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A Primer On Eating Out in Florence, Italy (Chapter 1)

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

Having spent several months a year living in Florence, right in the center of the city, (100 meters from the Duomo and a block and a half from the David), I am going to provide information more useful to first- or second-time visitors to Florence. However, i hope that even those of you who have been to Florence many times will pick up a tidbit or two.

It is almost impossible not to have great food provided if you go to the right places and eat the right dishes. The best way to know where to go and what to order is by getting recommendations from someone who lives in Florence and has first hand experience with the restaurants.

Do not rely on hotel concierges to make recommendations. Almost all of them get kickbacks from the places they send you. If they do not (because not every restaurant owner is willing to pay), the concierge will try to talk you out of going.

The concierge will also tell you that you need a taxi because if they call a taxi, the driver tips the concierge. Florence is a walking city. It is easy to find your way and it is safe to walk at night. The only real danger are the pickpockets, who are mostly gypsies and easy to spot. Just stay away from them, and make sure your valuables are not easy to reach as the pickpockets are really experts. Take a map, but if you keep in mind where the river is located, the Duomo, as well as Signoria and Republica squares, you will do fine.. It is different across the river on the Pitti Palace side, which i will write about separately.

Most of the Florentines are very, very friendly and speak English. If you ask them for directions, many will even walk you to wherever you're going, or at least part of the way so it's impossible for you to get lost. A smile starts with a smile, and if you are friendly and first say "hello" or "good evening", you will get all the help you need.

Most restaurants have specialties---dishes that they do particularly well. One has a great meal if one eats the best dishes. Occasionally, particularly if i know the owner or the waiter, i will ask for a recommendation, but generally I just ask others who have eaten at the particular establishment. I do that because some places will push the high profit items such as veal scaloppini. The Florentine steak is much more expensive but the profit to the restaurant is generally less.

Stay away from the tourist traps. Try to eat where the locals eat. There are some restaurants I will discuss that have both a substantial tourist and local trade. Generally, the tourists eat early at the first seating (7:30 pm-8 pm) and the locals at the second seating (around 9:30 pm).

By Florentine law, it is required that the menu be posted in the window in a conspicuous place. More importantly, if any dish is not fresh but frozen, that must be so indicated on the menu -- usually with an asterisk (*). It is best to stay away from any places where there are a lot of frozen dishes. One reason the food is so good in the good places is that it is absolutely fresh, most often bought that morning.

There are many popular places where a table has to be booked well in advance. However, i advise that before going either to lunch or dinner, you call to make a reservation. Do so even if the restaurant is not busy. It is a sign of respect. We frequent mostly small trattorias that are family run. The wife or the husband is the chef and the other is out front. Often their children work in the restaurant as well. You would not show up at a friends house and expect to be fed without first calling, so I always call even if it is a few minutes before I intend to arrive.

Most, but not all, kitchens open for lunch around 12:30 or 1 p.m. and close by 3 p.m., then open 7:30 or 8 p.m. for dinner. In most places it is not necessary to tip, but rarely do I not leave a few extra euros. Cash is king in Florence, and often one can get a discount for cash. It never hurts to politely ask if there is a better price for cash. There are a few restaurants that do not accept credit cards, and there are some restaurants where the seating is communal. Mr. Ferragamo would get his own table, but you would not. Of course, if you went with a party of, say, 8, and there is a table that seats 8, that is a different story. Two famous and very popular restaurants with communal seating are Sostanza and Il Latini. The former does not accept credit cards. Most places, Visa or Mastercard is preferred to American Express.

If you intend to return to a particular place, either on the same visit or on a subsequent trip, make a few notes of your visit, particularly the name of anyone who took care of you. Florence is the kind of place where there is not that much upward occupational mobility. Once one takes a job -- say as a waiter in a particular place -- they often stay their working lifetime.. More than a few times i have heard people remark that they were in a particular place on their honeymoon 20 years ago, went back and were amazed that they had the same waiter. That is not unusual at all.

At each meal you are expected to order bottled water -- either flat (naturale) or sparkling water (frizzante). It is inexpensive. We order one bottle of each , but it is not unusual to consume multiple bottles of water. Rarely, very rarely, is water or cold drinks served with ice. Very little ice is used. As the joke goes, "Why is there no ice?" "The lady with the recipe died".

What about wine? Almost every restaurant, but not all, has a house red wine, and may have a house white wine. The vast majority of wine sold is red, and it is not necessary to order an expensive bottle of wine. i sometimes do, and sometimes, if i know the owner well, i bring my own wine, often sharing it with the owner. I have never been asked to pay corkage, but remember: I live in Florence and am regarded as a local. It is not recommended that normal patrons seek to bring their own wine.

The cost of a bottle of wine in most restaurants is very reasonable. Sometimes it is less expensive than it is in the wine stores. In the United States, many places price their wines three, four or five times their cost. That is not true in Italy. For example, in Italy I have seen a particular wine I pay 60 euros for in a restaurant cost 100 euros in a wine store down the block, and $400 or more in a New York steakhouse.

Nonetheless, one can drink the vino rosso de la casa (house red wine) for no more than 10 or 15 euros and it is perfectly fine. Sometimes it comes in a bottle and sometimes in a carafe. Some places will put a large bottle of chianti on the table and let the patrons drink as much or as little as they want, then charge them only for what they drink. Do not expect the wine to be as good as a great Bordeaux or Burgundy wine, which are often consumed standing alone or with just a small amount of food. The house red wine is intended to be consumed with food and to stand up to the spiciest of sauces or most other foods.

There are some quite good Italian beers. Unless you know the place is highly recommended, it is always safer to drink bottled beer rather than tap beer. Tap beer requires a great deal of careful maintenance or the beer can contain too much bacteria.

Most meals will consist of a first course, a second course, and then dessert (dolce). Most frequently the first course is a pasta, but when I talk about particular restaurants, i will talk about other great first courses. Many times before the pasta, a plate of meats and cheeses is ordered.

Do not be in a hurry. Italians take their time eating, and it can take half an hour to get a check. Most of the food is simple and comes piping hot. It is not unusual for everyone not to be served at the same time. When whatever you ordered is ready, out it comes. There is always bread and olive oil on the table. Expect a small charge for the bread. Before adding salt, taste the food, because the Florentines use a huge amount of salt.

Eating out in Florence is almost always great fun. You will almost always be treated in a friendly and respectful way, but only if you are friendly and respectful. Often people find a place the first day of a five-day trip and go back multiple times.

I think all restaurants have both a menu in Italian and a menu in English. Some have menus in multiple other languages. My Italian is very, very limited, but i do read and speak "restaurant and food Italian" very well. I find it better to use the Italian menu because a lot is lost in most translations, and i understand the dish much better by reading the Italian. Sometimes you will see a dish "pasta Luigi" because the owner's name is Luigi. Then, you have to ask what it is, at least the first time.

In subsequent blogs, i will tell you where to go and what to eat, and give you other "hot tips" what will make your stay in Florence an unforgettable experience. Please let me know what, if anything, I said is helpful, and do not hesitate to tell me if your opinion is different than mine.

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Loved this primer on eating in Florence!

We were briefly in Florence years back. Definitely need to revisit. We will be going back to the Istrian peninsula in Croatia this April and much of this information applies.

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