday after all – and the wait was a little longer that my hunger could hold out for, so well fell upon the contorni which arrived a little before our mains. The fagioli ‘fiasco’, baked with a whisper of sage, rosemary and oil had a smooth creaminess and natural sweetness. The spinach with oil and garlic made me remember what spinach really tastes like. The spaghetti arrabiata was arrabiata enough and the tripe, which was cooked perfectly with tomato and herbs, is something I thought I should try, although a whole plate of it was challenging, even for me. The charm and buzz of the place and the authentically local feeling was exactly what we had come for.
Museo la Specola, Via Romana, 17
A fascination of animal taxidermy and macabre wax works of bodies, split to display internal organs. These beautiful, if somewhat gruesome models make up the world’s largest collection of anatomical scientific examples of their kind. The museum was founded by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorena and opened to the public in 1775. A ground floor courtyard, adjacent to the Boboli Gardens, is charmingly scruffy and through semi boarded up windows, you can glimpse evidence of old classrooms and specimen examples used for tuition. A step back in time to the beginnings of our greatest discoveries into the natural world. The taxidermy consists of a thorough collection of birds, beasts, fish and other mammals, even including corals and strange sea creatures. This is a remarkable and extraordinary museum.
ZEB (Zuppa e Bollito), Via San Miniato, 2
This place reminded me of why it’s sometimes best just sticking to the oldies. And despite reading lots of rave reviews (including Nicholas Lander in FT Magazine), I was somewhat disappointed. We were served by the owners, who were charming and informative but they employed a slightly self-conscious practice of no menu, just announcing the dishes face to face (when they were ready to do so – not before!). Some of the pasta options contained too many ingredients for my liking – the meat ragu and picci was excellent, but my ravioli stuffed with ricotta and zucchini flowers also had a burrata sauce as well as being coated in poppy seeds. The atmosphere was more subdued and the customers appeared sophisticated, although the place felt more stifled that some of the busier restaurants, and the overriding smell of truffle oil didn’t help. There were good wines, served by the glass and a tempting looking slow cooked beef main course, which could be the choice to go for next time.
Forte Belvedere Breathtaking views over the city of Florence with a chance to see the geographical layout of a city spreading out from the banks of the Arno and held in by the dramatic hills of Tuscany rising up behind. The current Anthony Gormley exhibition of sculptures placed singularly or in groups around the edifice is cleverly contextualized and creates a good opportunity to admire and explore the fort while viewing these beautiful new works.