A Food Lover's Travel Guide to Florence, Italy

Where to eat and drink in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori in Florence, Italy
Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori in Florence, Italy. Gary Yeowell/Getty Images

Though I've traveled extensively throughout Italy, Florence is the city that I know best, since I lived there for five years and still visit often. Over the years, I've been asked countless times for Florence dining recommendations for traveling friends and friends-of-friends, and I've realized that it's about time I put all these recommendations into a single place, rather than writing them over and over again.

So without further ado, here are my favorite restaurants, markets, gelaterie and bars (note that in Italy, a "bar" is a café, while what we normally call a "bar" in the U.S. is a "pub." Confusing, I know! Particularly since many "bars" do also serve alcohol.)

There are so many excellent places to eat in Florence, that I won't even try to list all of them. These are just some of my personal favorites. I will periodically update and add to this guide, so keep it bookmarked!

Restaurants:

  • Il Giova -- This tiny trattoria is my all-time favorite in Florence, for the consistent excellence of all of their dishes: antipasti, primi, secondi, and desserts. I highly recommend reservations, and to order: il piatto del Giova (a mixed antipasto platter), fritto misto, any of their gnocchi dishes, any of their filetto or tagliata steaks, and their tiramisù, the best I've ever had. Order a side of sauteed spinach for your steak and you won't regret it.
    Borgo la Croce, 73r
     
  • Trattoria da Mario -- This bustling, lunch-only, cash-only, no-reservations spot behind the Mercato Centrale is so Florentine. Loud, crowded, busy, jovial and no-nonsense. The dishes (changing daily and written on a chalkboard on the wall) are very traditional, and this is a great place to try the legendary bistecca alla fiorentina -- it's only by the kilo, and please do not try to order it any other way besides rare (al sangue), because they will (rightly) refuse! If you have a problem with rare beef, then it's best just to order something else. Arrive early (around 11:30) to avoid waiting in a long line for a seat, and be prepared to share a table with strangers. You can order half-orders (mezza porzione) of side dishes (contorni) and primi (pasta dishes) if you want to sample a few things.
     Via Rosina, 2r
     
  • Il Santo Bevitore -- I love this chic, romantically lit wine bar in Santo Spirito. Besides, of course, excellent wines, they offer fantastic cheese and charcuterie boards and their more substantial dishes are also great. For example, their mafalde all'nduja (wide, wavy pasta ribbons with a spicy Calabrian sausage sauce) and burrata with sauteed spinach.
     
  • Acqua al 2 -- This is a solid, romantic place. It is not top of my list, however what I really like about it is that it offers "tasting menus" of pasta, mains, cheeses and dessert where you get to try 3 to 5 different kinds of each. There is even a branch of this restaurant in Washington, D.C.! Check it out, if you are in the area.
     
  • Trattoria Anita -- This is a local favorite, hidden in plain sight right in a quiet alley right in the city center. It's a bit tricky to find, and it's nothing fancy or overwhelmingly delicious, but what it does offer is an amazing deal for set lunches (offered from around noon to 2:30 p.m. on weekdays) -- you can choose from the daily offerings of primo (pasta or soup), secondo (meat or cheese), contorno (side). At the time when I first discovered Anita (2002) this could all be had for just 7 or 8 euros. Naturally, the price has risen since then (I believe it's somewhere between 10 and 12 euros now), but it is still an incredibly good deal. 
    Via del Parlascio, 2r. Behind the Palazzo Vecchio (look for signs on the walls pointing the way to "Trattoria Anita".)
     
  • Le Campane -- This is a really low-key, no-frills, reasonably priced place that's a great choice for larger groups and for both pizza and pasta dishes. (Check out my recipe for my favorite spaghetti dish at Le Campane, though they no longer serve the exact same dish, you can make it at home!)
     
  • La Ghiotta is a tiny, down-to-earth rosticceria and pizzeria. It's a good choice for to-go dinners to eat at home. Their roast chicken, schiacciata (basically Tuscan focaccia), fried polenta, and pizza topped with fresh arugula are all amazing. Great, traditional food at modest prices.
     
  • Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori -- another tiny hole-in-the-wall, but right near Piazza della Signoria and some of the city's biggest tourist attractions. Just around the corner, hapless tourists crowd into sidewalk eateries serving horrible frozen-and-microwaved food (hint: restaurants with photos of the food and menus in English and German are a good sign of a tourist trap), while here you can try traditional Florentine dishes so delicious and reasonably priced you might cry. My good friend Simone was the chef here for many years, and while the place has changed hands a few times since then and recently been expanded and completely renovated, the food remains excellent and authentic. On their hand-written menu there's a small box of rules, written in English: "NO PIZZA. NO STEAK. NO ICE. NO TAKEAWAY. NO CAPPUCCINO." Yes, these are rules for tourists. 
    Via dei Magazzini, 3

  • Coquinarius -- This rustic little wine bar is tucked away in a small side street but smack dab in the center, very near the Duomo. Naturally their wines are excellent, but their food is also superb. They make very nice salads and carpacci (paper-thin slices of raw or smoked meat or fish), for a light lunch, or their pasta filled with pear and gorgonzola is heavenly.
    Via delle Oche, 11r

Pizza:

A couple notes on pizza in Italy: Italians usually eat their pizza with a knife and fork, and drink beer with their pizza, not wine, but that doesn't mean you have to. Rather than coming by the slice or in varying sizes, usually a true Naples-style pie only comes in one size -- individual size, intended for one person, so each person will order one pizza, and that's their dinner. If you order a "peperoni" pizza, you will get a pizza covered in bell peppers (ugh!), not spicy salami. If that's what you want, look for "salumino piccante" or something similar. You will also not find jars of pre-grated parmesan (the horror!), dried oregano, or chili flakes to sprinkle on your pizza, however they will usually have a bottle of spicy olive oil to drizzle on top, if you so desire.

  • Caffè Italiano Pizzeria -- I am incredibly picky about pizza. In my opinion, there are only two types of pizza: amazing and not-worth-eating. There is no in-between. The pizza at Caffè Italiano's tiny pizzeria (next door to the Caffè Italiano Osteria and in the same street as Vivoli Gelato) is the first type: true Naples-style pizza with a perfect crust. There are only three kinds sold here: the classic Margherita, the Napoli with capers and anchovies, and the cheese-free Marinara. It is very small and very popular, so try to go early to get a table, or you can always order one to-go (da portare via). Tell the pizzaiolo Enzino that I sent you!
    Via dell'Isola delle Stinche, 11r.

  • 'O Munaciello -- If you are looking for more variety in your pizza, or a larger space for a group, then 'O Munaciello, in the Santo Spirito district, is a great option. Again, true Naples-style, wood-fired pizza, but with many more topping choices. It's in a renovated 17th-century convent, too, so there's plenty of atmosphere. This place is only open in the evenings, but it's open late -- until 1 a.m. each night. Via Maffia, 31r 

Aperitivo:

I love the Italian tradition of aperitivo, which means something quite different than it does in France. It still involves a light appetite-stimulating drink after work and before dinner (usually aperitivo time starts anywhere between 5 and 7 p.m.), but in Italy, your purchase of a drink often includes unlimited access to a buffet of wonderful food. When money was tight, my friends and I would often have "apericena" which basically means your aperitivo is so abbondante it serves as your dinner (cena). It's available at most places through Florence, from your corner bar to chic pubs and restaurants, but the following are some of my favorites:

Sandwiches/Quick On-the-Go Bites:

  • Da Nerbone - I absolutely love this institution on the lower level of the Mercato Centrale. They are best-known for their trippa alla fiorentina (Florentine-style tripe in tomato sauce), bollito (boiled beef), and lampredotto sandwiches -- you can ask for salsa verde or piccante (hot sauce) on your sandwich, or both (my option!), and normally it will be "bagnato" (dipped in meaty juices, much like a French Dip sandwich) before being handed to you, but you can ask them not to. You can also get all of these same meats on a platter, though, instead of in a sandwich, and all of their other dishes (pastas, secondi, etc.) are delicious and very modestly priced as well. There is also often a cart outside of the Mercato Centrale selling great trippa and lampredotto sandwiches, but I do not recall the name. It is a good second-choice option if Nerbone is either closed or out of trippa (it happens!). 
     
  • Antico Noe' -- this tiny sandwich shop in what my friends and I used to call "the crack alley" (technically its name is the Volta di San Piero, a short, arched alleyway between Borgo degli Albizi and Via dell'Oriuolo) makes amazing panini to order -- I particularly love porchetta (roast pork with garlic, sage and rosemary) with spinaci (steamed spinach) and a bit of piccante (hot sauce).
     
  • I Due Fratellini -- This tiny window in Via dei Cimatori sells wonderful little sandwiches and wines by the glass -- you eat them standing in the street, and there are little wooden shelves on the wall for you to rest your wine glass on while eating.  My favorite sandwich is the rucola and pecorino tartufato (truffled pecorino and fresh arugula) - Via dei Cimatori 38/r.

Gelato:

It makes me sad every time, the number of tourists I see in Florence waiting in line to buy awful, mass-produced factory gelato when you can have truly amazing, artigianale gelato hand-made with quality ingredients all around town. Some hints on how to tell the difference: Is the gelato piled high and sculpted into crazy shapes and topped with plastic fruit? Probably not artigianale. Is the banana gelato bright yellow? Is the pistacchio gelato bright green? Probably not artigianale. Truly hand-made gelato doesn't need to rely on artificial colors and flavors or flashy presentation.

  • My favorite gelateria in Florence is Gelateria de' Medici, but since it's a bit outside of the city center, near the Fortezza da Basso, many visitors on a limited schedule might not be able to make it there (though I do think it's worth it!). I think that both their fruit sorbetti and cream flavors are wonderful, and they have unusual flavors that you will not find in most gelaterie (such a dark chocolate and jasmine, or gorgonzola and pear).
     
  • My second favorite is La Carraia, which is just at the Oltrarno end of the Ponte alla Carraia bridge, south of the Arno river. Though I found the owner a bit gruff and unfriendly, the gelato is consistently excellent (here I find the cream flavors, such as pistacchio (just a note: in Italian, this is pronounced: pee-STAH-key-oh, not pi-STA-shee-oh), amarena (sour black cherry) and Bacio (chocolate-hazelnut), particularly excellent). I'm not the only one who's noticed the high quality of their gelato, clearly, as their popularity has skyrocketed in recent years and they've expanded to another location in Florence, and (somewhat bizarrely), will apparently soon have a branch in Saudia Arabia.
     
  • Vivoli is perhaps the best-known (and most tourist-mobbed) gelateria in Florence. It helps that it's so central (near Piazza Santa Croce). I had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Vivoli himself, while he was still alive, and receive a personal tour of their kitchens and explanation of their gelato-making process. Here I find the fruit flavors are the best, with sorbetti such as cocomero (watermelon), bananapompelmo rosa (pink grapefruit) albicocca (apricot), fichi (fig), pear-caramel (pera caramello) and melone (cantaloupe) really shining.
     

Pastries and Sweets:

  • I Dolci di Patrizio Cosi (Piazza Gaetano Salvemini, 15) - this is my favorite pastry shop in Florence. Their cream puffs and eclairs filled with pistachio cream are particularly heavenly.
     
  • Rivoire, in Piazza della Signoria, is famous for their hot chocolate, so thick and rich you can eat it with a spoon.
     
  • Vestri - This tiny chocolate shop makes amazing chocolates, and their hot chocolate and gelato is wonderful as well.

Coffee:

Lucky you! You're in Italy, so you can get excellent espresso just about anywhere. But these are some of my favorite places in Florence. Note that you often need to pay at the cassa (cashier) first, then present your receipt at the bar to order your coffee, and that drinking your coffee standing at the bar will cost a great deal less than sitting at a table.

  • Historic Robiglio has good coffee and pastries (try budino di riso, a typically Tuscan treat -- rice pudding flavored with lemon zest baked in a little tart), there are a few different branches around town.
     
  • For an elegant Belle Époque experience, try any of the famous, storied bars in Piazza della Repubblica, such as I Gilli and Le Giubbe Rosse.  
     
  • Ditta Artigianale  is a new independent coffee roaster and cafe. You can get as coffee-nerd-y as you like here with pour-overs and Aeropress shots. They also serve light, inventive fare. It's the kind of place that's become almost run-of-the-mill in San Francisco, NYC or London, but in Florence, this is game-changing.
     

Things to Do:

  • Mercato Centrale -- The central market, or Mercato di San Lorenzo, is a historic iron-and-glass covered food market built in 1874. Until recently, the first floor held the butcher, fishmonger, and prepared food stalls, while the second level held all the produce stands. Now the second floor has gone through a dramatic transformation and become an Eataly-style food market with bars, gourmet food stands, a kitchen for cooking lessons, a shop and a food bookstore. Honestly, I'm not quite sure yet how I feel about it. It's very modern, upscale, and sophisticated, and a big attraction for tourists and Florentines alike, but I do miss the old, traditional setup. Call me old-fashioned!
     
  • Divina Cucina -- My good friend Judy Witts Francini is, like me, from California, but she has been living in Tuscany for more than 30 years. She leads wonderful cooking classes, market tours, and food tours in Florence and Tuscany as well as other Italian regions. If you plan to travel through the Chianti wine country, she's also written a terrific app for the region:  Chianti Food & Wine for iPhone & Androids.
     
  • Eataly -- Florence now has its own Eataly as well. I must say that, while I think that Eataly in the U.S. is a great thing (I particularly love the one in NYC and the gelato that they sell), it makes less sense to me in Italy, where you can get high-quality Italian ingredients anywhere. But if it is your thing, it's there!
     
  • De Gustibus -- Another group of friends runs De Gustibus, which organizes wine and food tours and farm-to-table dinners throughout Tuscany. They've also just opened a modern, locavore bistrot in Florence called Culinaria
     
  • Look for posters around town for sagre -- these are food festivals, usually taking place outside of town in the countryside, celebrating whatever foods happen to be in season (for example: funghi porcini, porcini mushrooms). They are always full of delicious and very reasonably priced dishes, if you have a car or know somebody with one to take you there! Sometimes there will be music and dancing, too.

Where to Stay:

  • Finally, my good friend Piero rents out a gorgeous, completely renovated self-catering apartment in a historic building smack dab in the city center -- Suite Deluxe -- you cannot get any more convenient than this. (Tell him I sent you!)
     

A few notes on dining in Italy: 

  1. Hours. Restaurants that stay open all day are the exception, not the rule, in Italy. Usually you have a small window of opportunity for lunch (between approximately noon and 3:30 p.m.) and before or after that, you are out of luck. Be sure not to miss the lunch hours or you will have to wait until 7 p.m., when most restaurants open for dinner! Italians generally dine later, having lunch around 1 p.m. and dinner as late as 9 or 10 p.m. Lunch is often more abundant, with multiple courses, while dinner is often lighter, unless it's a special occasion.
     
  2. Courses. You don't really have to order an antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, etc., etc., though usually the primi (pasta or soup dishes) will be a much smaller portion than might be served in an Italian restaurant in the U.S. You can order one or two courses, or mix-and-match as you please, however the antipasti will be served first, and then the primo, in order of courses. A salad is considered a "contorno", so it will be served together with the secondo, if you order one. It is not considered an appetizer, however, so it will not be served before all your other dishes, the way a salad is served in the U.S. If you really want to go the whole hog (and for a special occasion, why not?), then the course order is: antipasto, primo, secondo + contorno (served together), formaggio (cheese) or dolce (dessert), frutta (fresh fruit), caffèdigestivo (limoncello or nocino or perhaps a grappa).
     
  3. CoffeeAfter a meal, you can order an espresso or at most, a caffè macchiato, with a touch of foam -- but cappuccinos and caffè lattes are for breakfast only! And no type of coffee is intended to be drunk together with a meal. Unless it's a cappuccino or caffè latte, which you can have together with your morning pastry for breakfast. 
     
  4. Types of eateries. Handwritten on Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori's paper menus there are a few rules in English: "NO PIZZA. NO STEAK. NO ICE. NO TAKEAWAY. NO CAPPUCCINO." which tells me that these are the most common (and most irritating) requests that Florentine eateries receive from tourists. In fact, if a place has not specified itself as a "pizzeria," then no, they will not serve pizza. Not all restaurants make steak, either. You just need to look at their menu and the type of place it is. 
     
  5. Ice. Europeans in general are not as obsessed with ice as Americans are. I'm not sure from whence this obsession stems, but just accept that ice is hard to come by in Europe, yes, even in summer during a heat wave. Any water you order will not be served with ice in it. You might get a few ice cubes in a cocktail or soda, but you should not expect every restaurant to have it and supply it on demand.
     
  6. Bread. Bread is almost always served, and in fact many restaurants will automatically tack a charge onto your bill (usually not more than 1 euro) for "pane" (bread). However, it will not be served before your meal with a dipping sauce of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It is not intended to be eaten by itself. It's for eating with your food. Tuscan bread is traditionally made without salt, which makes it particularly dry and flavorless. This is puzzling until you have it together with extremely salty salumi such as prosciutto and the wonderful local salamis, or use it to sop up the rest of your flavorful sauce at the end of a meal (this is called "fare la scarpetta" ("making the little shoe") and is not frowned upon).
     
  7. To-Go/Takeaway. Just generally not done. Portions are much smaller in Italy any case, and the food is so good, it is unlikely you will have leftovers at the end of your meal! But if you do, it is not done to ask for a doggy-bag to take the rest home. 
     
  8. Tipping. This is especially confusing for Americans who have the idea that tipping is obligatory deeply ingrained. Most restaurants will charge a "coperto" (cover charge) for each diner, and often for the bread they serve with your meal as well. In short: no, you don't have to tip, though if the service was good, feel free to round the bill up at the end or leave a euro or two for your server. But by no means is a minimum or a certain percentage required. I know, it feels wrong. It takes years to get over the guilty feeling of not leaving a large-enough tip!
     

[Note on addresses: an "r" after a street number stands for "rosso" or "red" and means that there will be two of that same address number on the street -- one in black and one in red -- look for the red one if you have an address followed by "r" -- potentially confusing!]