Once again, all the thanks to enstarstarstar and RLJ for saving me from myself. Editors are your friends, guys.
In my last Italy post, I promised to report on the best sandwich and on the Tuscan countryside. Well, it turns it out takes a lot of words to talk about the best sandwich of a person’s vacation, plus I realized that you needed to learn about the best pizza. So we can talk about Tuscany next time. Today, it’s food you can eat with your hands.
Florence is full of little sandwich shops that cater to tourists, and they are stunningly mediocre. They all sell basically the same assortment of sandwiches, and at pretty much all of them I opted for tomato-and-mozzarella on uninspiring bread. I’d have preferred meat, but there isn’t really anything available on sandwiches other than fried chicken cutlets or Italian cold cuts, and while I love me some fried chicken cutlets, they’re not what I want to eat when I am in Italy. As for the other options, sad to say – I am an embarrassment to my people – I really dislike the majority of Italian cold cuts. Hence the steady diet of tomato and mozzarella. The sandwiches were pretty much all premade and boring, but I wasn’t seeking out delicious local shops, I was walking into the nearest tourist trap when my stomach said “eat, eat fucking now, EAT NOW.”
And then there is il Mercato Centrale. Il Mercato Centrale is where Florentines (Fiorentinos!) come to buy the ingredients to make their lunches and dinners, and it is a universe away from these little shops. It is a huge indoor marketplace with stalls selling fresh everything, from seafood to beef to fruit and veggies, trucked in every morning. (I took a more-or-less endless amount of pictures there, which you can see in my Florence photo album.) For all that I try not to be a pretentious liberal and put Europe on a pedestal, Italian food culture really is a cut above, and il Mercato Centrale is a great example of why and how. It’s therefore no surprise that I had the best sandwich of the trip at one of the little cafes tucked away inside.
There’s a little food court in il Mercato (also very good!), but the cafe where I got my sandwich – Caffe del Mercato – is tucked against the outside wall on the other side of the building. It has no seating and only a small variety of items, but something about it appealed to me. By chance, it was the first prepared food stand I saw when I entered il Mercato, and while making too big a deal out of the first thing you see is often a mistake, in this case I was totally right. This is the amazing sandwich I got at il Mercato:
As you can see, it’s very simple: tomato, mozzarella di bufala, basil, olive oil and pepper on salted focaccia. There were basically two factors that put this sandwich head and shoulders above any other sandwich I had on the trip: freshness and seasonings. As with the bruschetta at Trattoria Gabriello, the lion’s share of the flavor here came from the quality of the ingredients. The tomato was perfectly ripe and very juicy; the bread was salty, crunchy and flavorful; the mozzarella was the freshest and creamiest I’ve ever had (even better than the mozzarella I raved about at La Canonica in Rome). I honestly don’t know if mozzarella of this quality is available in the U.S. – my family buys only fresh mozzarella, and I’ve never had anything like it. The other factor which sent this sandwich into the stratosphere was its judicious use of seasonings. You may remember me complaining about the seeming Italian aversion to seasonings while I was in Rome. One of the reasons the majority of sandwiches I had in Florence were so bad was that they were unseasoned, often lacking even basil, which just doesn’t work when you have mediocre ingredients. (In my somewhat grumpy opinion, it’s not the best idea even with high quality ingredients. There’s a reason world economies were based around salt for centuries, and that reason isn’t because the entire world didn’t know how to cook.) My sandwich at Caffe del Mercato was composed of the highest-quality ingredients, and the simple combination of salt, pepper and olive oil enhanced and complimented the flavours of those ingredients to delicious effect. I also want to shout out the proprietor at Caffe del Mercato. Not only does he make a mean cappucino, he very kindly indulged my idiot-talian, was happy to converse with me, and even gave me a free shot of wine. At 11 AM. This sandwich from Caffe del Mercato was the last thing I ate in Florence (I ran back on the morning of our departure so I could have it a second time), and the proprietor’s friendliness made me even happier I did.
In addition to being the home of the best sandwich, Florence is also where I had the best pizza I’ve ever had. (You may be noticing a theme around Florence and food. That theme is “deliciousness everywhere.” It was easier to find good-quality, tasty food in Florence than in any of the other Italian cities we visited.) I ate a fair amount of pizza in Italy, and while it was all very good none of it even approached this tiny pizza joint on the north side of Piazza di San Giovanni (which is basically the western side of Piazza del Duomo) right across from the Battistero di San Giovanni. As far as I can tell it doesn’t have a name. It’s a very small storefront with almost no above-ground seating. The awning says Pizzeria a Taglio (which as far as I can tell means “takeaway pizza”), and the sign just says “PIZZA” in large letters, under which is written “Birreria, Sandwich, insalate.” (I figured all of this out using Google Street View, which some of you may have seen helped me figure out which restaurants in Rome my family ate at two months after the fact, and which is a totally terrifying and amazing tool.) Funnily enough, I actually ate at this pizza place on my first trip to Italy when I was 17, but had totally forgotten about it until I saw it again on this trip.
So, now you can find it. Why do you want to find it? Because it is fucking delicious. I don’t know if takeaway pizza normally works this way in Italy or not, but at this place they bake up the pizzas in huge slabs and you indicate how big of a rectangular piece you want. You can get a variety of toppings, but both times I chose “al pomodoro,” which means tomato but was more like a bruschetta topping on pizza. Go to this nameless pizza store and get some pizza al pomodoro and thank me later.