Rough Guides editor – and self-confessed ‘accomplished eater’ – Annie Warren heads to Italy to find out what makes food in Florence so irresistible.
Italian cooking is home cooking. It’s not like other national cuisines, where value is placed on the exact preparation of premium ingredients by highly-trained chefs. Italian cooking prides itself on its domesticity. Dishes are to be fed to friends and family and prepared with fresh ingredients from the local market. Recipes are passed down through generations.
Perhaps it is partly this emphasis on ‘home’ that explains why Italian cuisine has such geographic specificity.. After all, home is geographically specific, particularly for Italian cultural identity.
As author Beth Brombert writes: “Someone from Castellina in Chianti is Italian if, say, he goes to Paris. In Italy he is Tuscan; in Tuscany he is Chiantigiano; and in Chianti he is Castellinese.”
Likewise, while regional food does exist, most dishes are better known for being from a specific town.
The perfect illustration of this point is bread.
Pane Toscano – Tuscan bread
While I am an accomplished eater, I am an extraordinarily average cook. Understandably then, turning up to a bread-making class on my first day in Florence made me more than a little nervous.
On arriving at School of Culinary Arts Cordon Blue Florence, the other students explained to me that this was day six of a 15-day course. During the course they would learn how to make over thirty varieties of Italian bread in total.
This, I was told, hardly scratched the surface of all the types of bread there are in Italy! The teacher took one look at me standing nervously in the pristine monogrammed apron the school had lent me and assigned me the easiest bread on the day’s curriculum: pane toscano.
Pane toscano means Tuscan bread. It is better known within Tuscany as pane sciocco or ‘bland bread’ because it is the only bread in the world traditionally made without salt. It has been made this way for centuries.
There are several theories for the reasons behind this unusual method. One harks back to when Pisa and Florence were at war during the Middle Ages. Legend has it that Pisa, being closer to the sea, controlled the production of salt and refused to supply it to Florence in the hope of hastening their surrender.
Another theory is that salt was just too expensive. A third is that bread was made without salt to compensate for the fact that Florentine prosciutto is already extremely salty, much more so than varieties from other regions.
When made correctly, pane toscano is a rustic-looking, oval loaf. It has a crunchy crust and springy white insides with plenty of bubbles. The more salt there is in a dough, the fewer bubbles there will be in the finished product, I learned. It was difficult for me to go too far wrong, given that the only ingredients for this bread are flour, yeast and water. Also because I was being heavily supervised by a professional chef.
Three hours later, a perfect loaf of pane toscano was scooped from the bread oven. The teacher rapped her knuckles against the chestnut-coloured crust with satisfaction. This earned me a smile and a thumbs-up from the class’s Florentine student (better than a Paul Hollywood handshake, surely?).
We ate it warm from the oven with a generous drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. One Florentine student got a misty look in his eye as he told me that the smell reminded him of being a child in his mother’s kitchen.
Pane toscano only stays fresh for about a day, but it is still useful when stale. In fact, this stale bread is a key ingredient in ribollita (a warming winter soup) and panzanella (a refreshing summer salad).
Lampredotto – a Florentine dish made from cow stomach
The fact that even stale bread has a use points to a tradition of Florentine thrift. This abhorrence of waste and drive to find methods of incorporating ‘waste’ ingredients into meals is a proud characteristic of Florentine cuisine: enter lampredotto.
As demonstrated by the region’s bread, Florence has a very close relationship with its history. Chef and food writer Emiko Davies writes in her cookbook Florentine, “many of the favourite dishes of the Renaissance city’s cuisine are much the same as they were during Dante’s medieval Florence or Catherine de’ Medici’s sixteenth century”.
Lampredotto is one such dish, beloved by Florentines since the fifteenth century. It’s often served in bread as a lampredotto panino. While nowadays it is a staple Florentine street food, it was originally eaten as a workman’s lunch. It’s a tripe-lover’s dream; lampredotto’s primary ingredient is cow stomach. The fourth and fifth ones, to be precise.
As a squeamish eater and quasi-vegetarian, I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of tasting a dish made of bovine organs. However, on entering La Prosciutteria my stomach rumbled after a hard afternoon of bread-making. I saw the dish on the menu and was struck by a bolt of bravery.
I had baked a perfect pane toscano - I could handle a little lampredotto, right? On hearing my order, the waiter eyed me doubtfully and asked “Are you sure?” and I replied with a confident, “Sì!”.
It was there in the lowlit trattoria, sitting on a bench under the flushed legs of ham that hung from the ceiling and amongst the dusty wine bottles that lined the walls, that I boldly went where many intrepid food writers have gone before. I lifted the first spoonful of lampredotto to my lips.
While I wouldn’t describe the tangy, vinegary flavour as bad per se, I would say that it is an acquired taste. I didn't finish my portion.
Negroni – an Italian cocktail of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari
I couldn’t leave Florence without a Negroni. Where better to have one than on the surprisingly peaceful terrace of medieval Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni? It’s situated on the very same road that the Negroni was (allegedly) invented.
According to the Antica Torre’s authoritative bartender, a French military man called Count Negroni once sat at a bar on Via Tornabuoni. Instead of ordering his usual cocktail, an Americano (Campari, vermouth, soda water and a lemon garnish) he was in the mood for something a little stronger.
The bartender replaced the soda water with gin and switched the lemon garnish to a slice of orange. The resulting cocktail – a deliciously bitter and surprisingly strong aperitif – was named after the count. I did not finish my portion.
Food in Florence: Respecting tradition while looking to the future
Florentine food has its roots firmly planted in the past. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t look to the future as well.
I stayed at Dimora Palanca hotel. This stunning 19th century villa has historic links to the arts scene. Originally built for the Palanca family who were avid art collectors, the villa became known as a kind of artists’ party house.
The connection to the art world continues today. Dimora Palanca has now been transformed into a unique hotel that hosts a collection of over fifty pieces of contemporary art by Tuscan artist Paolo Dovichi. Many rooms feature exquisitely restored frescoes.
The hotel’s fine dining restaurant Mimesi is overseen by innovative head chef Giovanni Cerroni. He has created a tasting menu that honours traditional Tuscan cooking whilst creatively developing new flavours.
For example, the Tuscan value of not wasting any food is reflected in Cerroni’s emphasis on sustainability. This has resulted in a menu that features very little red meat, which historically played a large part in Tuscan cuisine (think bistecca, steak).
Instead, Cerroni’s tasting menu presents diners with bite-sized surprises. These include tiny caviar croissants, mushroom, lovage (a plant in the same family as carrots and celery) and parsley root and cappelletti pasta with Jerusalem artichokes and black lime sauce.
The care that has gone into respectfully reimagining time-honoured recipes, as well as beauty and precision in every dish makes each mouthful a real delight.
What is Italian food famous for?
For me, what sets Italian cooking apart is the story behind each plateful. A dish containing particular ingredients is famous in a place because before refrigeration made the transportation of produce possible, this crop grew well in this region; the beef was good here; the mozzarella was good here.
Italian food is the idea that in this house, we make it better than anyone else because our grandmother discovered that it tastes even better with the addition of – whisper it now – sage. You’ll always eat well in Italy.
Why? Because, as any Italian will assure you: the meal that they have made for you follows their recipe, which is, naturally, the best one.
Inspired to follow in Annie's footsteps? Find your perfect place to stay in Florence.
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Top image: Pane toscano, Italy © HQuality/Shutterstock