Eat Like a Local in Florence
Yep, the guidebooks are packed with restaurant recommendations. And when it comes to traveling in Italy, it's possible to find a lovely meal almost anywhere—from posh hotel dining rooms to tables in a piazza to holes in the wall whose, um, ambience leaves something to be desired. But we especially love the spots where Italians themselves are willing to wait in line for a meal—often off the radar of most visitors. In tourist-trampled Florence, a locals-only secret can be worth its weight in bistecca, so we picked that gorgeous Tuscan gem for the first installment in our Eat Your Way Across Italy series.
My favorite expert on all things edible in Italy is Elizabeth Minchilli, author of the bestselling blogs Eat Florence, Eat Rome, and Eat Venice, and of the blog ElizabethMinchilliinRome.com). Here, Minchilli's take on five standout Florentine foodie magnets you must try on your next trip. (And for each restaurant, we've pointed out one or two nearby attractions you shouldn't miss while you're in the neighborhood!)
Quite possibly the best restaurant in Florence!
Via della Porcellana 25
"This is everyone's favorite restaurant in Florence for good reason," says Minchilli. The place has been in business since 1869, which technically makes it older than the nation of Italy itself (the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy, was not complete until 1871), and it has kept its food consistently peerless for decades. "Order one of the massive bistecca alla fiorentina, cooked over an ancient wood-burning stove in the back," says Minchilli. She also suggests you not miss out on the light-as-air artichoke tart—"a miraculous combination of eggs, artichokes, and manual dexterity found nowhere else."
While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss:
Santa Maria Novella (Piazza Santa Maria Novella), one of Florence's most beautiful churches, featuring a number of important works of art, including a nativity scene by Botticelli, a crucifix by Brunelleschi, and a Madonna by Vasari (who was also the architect for the church's renovation in the mid-16th century).
The go-to for grab-and-go panini
Via del Georgofili 3, inofirenze.com
Maybe you've heard that Florence is in the midst of a Panini Renaissance? "Alessandro Frasscia of 'Ino is leading the charge," says Minchilli. What's his secret? "First of all, top-notch ingredients like prosciutto di San Daniele, Robiola from Piedmonte, and cherry tomatoes from Sicily. He also special-orders the ciabatte and pane toscano." And the cook leaves plenty of room for creativity on the menu—the specials of the day are written on a chalkboard that keeps locals returning to the tiny panini joint day after day.
While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss:
'Ino happens to be right between the imposing Palazzo Vecchio (Piazza della Signoria) and the worth-it tourist magnet Ponte Vecchio, which beckons visitors ready for a hand-in-hand stroll across the Arno—and a photo op. (In a city as old as Florence, it's hard not to find attractions nicknamed vecchio, or "old.")
Sure, it may look like a food court, but the similarity ends there
Counter at the Mercato Centrale (Central Market)
There's nothing more local than visiting the bustling Mercato Centrale and bellying up to the counter at Nerbone to peruse the delights on display. "Steaming pans full of zuppa di fagioli (bean soup), peposo (stew), pastas, and vegetables change daily," says Minchilli. If you're in the mood for a mind-blowing sandwich, hit the other end of the counter, where you'll find tripe and porchetta waiting to be stuffed into crusty bread. "Fridays are fun, because seafood shows up on the menu in the form of bacala and squid," Minchilli suggests. It may be the highest quality casual dining you've ever experienced. "Help yourself to a tray and then point and pay. You can eat at one of the tables that line the wall."
While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss:
The Medici Chapel (Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini, 6) was designed by Michelangelo in the 1520s and holds two of his most revered sculptures, known as "Night and Day" and "Dawn and Dusk." The Medici family, of course, used their staggering personal fortune to commission the finest Florentine artist of their time to design a shrine to—who else?—themselves.
Packed and noisy—because people can't get enough of its bistecca
Via Rosino 2, trattoriamario.com
Okay, this eatery isn't exactly a secret—you'll likely have to wait for a seat, and you'll be packed in there with plenty of other folks who've heard of this place. Tables are so close together even a New Yorker may yearn for elbow room, and lines can be long. But there's a good explanation for why we keep filling the tables at Mario's. "People put up with it for one good reason: the food," says Minchilli. What to order? "Mario's has one of the best bistecca alla fiorentina's in town."
While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss:
Accademia Gallery (Via Ricasoli, 66). Two words: Michelangelo's "David." And on the same street, drop by...
Gelato you'll dream about
Via Ricasoli, 60, gelatocarabe.com
Ready for some of the best gelato in a gelato-crazed town? Head for the Sicilian gelato shop Carabé after any meal—or when you feel like treating yourself to the ultimate sweet treat between museum visits. "They are at their best playing with Sicily's traditional ingredients, like almonds from Noto and pistachios from Bronte," says Minchilli. One of their specialties is a riff on Neopolitan ricotta cake (pastiera), traditionally made for Easter. Here, the cheesecake concept morphs into a rich, creamy ricotta-based scoop that's studded with chunks of candied orange peel and citron. "They are also very well-known for their granitas—no surprise there!—and many die-hard southern Italians stop by for their breakfast granita made from almonds, black mulberries, or lemons."
While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss:
Stroll south on Via Ricasoli with your gelato and head for the big dome—the iconic church of Santa Maria del Fiore, which, of course, everybody just calls "the Duomo," and its accompanying tower, baptistery, and museum.
Confessions of a Sommelier
Guillem Kerambrun, beverage director of the New York City bistro Benoit by Alain Ducasse, uncorks wine-ordering tips, secrets of the trade, and advice for nabbing yourself a bargain bottle. Q: How did you first get interested in wine? A: Even as a little boy in France, I was paying attention to beverages. There was an orange juice I didn't like and another I did like because it was balanced, not too sweet, and had some pulp. My father, a true epicurean, instilled my love of wine. When I was 15, a professor at hotel management school helped me hone my knowledge and skills. Q: What are the perfect food and wine pairings? A: There is no perfect food and wine pairing. Some diners like to accentuate the acidity or bitterness, while others like to balance the two. The role of the sommelier is to find the bottle that will speak to everyone's palate at the table. We have to capture the moment while taking everyone's tastes and moods into account because, just like coffee, we don't always want the same thing.READ: "Eat and Drink Your Way Through Louisville's Urban Bourbon Trail" Q: What great wines do you drink at home? A: I don't regularly drink premier grands cru classés, but instead I try to select something new at my local wine shop. It's part of continuing to learn. Q: What are some unexpected challenges in your line of work? A: When I'm invited to a private dinner, the hosts are sometimes overly stressed about whether the wines they are pouring will impress me. I always let them know that I'm not always drinking wine as a professional. I sometimes like to disconnect and enjoy wine in a leisurely manner. Q: Some people are very nervous about ordering wine. Any tips? A: People with limited wine knowledge can start by telling me what they like to drink at home, and their price range. Another factor is whether the context of the meal is to impress, with an unbeatable Bordeaux like Pessac-Léognan or Pierre Seillan's Vérité Sonoma wines, or in leisure mode with friends looking to discover small "star" wines like a Riesling from the Finger Lakes or a Provençal rosé.READ: "13 Amazing American Food Festivals" Q: Do you have a favorite cheap wine? A: One always compares the quality of the drinking experience to the price. I won't name names for fear that my supplier will increase prices with the next vintage, but there are some affordable and superb côtes du rhône wines that I'm really enjoying, one of which I will offer by the glass at Benoit next month.
Celebrate the 4th of July in One of the Coolest Small Towns in America
#1 ASBURY PARK, NEW JERSEYFireworks over the beach and boardwalk. If you want to witness the fireworks “hailin’ over Little Eden,” that Bruce Springsteen commemorated in his classic song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” book your spot at the historic Paramount Theater’s fireworks viewing party overlooking the beach. Asbury Park is an easy road trip from New York or Philadelphia, and we named the Jersey Shore town the “Coolest” in America 2017 for its revitalized Boardwalk; great shopping, dining, contemporary art, and views of one of the East Coast’s most beautiful beaches; and its welcoming, diverse vibe and LGBTQ-friendly legacy. #2 BISBEE, ARIZONASouthwestern art, history, and quirkiness. Two words: coaster races. Bisbee celebrates American Independence with its own quirky tradition, with mini-race-cars coasting down its main drag. After that, the town gets more traditional with an old-timey parade and fireworks display. Bisbee is a cool road trip from Tucson. It’s an awesome cross between a 19th-century copper-mining town and a hip artist colony. Bisbee’s narrow streets evoke the Old West, with some of the best vintage architecture in the U.S., but the town’s vibe is decidedly contemporary, with galleries, craft beer, art walks, funky boutiques, and an aesthetic that happily embraces the word “weird.” #3 NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIACounty-wide celebrations, including an all-day fair. An all-day fair, a parade featuring vintage cars, and evening fireworks are on tap all around Nevada City, a cool road trip from San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento. Nevada City may be a little off the beaten path (60 miles northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains), but residents value the Gold Country town for its music and art scene, food, and proximity to some of California's amazing rivers, lakes, and the Sierras. For live music, locals swear by the Miners Foundry. For a Sundance feel without the hordes, savor the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. And if you're hankering for a pro cycling race and don't plan on dropping in on the Tour de France anytime soon, hightail it to the Nevada City Classic.
Luxe-for-Less Lodging: Hotel RL Wants to Entertain You
It’s probably the best worst-kept secret in Hollywood—and the music industry, too: overhaul your look and people will notice you all over again. Some might even say that an image makeover generates more attention than a flawless performance. It seems that the RLH Corporation is borrowing a page from show business’s playbook—in more ways than one, in fact--with the introduction of Hotel RL, a hipper and edgier take on the familiar hotel chain. The first of these slick new boutique hotels opened in Baltimore last year and other ones have since popped up in Brooklyn, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Omaha, and more. Designed with a mind towards community and socializing, each hotel’s airy, colorful lobby has a performance stage (more on that in a second) and food and coffee purveyors. As far as Bill Linehan, CMO of the RLH Corporation who helped design the concept, sees it, this is where boutique hotels haven’t dared go before. “Boutique hotels are increasingly prevalent and, more and more, that means a focus on design, high-design. I don’t think that’s necessarily the millennial mindset,” he said. “As a company, we’re focused on being conversation-friendly and more relevant. There’s a creative mindset that exists within the millennial population, so it's important to come up with a lobby concept that’s different.” READ: "These Unique Hotels Transform Travel" The result? The Living Stage, which gives the hotel lobby not just a chill, artsy coffee house vibe, but a connection to the local community. The performance space hosts musicians, speakers, artists, and a variety of other creative types, each from the resident city. And it’s not just about entertainment. In Omaha, a mayoral candidate held his election night event at the city's Living Stage. There was a Black Lives Matter event at Hotel RL Baltimore Inner Harbor. And TED Talks-style events happen all around. Each hotel provides its Living Stage schedule in each guestroom. “With technology these days, all you need to do is walk up to the front desk and summon someone who’ll look up and give you the key,” said Linehan. "We want to make the lobby more activated and energetic, more of an authentic place than a space where you stand in line to get a key." READ: "Oops! How Not to Embarrass Yourself in a Foreign Country" But that’s not all. Each Hotel RL showcases its own local installment of Project Wake Up Call, which features local photographers’ shots of the city, and not always the glamorous aspects. In fact, part of the goal of the Project is to bring attention to each area’s homeless blight. Photographs are auctioned off and donated to each hotel’s chosen local charity. "Hotels have very much have lost their way on being part of the community,” said Linehan. “There are just so many opportunities for locals to project their creativity as well as advocacy, awareness, and innovation. We want to be a community’s stage.”
Locals Know Best: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Jim Fricke moved to Milwaukee from his native Seattle in 2004, four years before the opening of the Harley-Davidson Museum, where he’s the Curatorial Director. He had to learn the city quickly, not least because part and parcel of helping to develop the museum was entertaining architects and designers from NYC and Baltimore and elsewhere. "I just kept trying to figure out: where do I take them to give them a sense of what feels uniquely Milwaukee?” he recalls. “Coming from the west coast, if something goes back to the Depression, it’s really old. What's fascinating here is the number of old buildings, businesses that have been continuously operating since early 20th century. I think being from the Pacific Northwest made me appreciate some of the Midwestern aspects of the city and the lifestyle here.” A lot of that lifestyle has its roots in the 19th and 20th centuries history of the city. In the 1800s, quite a few breweries and tanneries were built along the Milwaukee River. But by the 1960s, with industry declining and the flight to the suburbs in full force, the long bustling downtown fell into disrepair. Flash forward to now and Milwaukee, like so many other once-industrial American cities (see: Detroit, Pittsburgh) is in the throes of a renaissance. But even as young entrepreneurs refurbish old buildings and new construction extends the European-style cafe-lined public walkway along the river, it's hard to overlook the city’s rich legacy of lively immigrant communities and, of course, brewing. Add to that the ease of access—Jim says the airport is the perfect size and hassle-free in terms of parking and security—and the accessibility of city bike rentals, and it’s hard to resist adding Milwaukee to the top of your bucket list. WHERE OLD AND NEW MEET Perhaps the best place to witness the fusion of classic and contemporary Milwaukee is a stroll down Brady Street, which runs between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. Jim is particularly fond of Glorioso’s, a family grocer specializing in Italian provisions since 1946. The first time he walked in, he said, “I thought I walked into Italian grocery in Italy. I swear I was in Italy.” Today, he’s one of the many locals who patiently stand in line for one of the standout sandwiches. He recommends grabbing lunch from there not just because the food is so superior, but because it’s also an experience to watch the generations work together. One of his favorite ways to spend an afternoon is to take the sandwich across to Regano’s Romain Coin, a tavern located in the old Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery. It’s the kind of place designed for a relaxing afternoon with a pint or two. Then Jim will wander around the corner to Sciortino’s, an Italian bakery that’s as transporting as Glorioso’s. “There’s just the smell. And there’s a grandma sitting with the cash register by the door,” he says. If you’ve got more time to walk off lunch, continue up Brady Street, meander through the locally owned shops and eateries, and carry on to the scenic bluff where you can walk down to Lake Michigan. PASSING THE BARS While the Blatt and Schlitz breweries have been turned into trendy condos and restaurants, the Miller Brewery is still operating and open for tours if you’d like to get a sense of old-world Milwaukee flavor. The unique thing about this town, though, is that back when the breweries were in full swing, many brewers also built and ran bars. That vintage flavor is kept alive at a number of joints that have a laid-back neighborhood vibe. And bowling! Jim calls out Koz’s, a classic bar with a killer jukebox and plenty of taxidermy. Plus it’s one of the few left that has a sizable space devoted to duckpin bowling, which is apparently a Wisconsin thing involving wood balls. The chill landmark Holler House, meantime, has the oldest certified bowling alley in the USA. CHOW DOWN Given the city’s history of immigrants who arrived and started what are now America’s iconic breweries, it’s little surprise that Milwaukee is dotted with low-key ethnic eateries, particularly of the Eastern European variety (see: German). Within the city limits there are three Serbian eateries, which offer fare that’s similar to Hungarian. Jim is partial to Three Brothers Restaurant, which has been dishing out wiener schnitzel and burek since it opened in the 1954. A local culinary tradition that those restaurants preserve is the festive fish fry—complete with communal tables and polka bands. While several restaurants do their own, Jim says the ones that take place at the lakefront are the most popular, so much so that people will come down from Chicago for the day to indulge. “The fish fry in Milwaukee is a big enough thing that even the most elite restaurants have to have one,” he says. But not to worry, there’s plenty more to explore beyond the oom-pa-pa. The flagship of a top-notch regional Mexican grocery chain, El Rey, is here in Milwaukee and there’s a strong enough Mexican community that the restaurants are worth checking out. Jim recommends the tacos and street food at Bel Air Cantina, which has its original location on the river and now has several outposts across the state. It’s so popular, in fact, that the owners had to buy the bar across the street to hold people while they waited. Another favorite is Café Corozon in the nearby River West neighborhood, which is also home to neat restaurants like Centro Café, a go-to for gluten-free Italian food, and several microbreweries, reminding Jim of his native Seattle. A MUSEUM TO GET REVVED UP FOR Jim’s workplace is more than a shrine to motorcycles. The Harley-Davidson Museum is a tribute to America—to industry, to pop culture, to the spirit of entrepreneurship, to design—as seen through the eyes of one enduring company. “We wanted to build a museum that has plenty to offer non-motorcyclist,” said Jim, whose resume includes stints at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture and a science fiction museum. “As I got into this, I started thinking that people do understand things in many ways that the Harley-Davidson story is a great American business story, starting in 1903 when three brothers and their friend started a company at local shops and foundries. A trip through the museum is a trip through US industrial history, social history, war time, post-war, the Depression, and industrial design.” For more information on Milwaukee visit their site.