One of my favorite things to do when I travel is check out the local food markets. My partner doesn’t understand why since I go to these markets even when I don’t need any produce and the markets in the same city tend to be similar. I don’t have a logical response, but in the way that other people feel the need to check out museums and churches to get to know a city, I feel compelled to check out food markets. Chalk it up to FOMA I guess! So, here are my reviews for three Tuscan markets.
Siena Wednesday Market
The Siena Wednesday market (there are other ones throughout the week all over the city) proved to be special and memorable, in part due to the difficulty we had in finding any food there! The market is located on Viale Cesare Maceari and XXV Aprile between Fortezza and Piazza Gramsci and it is MASSIVE. I’m talking on par with the Sunday market in Bangkok! We got there and saw a sea of stands selling junk – tshirts, shoes, belts, and other miscellaneous items. We walked through rows and rows of this having a conversation that went like this “I don’t think there’s any food here. Are you sure it’s a food market?” “Yes – I only put food markets on our itinerary.” “But there is no food anywhere. Look, it’s all stuff.” “But I have been researching our trip for months. How could I have gotten this wrong?” “There are lots of people selling vegetable seedlings. Is that the food you read about?” “No! Seedlings are not food. This is supposed to be a food market.” This went on for about twenty minutes at which point we retreated to a bench.
Picture this – I am sitting there despondently when I see a woman with a banana in her bag. Since the one stand we saw selling fruit did not have bananas, this was a sure sign that we had missed something, which I excitedly explained to my partner. He, however, is not impressed by my Sherlock Holmes discovery since my credibility vanished with my insistence that this was a food market despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Ten minutes pass by silently as I contemplate how I could have gotten this wrong. Then, I see a man and exclaim that I see a steak in his bag. Upon closer inspection, the “steak” turns out to be a pair of sneakers. At this point, my partner begins looking for the nearest psych institution, but then, I see a woman with apples and bananas and I become determined to find the source of this fruit that at this point, seems to be mocking me. So off we go to find the mysterious source of the sporadic fruit sightings.
Lo and behold, we find that there is a ramp that leads to under a bridge where there are ROWS AND ROWS of produce and prepared foods – gorgeous purple artichokes, blocks of cheese, salami, fried polenta. Hurray! It was here that I ate the most delicious tomato-y tomato in a country where genetically modified produce is still uncommon. This market was definitely worth the search and the sleuthing.
San Lorenzo Market
The San Lorenzo market in Florence is very well known, very touristy, and very crowded. There are tons of vendors outside trying to sell you leather goods, which is annoying and claustrophobia-inducing. The market itself has a pretty impressive selection of produce and food products, but has become overpriced over the years and now caters to tourists.
Mercato di Sant’ambrogio
The Mercato di Sant’ambrogio in Florence was the complete opposite of the San Lorenzo market. We were the only tourists there and it was obvious that people thought it was odd that we were there. The produce didn’t look as good as the Siena Wednesday market, other than some gorgeous radishes, but we found a great little stand that sold pizza by the weight. We had some pizza with tomatoes and again impressed by how tomato-y the tomatoes in Italy were.
Our favorite food-related place in Siena was Consorzio Agrario Siena. It’s a local co-operative that sells lots of great local stuff. I even did a wine tasting in the store one day. We ended up coming here many, many times to get different kinds of cheese, bread, tartufo salsa, rosemary crackers, and produce.
They even sold prosciutto baby food!
Antica Pizzicheria al Palazzo della Chigiana (Via di Citta 93) is a deli that is touristy for foodies. You probably won’t find it mentioned in Lonely Planet or Rick Steve’s, but any book about food in Italy will mention this deli and their paninis. The man working was very nice and gave me some samples of different spreads on a piece of cheese. Yes, that’s right, not on bread or a cracker, but on cheese! I really love Italy 🙂
Caffe Nannini (Via Banchi di Sopra 24) is a very famous bakery near the main square. I tried a few things there and think it’s overrated. Staff was rude and pastries were overpriced. It feels like a place that was once a great, local favorite that now caters to tourists. What a shame.
Forno dei Galli (Via dei Termini 45) is a simple bakery with pretty good pizza and the famous ricciardelli cookie (made with marzipan). These cookies are a little too sweet for me, but if you like them, Forno dei Galli has very good ones. Skip the madness at Nannini and come here.
Focacceria Pugi is NOT TO BE MISSED. They have the BEST BEST BEST focaccia pizza with tomatoes and arugula. Their focaccia and other savory treats are also very good. So good, in fact, that on our way from Bologna to Rome at the end of our trip, we had a 40 minute layover in the Rome train station, during which time I sprinted to Pugi (a 20 minute walk from the train station!) to get focaccia for our train ride back to Rome.
Gelaterie Carabe is an adorable, small shop that sells extremely fresh gelato and is also known for its granita. I was fortunate enough to meet the owner, Antonio, after I saw him sniffing strawberries to determine whether they would make the gelato cut! What a ham!
Vivoli (Via Isola delle Stinche, 7r) also has excellent gelato. We were more impressed with the fruit flavors that were bursting with fresh fruit flavor (pear ginger, grapefruit, strawberry, white chocolate) than the creamy ones, but those were good too.
La Mangiatoia (Piazza San Felice 8r) had perfect gnocchi with pretty good sauce. The consistency of the gnocchi was excellent and I have had lots of homemade gnocchi made by people with Italian grandmas! They also had a terrifically moist apple cake with a crunchy, sugary topping that you must try.
I Tarocchi (Via dei Renai 12r) had yummy pici pasta and nice outdoor seating, but the food wasn’t that remarkable.
We took a short train ride from Florence to Prato to visit a friend of mine from high school who has been living there with his family for a few years. The town is beautiful, but what was most impressive was that they had their very own brick pizza oven! It was such a nice change of pace to hang out and have a delicious home cooked meal accompanied by a variety of local wines (my friend is getting his Italian sommelier certification!).
And yes, stay tuned for a post about DIY pizza ovens or Berkeley permitting requirements dash my dreams of my own pizza oven 🙂
I had an incredible cod dish at Da Giulio (Via delle Conce 45, Piazza San Donato). It’s called Baccala (cod) con I Porri (leeks). It didn’t look particularly appetizing as the braised leeks took on a muted green color, but it was delicious. It also came with a deep fried piece of polenta, which was crunchy on the outside, softy and creamy on the inside. Yum! Da Giulio is also supposed to have good matuffi (cornmeal gnocchi), but I couldn’t convince my partner to get that, so you’ll just have to go try that on your own and let me know how it is.
Pasticceria Marino Taddeucci (Piazza San Michel 34) had a pastry made of rice that tasted kind of like a rice pudding cake. It was unique and very good. They also sell the well known Lucchesi buccellato, a circular loaf made with flour, sultanas, aniseed seeds and sugar, but I didn’t try it because it was only sold in a humongous size.
Besides the food, I highly recommend visiting Lucca for at least a day. It’s a charming city surrounded by an intact wall that is fun to explore by bike.
Stay tuned for food news from Bologna.