People & Places

Travel: Eating the Florentine way

Italian food tour is recipe for fun in Florence

/

If you want to get to know a place well, travel with a local. And if you want to get to know a region well, eat its food. The combination of these two universal truths underlies the success of Eating Europe, a company established in 2011 that offers a wide variety of food tours in five European cities.

Thanks to one of the company’s offerings, on a recent trip to Italy I got the chance to nibble, sip, and savor my way across Florence, enjoying a warm welcome from restaurateurs, cheese makers, vintners, bartenders and artisan bakers. I can’t think of a better way to learn about Italian culture and history than on a food tour.

Our tour began at 5 p.m. in the Piazza Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno neighborhood, which is located just across the Arno River from the major historic sites of Florence.

“One of the first things you need to know is that there’s no such thing as Italian food,” explained our guide Gaia Ancilotti to our group of three adventuresome diners. “Instead, we have regional cuisines, each with their own distinct flavors, history and preparations. My goal tonight is to introduce you to the foods of my neighborhood — and to some of my favorite neighbors, too.”

For the next four hours we did exactly that, following Ancilotti like obedient, hungry ducklings as we traipsed from one eatery to another. We began with a visit to a family-run grocery store, where the owner offered us samples that included savory slices of Finocchiona salami flavored with fennel seeds and melt-in-the-mouth bites of truffle-infused cheese.

The latter treat inspired Ancilotti to give us a mini-lecture on truffles, a species of fungi that grows underground and is highly prized in cooking for its earthy, complex flavor.

“Traditionally hunters used pigs to sniff out the truffles, but most of them have switched to dogs because they tend to be better behaved once they find them,” she said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Next came a stop at Le Nuvole, a corner shop that sells coffee by day and drinks by night. As we learned how to make several of the signature cocktails of Florence, Ancilotti explained that establishments like these are a vital part of the social life of the neighborhood, in part because most people live in small apartments with little room for socializing.

“Many of us in the neighborhood stop by here several times a day,” she said. “We’ll have our morning coffee here, and then our afternoon one, and in the evening we’ll come back for a cocktail. This place is like part of our home.”

We learned about another aspect of Florentine culture at our next destination, a store where “loose wine” is sold. The term means that the establishment sells wine in bulk, with customers filling their own containers from a barrel near the counter. Ancilotti explained that this type of wine is typically both inexpensive and of excellent quality.

“If you know some of the tricks of the locals, you can eat and drink much less expensively — and better — than a tourist does,” Ancilotti said.

This being Italy, we enjoyed more wine at our next stop, a glass of Chianti Classico, a well-known specialty of Tuscany, the region where Florence is located. The wine was served with another local specialty: Trippa alla Fiorentina, a dish made with tripe, the lining of a cow’s stomach. While traditionally this hearty dish was peasant food, it remains a favorite throughout the region.

As we ate, the shop’s owner pulled up a chair. He spoke of how Oltrarno has become one of the most dynamic parts of Florence, a hip, laid-back neighborhood with an increasingly vibrant food scene.

We were in a mellow mood indeed as we headed to a local trattoria named I Raddi for our main meal of the evening.

“You’re about to enjoy one of the signature dishes of Florence — Bistecca alla Fiorentina,” Ancilotti said. “You can find it in restaurants throughout the city, but I think this restaurant is among the best.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Thank you for signing up for our e-newsletter!

You should start receiving the e-newsletters within a couple days.

After being greeted by the owner, we headed back into the kitchen, where we watched a chef expertly slice a thick T-bone steak and sear it on a grill. The beef typically comes from an Italian breed of cattle called Chianina, we learned, and is dry aged for a couple of weeks, then cooked very quickly so that the inside still is rare.

A few minutes later we enjoyed that very cut, which was more than enough even when divided among the group. “This is a true taste of Florence,” Ancilotti said. “You can’t visit the city without tasting this dish.”

On our way out of the restaurant, Ancilotti stopped to have an animated conversation with a man seated at a corner table. Rejoining us, she explained that he was a firefighter who’d worked in the neighborhood for many years. In his retirement, local restaurants take turns feeding him almost every evening in gratitude for his service.

I realized this was a story I’d never have heard if I’d dined on my own in the restaurant. Throughout our tour, we’d been introduced to new foods and learned about Florentine culture and history, but we’d also been given a window into the day-to-day lives of the people in this neighborhood. That’s the genius of the Eating Europe concept: it’s about much more than just the food.

Our tour ended with a stop at a neighborhood tavern where we enjoyed our final signature treat — an almond biscotti dipped in a sweet dessert wine. Afterward, sitting on the piazza where we had started our evening, our group savored the coolness of the evening air, watching as young children played in a nearby fountain and couples strolled by arm in arm.

We felt like natives of Florence — which wasn’t surprising, given the evening we’d just had.

If you go

The Florence Sunset Food Tour is 95 euros per person (about $117). Participants must be 18 or older. Eating Europe offers two other food tours and a cooking class in Florence.

In Rome, eight tours, classes, and food-oriented walks are offered.

Travelers to London, Amsterdam and Prague also can sign up for tours, which range from a sampling of the culinary treasures of London’s East End to explorations of the historic Jordaan neighborhood in Amsterdam.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

For more information, visit www.eatingeuropetours.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.