Florence is a feast for the eyes, and Meg and I devote the majority of our posts to treating you to the city’s most exquisite visual piatti. “I guess that’s a nice metaphor,” you’re thinking, “but when do we get actual food?” Well your bellies growled and this week we’re responding with a trip to the Mercato Centrale for a foodie’s fantasy. The market is not only a vital and historical part of the city, but an indulgent playground for the senses. And the best part, with a simple per favore and grazie mille, you’ll get your taste buds on some of Florence’s finest authentic cibo. Free food people! Let’s go!
Warning: if you’re trying to break an Instagram habit, the Mercato Centrale may prove dangerous.
Distance: 550 m
Time: 6 minutes
From Piazza del Duomo head north on Via dei Martelli. Turn left at the Medici Palace on Via L. Gori, which will quickly hurtle you into the hectic Mercato San Lorenzo. Weave your way through the shouting street vendors and starry-eyed tourists. Follow the market and stay straight. After the road bends to the right, you will quickly come to the market on your right. Doors are open 7 am – 2 pm Monday – Friday and 7 am – 5 pm on Saturday.
The modern building (well, that term is relative when it comes to Italy) was constructed in 1874. When the old market was plowed over to make way for Piazza della Repubblica, Florentines were in need of a new market. So, as these things go, another historic block of the city was raised to make way for the grandiose, new and improved, Mercato Centrale. The structure was designed by the renowned architect of the day, Giuseppe Mengoni (famous for designing the elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan). Mengoni gave it the old “college try” to blend the building into the fabric of the city, using stone masonry and arches for the ground floor. But things seemed to unravel a bit when Mengoni sprang for a red iron frame, green window mullions and an aqua roof. Alright, so the market isn’t exactly a feast for the eyes, but that’s not what we came here for. On to the food!
Do you remember the first time you went to Discovery Zone as a kid? If you’re anything like me, your brain practically exploded. Ball pit! No, zip line! Arcade! Wait, is that pizza I smell?! The Mercato Centrale is kind of like a grown-up, Italian, Discovery Zone in a way. As your eyes draw you to the pastries, your nose begs you to sample the spices, and your ears ask to find out what the butcher is shouting about. So as you enter the door give yourself a moment to take in the whole scene.
Fresh, local produce floods from bins.
Cheese counters, more alluring than the jewelry counters at Tiffany’s, await around every corner.
Cured meats of every variety dangle from the ceilings, begging you to ask for a delicious, salty, slice.
Butchers proudly display their disturbing/fascinating fresh kills (is that decapitated pig’s head looking at me? yes it is).
Vendors artfully display their homemade spices, wines, dried fruits, and pastries hoping to titillate your taste buds.
Are you sufficiently hungry yet? Don’t let the food tease you, get a taste.
If executed correctly you can leave the market with a full belly as well as a cultured palate (bragging rights included). Just follow a few simple rules:
1. You’re not at Costco grabbing a delicious brownie bite or Dino-Nugget sample. Unlike our dear friends at Costco, the food at the Mercato Centrale is the pride and joy of the vendors. Rather than prepackaged and shipped in on a truck, the produce was grown on the vendors’ farms, orchards and groves. They raised, killed and seasoned the meats. Pastries were baked in the kitchens of their nonne. Approach the food as art and remember to respect the artists.
2. Ask questions. Italians love discussing food. They are proud of their work and want to show it off. If you seem genuinely interested they will enthusiastically do so. And bonus! Free lessons on i cibi Fiorentini from those who know it best!
3. Play the field. Each vendor knows a competitor lies only meters away. Act as if you are shopping around for the best option. They’ll want to impress you.
4. Ask for samples of items that are not necessarily out. Unlike America you will not see a toothpick cup where each sampling opportunity lies. If you would like to try the Pecorino Tartufo but it isn’t out, just ask.
5. If you have to get flirty, then you have to get flirty. Whatever it takes to get you closer to that fresh slice of prosciutto! Are you with me?!
6. Per favore and grazie mille! (and in Italian)
After you’ve had your fill make sure to smell the fresh flowers and explore the decorative gourds and other seasonal specialties that the market offers. If you’re still hungry you can consider trying a local dish at one of the many eateries in the market.
If all goes as planned you should be leaving the Mercato Centrale with a full belly and a culturally enriched experience without spending a penny. But don’t worry, if you couldn’t help but spring for a bag of cannoli on your way out, we promise not to tell.