One of the most enjoyable, and frequent, day trips during our year in Italy was a simple trip down from the hills of Bagno a Ripoli into the city of Florence. On average, we made this trip twice a week, and it never felt routine, at any time of year. April was a particularly nice time to visit since tourism was still at a minimum and gentle light graced the ancient city.
We’d often park in Piazza Michelangelo, high above the sunken proper circled by hills. Within the compact confines, beyond the river and its beautiful bridges, were terracotta rooftops, a majestic skyline of domes and towers, open piazzas, and serpentine streets covered in shadow. After descending the steep path into town, we’d cross the Arno and enter the Piazza Santa Croce, a magnificent square with statues of historic Renaissance figures outside the namesake church that holds the tombs of Florentine luminaries. Water stains high on the storefront facades mark the dates of historic floods. There’s room to play in the open square, so Sophia would usually find some Italian kids to kick a soccer ball with or pigeons to chase. Around the corner from the piazza was a Belgian chocolate shop with a thick hot chocolate that made a great mid-morning snack.
Angling on narrow streets towards the city center, we’d hug the sidewalks and poke into boutiques, fingering fabrics and leather and shoes. Some stores were the width of a phone booth, with room for only one customer at a time. In the city center was the Piazza della Repubblica, a large square rimmed with crowded cafes and eateries. There was an antique carousel in one corner, and Sophia took many turns with each visit, her face full of glee with each looping round.
From there, we’d usually wander to the Mercato Centrale, an imposing edifice surrounded by open-air clothing shops of mostly leather products. Inside is a massive grocery mall of two floors: meat and fish on the bottom, fruit and vegetables and dry goods up top. On the ground level, there are endless rows of butchers offering standard cuts along with the organs and offal of animals that help define the culture of poverty that inspired much of what is true Tuscan cooking. Pig face anyone? How about a chicken neck? Lamb brain (I ate this once; it was awful)? Testicles? Tongues? Vertebrae? You name it. It could be pretty harrowing, so we usually took a glass of wine at one of the prepared food stalls, though we never ate in the Mercato Centrale because Mario’s Trattoria was nearby.
Mario’s is not a secret. Tourists and students and locals routinely wait outside it’s modest location caddy-corner to the Mercato. The seating is communal, and there’s hardly room to move. The kitchen is exposed and noisy. The daily menu is posted on the wall below the low ceiling. Mario’s has all the Tuscan treasures, from thick soups to hearty pastas to fruity wines in label-less bottles. Their specialty is the king of Italian steaks: Bistecca Fiorentina. The steak of the Florentines is a massive Porterhouse (from grass-fed white cows of the Tuscan countryside), seared on the outside and rare on the inside. It is hacked into hunks that are adorned with a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of coarse salt, a pinch of rosemary, and a swirl of extra virgin olive oil. There is nothing more to say, except that white beans in a light tomato sauce make the perfect accompaniment, along with bottles of that unlabeled red.
Sophia, who preferred Mario’s cheese ravioli to bistecca, would doze off in her stroller after lunch, leaving Pam and I to slowly walk the streets, taking turns ducking into museums or churches or other Florentine treasures not high on the list of a 2-year old Americana. An afternoon espresso would always help us through the rest of the day. When Sophia awoke, it would be gelato time, and we’d lick our way back over the Arno and up the hill to our car parked in the Piazza Michelangelo.
We had a dozen variations on this day trip to Florence, each as magical as the one described here. Ask me, and I’ll tell you about them, but it will cost you a glass of wine…
View of Florence from Piazza Michangelo