Qui Se Mangia Bene: Mercato Centrale, Firenze

One of the nice things about the rather “loose” schedule at the Chianti Classico anteprima event in Florence last week is that it was a cinch to throw down pencil and tasting book and leave.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Mercato Centrale (or Central Market, a rather obvious translation) in Florence’s borgo San Lorenzo is a must stop on any visit to that city. And if you’re like me and hold food and wine in a similar regard as say sculpture and painting, then the Mercato Centrale is something like visiting the Uffizi. I wasn’t going to miss it, not for any old wine tasting.

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(Above: Florence’s Mercato Centrale. The vendors who pack the tight streets beside the market sell mostly leather goods, as well as some designer knock-offs.)

This massive dual-level building was designed by architect Giuseppe Mengoni, who was responsible for similarly grand 19th century buildings throughout Italy. Construction on the Mercato began around 1870 was finished in 1874 as part of a larger program of urban renewal that came with the city of Florence’s brief stint as the Italian capital during the late 1860s. There’s an informative historical write up here.

Today the market is a hub of commerce and humanity. The surrounding neighborhood and the market itself are always packed, and many Florentine’s do their daily shopping here. Me too, when I lived here; if not the most convenient place to shop, it was certainly the most fun.

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Il cuore della città. Fruit and vegetable vendors are located upstairs; butchers and stalls selling cured meats, olive oils, cheeses and other staples like pasta and wine make up the ground floor.

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The market possesses a vibrancy and life (and sense of humor) that makes it essential to daily Florentine existence.

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Also worth visiting, and my primary motivation for breaking away from the tasting to hit the market in the first place, is the Nerbone tavola calda (literally a hot table, or lunch counter). This place is neither a secret nor off the tourist path, but the locals and workers from the market could care less. They flock here because the place rocks it out with specialties like the Tuscan bread stew ribollita and, of course, tripe. Specifically they serve up a delicious panino filled with lampredotto bollito, a type of tripe that comes from the abomasum, the fourth stomach in ruminants (also the source of rennet).

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The counter at Nerbone is all bustle during the market’s lunch hour. This is honest, working class Italian food at its best and so completely delicious that you should go way out of your way to eat there. Twice.

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(Above: my panino con lampredotto bollito. I went a little crazy and had it topped with both salsa verde and salsa piccante; it was killer with a glass of juicy primitivo di Manduria.)

*The Washington Post has an enjoyable article on the Florentine love affair with tripe here.

Fuso Aereo + Vino = Equilibro (or I *Heart* Firenze)

I should’ve taken the blue pill…

After a long, long day traveling–delays, canceled flights, and being stuck next to a very stinky fellow passenger for 11 hours–I decided to hit the town.

Apart from a few streets around the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio, Florence is refreshingly free of tourists these days. There are some advantages to winter travel, if you don’t mind the cold of course. But back to Florence. Man, this place is filled with memories! I studied here in college (at least I got credit for being here) and so every alleyway and vista brings up a flood of emotion and reflective thought. So with that in mind, I opted for memory-overload and climbed the 414 steps to the top of the Duomo’s campanile, or bell tower.

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The massive dome on Florence’s cathedral was completed in 1436; designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, it’s one of the marvels of Renaissance Italy. It’s also huge, easily dwarfing all buildings in the area. Note the shadow of the campanile falling across the dome.

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Looking southish over Florence, with the Bargello on the left and Palazzo Vecchio to the right. High in the background to the left is the Piazza Michelangelo, where I saw an epic Radiohead concert in 2003, the first time I’d been back to Florence since studying there in the late 90s.

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That’s the church of San Lorenzo in the foreground and the big domed building tacked onto the end is the Medici family tomb. The large building you can see with the metal roof is Florence’s outstanding Mercato Centrale. A must stop on any visit!

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A view of Palazzo Vecchio from inside the campanile.

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Looking down the inside of the campanile from about half way up.

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I grew up near Oxnard, California. How funny to find the city’s name graffitied on the campanile (I believe I took this exact photo while I was studying in Florence oh so long ago).

After climbing down from the tower and indulging an awesome gelato at Perché Non, I headed over to the Zanobini wine shop near the Mercato Centrale. Starting in the afternoon, well, anytime they want to I guess, Mario and Simone Zanobini receive customers directly at their small bar and pour glasses of their own Chianti Classico, as well as other Tuscan wines. Mario suggested that I stay for a few glasses to trying to dodge the fuso aereo (Italian for jet lag).

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The small wine bar at Zanobini is filled nightly with regulars rasping away in their fiorentino accents (bascially drop the “c” from any word and you’ve got it; ‘Coca-Cola’ becomes ‘Oha-Ola’, etc.). This evening there was a lot of talk about the upcoming Italian elections in the spring, as well as a controversial proposal for a new tram line in the center of Florence.

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Besides a lovely selection of wine, Zanobini has a wall of amari from Italy and beyond. Damn, I wish I’d brought a stryofoam wine shipper on this trip!