Italian food is famous worldwide, but before you can understand the food, you first need to understand the country’s history and geography. Florence, in Tuscany, has a medieval history that influences the traditional staples of Florentine and Tuscan cuisine. Read our guide to the foods you must try on your trip to Florence.
Of course this list kicks off with Florence’s most famous dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina, or Florentine steak. It’s a large t-bone cut weighing anywhere from 2-8 pounds (1-4 kilograms), fire-grilled on the outside and pink and bloody on the inside, seasoned with salt, pepper, a squeeze of lemon and traditionally cooked over roasted chestnuts for a smoky flavour. Whatever you do, do not ask the chef to cook the steak to your liking. You wouldn’t want to offend the chef or the Florentine tradition as Florentine steak is made one way, and one way only. Be sure to share with a friend, because it is huge. Its price is per kilo, which is stated on the menu, and it’s customary for the server to bring the uncooked beef to the table before the chef cooks it, so you can both admire and approve your soon-to-be dinner.
This is one of those historical, common folk dishes from Florence’s medieval period. Florentines seem to be divided when it comes to this street food dish; some love it, some hate it. It is a sandwich made with thinly sliced tripe (intestines) that’s been boiled in broth, seasoned, and served either on a plate or in a sandwich. You can order it with spicy red sauce or herbal green sauce, or even bagnato (with wet bread, and little bit of gravy) from outdoor markets or street vendors around the city.
Papardelle is a long, wide, flat pasta that is usually paired with a heavy sauce, such as a ragu. This dish has a few variations in regards to the type of meat in the ragu. Cinghiale is wild boar (traditionally wild, but now usually made with free-range boars on a farm), but the sauce can also be made with wild hare, goose, or rabbit. Wild boar meat is surprisingly delicious, with a rich flavour and texture that makes for a luxurious ragu.
Italy is famous for gelato, but Florence in particular has some of the best. When looking for good gelato in Italy, avoid the sellers you see on the streets, trying to attract tourists with mountains of bright, artificially coloured gelato, piled high with over-the-top garnishes. Small batch is the way to go. Another little secret from a gelato connoisseur is if the colour of the pistachio flavour is anything brighter than a dull greenish brown, keep walking—it’s not good, quality, handmade gelato. You deserve better.
This dish can be found almost anywhere in Florence since it contains two delicious local ingredients, truffle mushrooms and procini mushrooms. Tagliatelle simply means “cuts”, since the pasta is thin, long and flatter than fettucine pasta and can come is different sizes. The pasta is tossed in the mushroom sauce, and pieces of the vegetables serve as a texture compliment. The combination of these two mushrooms makes for a fantastically flavourful, yet simple dish.
This is simply an appetiser platter with assorted types of bruschetta, which are small pieces of Tuscan bread topped with different sauces, purees, or vegetable salsas. One of the most traditional antipasto toscano is a chicken liver paté on top of a piece of crunchy Tuscan bread. Also order tagliere (a Tuscan meat and cheese board) and try a mix of everything as your starter when you go out to dinner in Florence.
Literally translated as “reheated”, this traditional Tuscan dish is a soup made with stale bread, tomatoes, beans (usually cannelli) and any other in season vegetables, along with some herbs. Pappa al Pomodoro is another dish using the same ingredients, but served mashed together, and cold, similar to the Spanish Gazpacho, but less liquid. What started as common peasant dishes of the medieval period, using anything people had in the house, are now some of Florence’s most hearty comfort foods.
You may notice that the bread served at your table as you’re waiting for your meal in Florence isn’t anything special and is a bit, well, bland. That’s normal. Florentine bread is very bland and dense with a hard crunchy crust. This is due to the fact that it is traditionally made without salt. It is said that back in the Medici period, there was a feud between Pisa, a large port city in Tuscany, and the Medici-owned area of Florence. Because of this feud, Pisa cut off the supply of salt to any lands owned by the Medicis as revenge and show of power, forcing the common population to go without and thus giving us Florence’s typical bread. They still use the salt-free recipe today, even with the access to salt. Italians love their traditions.
Unlike Florentine bread’s lack of salt, this salty bread is quite flavourful. Similar to what most people know as focaccia bread, the Tuscans do it differently, using more salt and oil to give this thin, smashed bread the token look and flavour of what they call schiacciata meaning “smashed”. This bread is used to make sandwiches or eaten alone before dinner or as a salty afternoon snack. It can be also topped with herbs, baked with olives or cheese on top, or even baked with grapes throughout (a traditional dessert of the medieval period).
Although not unique to Florence or even Italy, you have to try an Italian croissant when you’re in Florence. A typical Italian breakfast is a pastry, commonly a cornetto (Italian for croissant), eaten while standing at the bar before sipping then gulping down a cappuccino. The Florentines love them stuffed with apricot jam (albicocca), blackberry jam (mora), wildberry jam (frutti di bosco), or with honey (miele), cream (crema), chocolate (cioccolato), and even Nutella. Almost every dessert you find in Florence will have this selection of flavours. Obviously coffee in Italy is a must. Order a normale (a single shot of espresso), a macchiato (shot of espresso with a dash of steamed milk), or a cappuccino (a single shot of espresso with milk). Italy uses milk steamed to a creamy perfection instead of foam. Delicious!
Similar to the wild boar ragu, this pasta is traditional around Tuscany. Pici is a hand-rolled fat spaghetti type of pasta. The sauce is made with another type of wild boar from Siena, which is a smaller animal, with a different flavour. The pici pasta is dense, heavy and a bit chewy, which is why the portions are small. When in Tuscany, do give this a try.
Of course we can’t forget to mention the famous Italian meat and cheese platter that can be found all over Florence. Great as an appetiser, a light meal in the summer, or even just a snack to taste different meats and cheeses with a friend. Prosciutto, salami, and a Florentine salami, finnochiona (made with pieces of fennel for a different flavour and consistency than traditional salami) usually feature, plus different types of pecorino cheeses (sheep’s milk cheese). Bigger platters have grilled vegetables, slices of Tuscan bread, and sometimes a marmalade or honey.
Although the name reminds you of the salty bread mentioned above, this is actually the name of a sweet Florentine cake. Rectangular in shape, this soft, spongy yellow cake is made in one flat layer, covered in powdered sugar, and is easily identified by the large fleur-de-lys stencilled in cocoa powder on top. Traditionally eaten around the time of Carnivale, this cake can be found in just about every bakery in the city at any given time of year and has become a staple of Florentine desserts.
Speaking of classic desserts in Florence, cantucci are known all over the world simply as biscotti, but in Italian that is actually the generic word for cookies. These small almond cookies can be found anywhere and also have modern variations including being made with hazelnuts or pistachios in place of almonds. As a dessert, the classic almond cookies are served with a type of thick amber coloured dessert wine called Vin Santo. Dip the cookies in the wine to soak up the wine and soften them, then enjoy.
We can’t talk about Florence and Tuscany without mentioning wine, of course. The region of Chianti (a mountain range in the centre of the region of Tuscany) produces Italy’s most well known and highest quality red wine, and is surprisingly good value. Brunello is another great red produced in Montalcino, a small Tuscan hilltop town, but has a higher price, usually because it is made with 100 percent Sangiovese grapes (the same grapes that make up the majority of Chianti wines). If you don’t know much about wine, don’t worry, you really can’t go wrong ordering a local wine in Florence. If you prefer a white wine, a great local white is Vernace from San Gimignano, an adorable and historical medieval town still well preserved inside its stone city walls. If you’re not much of a wine connoisseur, the house wine will be just fine, or ask your server for some advice. If you love wine, you can also do a mini wine tasting at most bars or restaurants if you ask.