Half-Japanese half-Australian and the daughter of a diplomat, I have spent two-thirds of my life living in countries other than my own – from China to the US.
Thirteen years ago, on a whim, I ended up in Florence, Italy. Here, I fell in love with a handsome local – a sommelier and my ideal gastronomic partner in crime.
We live in a tiny flat with a tiny kitchen in the hills of Florence. And living in Tuscany has taught me something about Italian cuisine – that it doesn’t really exist; rather, there are 20 regional cuisines and thousands of provincial cuisines.
I started my blog in December 2010, as a way to document my passion for Tuscan food traditions, a place to share travel stories and the anecdotes, techniques, and history behind regional recipes.
Here I share a few of my favourite places (and treats!) to experience in my home city…
Fifteen minutes outside of bustling Florence is this charming villa of Valdirose, where Irene Berni grew up. She runs the B&B with her husband Paolo (and dog Otto). Paolo does a lot of the beautiful handiwork like restoring old furniture and recreating perfectly worn tabletops, or setting up traditional drywall terraces in their small olive grove, while Irene bakes heavenly Tuscan cakes and other good things for breakfast.
The pared-back rooms are decorated with rustic elements and details that recall family heirlooms. It’s a home away from home, made and run with love – the only problem is, you may just find it hard to get up and leave!
This upscale, organic Bottega market near the Sant’Ambrogio markets was created by larger than life Florentine chef Fabio Picchi (owner of Cibreo restaurant). His goal was to supply Florence with well-chosen local, organic fruit and vegetables, but also ancient, heirloom fruit trees (displayed on the store’s upstairs terrace, do go have a look) as well as seedlings and natural wines. The cheese counter and bakery will have you wanting to buy everything and immediately start cooking – or devouring it, picnic-style, anywhere remotely suitable.
The bread is something special – particularly Picchi’s signature loaf, made of a mixture of Tuscan, Sicilian and Piemontesi ancient grains, called ‘pane santo’, aka holy bread. And if you’re looking for packaged goodies to take home, the best quality dried legumes, pasta and tins of everything Italy does best line the shelves – I can never resist grabbing a bar of Bonajuto chocolate from Modica, Sicily, an ancient, cold-worked chocolate made of just three ingredients (cocoa mass, sugar, and vanilla), on the way out.
Despite what you may think, good coffee is not necessarily a given in Florence (especially for an Australian, we really are spoiled with the best coffee in the world). Lately, though, a few new trendy places have opened that even serve antipodean Flat Whites! Although they’re extremely popular amongst the locals, I still like to do the Italian ritual – head to an old bar, order my coffee at the counter and enjoy it standing, in a few moments, perhaps with a sticky-topped raisin and rosemary bun (pandiramerino, a true Florentine treat).
One of my favourite places for this is Cantinetta di Verrazzano. It’s as central as you can get, squeezed on a side street between the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, and the coffee that comes out of their beautiful copper machine is always good. Their bakery is also excellent and they have a good choice of sweet and savoury treats, especially the focaccia, which is baked onsite and filled or topped with seasonal goodies like zucchini flowers, fresh artichokes or radicchio.
Chances are you’ve come to Florence to admire the Renaissance art and architecture, it’s what this city does best. But if you’d like to see something a bit different, there is the unique and beautifully designed Numeroventi, a space made for creative collaboration in the form of apartments, a gallery and an artist residency. It was founded by Martino Di Napoli Rampolla, who, returning to Florence after working as a graphic designer in Barcelona and Belgium, found that something was missing here for contemporary artists and designers. He had the perfect location on hand – an old syrup factory from 1832 that belonged to his grandfather’s uncle, and is smack bang in the centre of Florence.
Together with interior designer (and co-founder of Openhouse magazine), Andrew Trotter, the rooms were given a new lease of life, and furnished with modern and vintage pieces. On the top floor is the gallery where artists in residence work and display their creations – visits by appointment or keep an eye out for Numeroventi’s Open Days.
Florence has a handful of very good wine bars that are worth seeking out, and Il Santino, housed in a Renaissance palazzo in one of my favourite quarters of Florence, is one of them. Like most good wine bars, it’s a tiny, intimate spot that fills during the aperitivo hour, that moment just after work and just before dinner when you catch up with friends and relax over a glass of wine and something to nibble on (when it’s busy you can even stand on the street, where you’ll find a little ledge outside to pop your wine glass).
For those who have trouble deciding what to pick, the menu has pairings for certain wines by the glass with the ideal morsel (a combination I love is the mortadella di Prato, a local Tuscan style of mortadella, with a bubbly Franciacorta), otherwise you may be tempted by the selection of cheeses in the counter or the hanging salumi and prosciutto, which are sliced to order, or perhaps something from their list of small dishes like a carpaccio with pecorino or chicken liver terrine. Many also like to perch here while waiting for a table at their popular restaurant next door, Il Santo Bevitore, which buzzes with the same lively yet laid-back vibe.
Most people may not realise that Florence is steaming hot for a good six months of the year. Come during the Summer months (and often, the ones on either side that are supposed to be Spring or Autumn) and you’ll find yourself sweltering amongst the pietra serena stones all day and night. Gelato is a must.
While there are plenty of great examples of gelaterie around town, there are also plenty of duds. One that I love to pop into is the tiny artisan gelateria in Piazza della Passera, not least for a visit to this cute piazza, one of the few in Florence where you can sit peacefully with a gelato or a spritz and really not feel like a tourist. Other than the classics, most of the flavours – subtle, not too sweet, and refreshing – change often, according to the season and availability. Find single flavours like zabaione, persimmon, liquorice or fig, for example, or try one of the menu’s mainstays, Monna Lisa, made of a custard base with applesauce, orange blossom water, cognac-soaked raisins, and walnuts.
Emiko Davies has written two cookbooks ‘about real Tuscan food’, Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence and Acquacotta, and is currently working on her third, due out early next year.
Emiko will soon be joining us for a month-long stint sharing authentic Italian recipes for our weekly food column – stay tuned!