Throughout my time in Florence, I've lived in pretty much every neighborhood in the center: San Niccolò, l'Oltrarno, Sant' Ambrogio, and smack dab in the center between the train station and the Duomo. Though I loved San Niccolò and l'Oltrarno, living a minute's walk from the Mercato Centrale definitely appeals to the cook (glutton) in me.
When I first got to Florence and worked lunches at Zibibbo, the only day I had off was Monday, so every single Monday I went to Nerbone for lunch. One of the chefs at the Chez Panisse Cafe was obsessed with the bollito (boiled beef) sandwiches there, waxing poetic about the thin slices of costole, or rib meat, and especially herby salsa verde every time he put bollito misto on his own menu. So I made a point of having a panino bollito be one of the first things I ate when I got to town, even if I was still grappling with the mid-September heat. Bollito isn't exactly the perfect summer meal.
But oh, the joys of the perfect Nerbone panino. It took me some trial and error: in the beginning, when I didn't speak Italian, I got there once at nearly 2:00 p.m., just before the market closes, and asked for a sandwich. The cashier tried to warn me about something, but I acted like like whatever he was talking about was no big deal, and I just paid for the sandwich, anyway. He gave me my receipt, and I walked to the other end of the vetrina to order my panino, and Stefano, the paninaio, pulled out a big hunk of lampredotto, the tripe that looks like the ruffled shirt of a 1974 powder blue tuxedo, and started to make me a sandwich. I realized later, after my first -- and not entirely unsuccessful -- encounter with tripe that they'd been telling me there was no beef left.
Now that I am an old pro at the panino game, I always go through the same routine when I order a sandwich. First, I go over to the right side of the stand to make sure that there is plenty of beef left, as well as both sauces: the EXTREMELY spicy peperoncino oil, and the lovely, to-have-a-sandwich-without-it-would-be-a-crime salsa verde. I think that Nerbone's salsa verde just might be my favorite ever--they add some interesting ingredients. It's always different, but my favorite combination includes parsley, celery, carrots and olive oil. It's that simple. And it's so amazing.
After I'm sure that they've got what I want, I pay for my sandwich and sneak back over into the panino line. This is no easy task -- as Emily Wise Miller writes in her Food Lover's Guide to Florence, my favorite guide to the city, "Nerbone is more than just a sandwich vendor, it's a contact sport." When I've made it to the front, I ask for a "panino con la carne, bagnato, con tutte due salse," which means a meat sandwich (as opposed to one with lampredotto), with the bun dipped in the meat broth, with both of the sauces. These days, a bollito sandwich costs 2.30 Euros, which explains why it's become a staple of my diet.
Nerbone is a workman's hangout, where all of the neighborhood muratori come to have a bowl of pasta or a bit of manzo con patate (beef and potatoes). It's more than just a sandwich stand -- it's a little piece of la vera italia hiding behind tourists and snapshots, with hearty, cheap food (I love the ribollita and pasta al ragú when I'm not feeling like a sandwich) and wine to keep the regulars happy.
Of course, the market has plenty to offer besides Nerbone. Over the past two years, I've come to know and love certain vendors in the mercato. They're a part of my extended family, knowing when I'm sick or sad, missing me when I don't come around for a few days, and advising me on what I should make for my friends for dinner each night. My vendors are the outermost circle of my Florentine support system, and here, I'll share them with you.
Usually, a trip to the market starts with a visit to Bar Bellini, where I grab a quick cappuccino from Anna or Piero. The bar's been there since 1898, and it was one of the few bars in Florence not to double its prices when the Lire switched over to the Euro. A cappuccino is still only 80 centessimi.
For eggs and meat, I head to Macelleria Manetti Simone, where Signore Manetti, his wife, and son have fresh eggs and homemade sausages that they make daily. Of course, they always have la bistecca fiorentina available, as well as pretty much any cut of pork, lamb and beef imaginable, including beautiful seasoned roasts that are oven-ready. They also have chicken and sometimes turkey. But I've gotta say, those little salsicce are great for dinner, or to throw into a quick pasta.
If my meat needs ever extend farther than what the Manetti provide, then I head over to Tripperia M&L where Rosin Lorella and her husband Marco Ghirlanda offer every type of offal you might ever dream of. They've got four types of tripe, both raw and cooked, cow's udder (a Tuscan delicacy), brain, sweetbreads, heart, tongue, spleen, kidney, liver, lungs, and of course, testicles. Traditional Tuscan food comes from la cucina povera, where housewives had to use every bit of meat that came their way to sustain their families through the winter. I've never witnessed a love affair with offal that can compare with that of the Tuscans', and I think the existence of this spotless tripperia is ample proof of this adoration.
Though Florence isn't a coastal town, fish comes in every morning from Livorno and Viareggio, and there is a decent selection of tuna, swordfish, sea bream, and rockfish, as well as anchovies and sardines, at the market. I always go to the immaculate counter of Fulvio Dolfi to get my calamaretti, tiny squid the size of my pinky finger, and other fish and shellfish, such as mazzancolle (a relative of shrimp) and telline (cockles, or miniature clams).
My favorite vendor in the entire market is by far Baroni Alimentari, the exquisite shop run by Paola and Alessandro Baroni. Not only is the place immaculate, but they have the most extensive variety of meats and cheeses, olive oils and wines, to be found in San Lorenzo. Paola and Alessandro make a point of knowing all of their purveyors personally, and of course tasting and becoming familiar with every product that they offer before they make it available. I must admit that their prices might be a little higher than just any old place you might stumble upon, but even they are willing to work with people (like me) who might not be able to afford Capezzana olive oil and red cow Parmesan.
Paola and Alessandro were the first people I got to know personally in the market, and I've come to trust them so much that I'll take pretty much anything they'd give me. They have amazing olive oils, like Marrechutone, from tiny aziende -- places that make no more than three or four hundred bottles a year. And I've never tasted any Pecorino Toscano that can rival the cheese that I can get from them. Just last week I got the most perfect cheese I have ever tasted, a local raw milk pecorino that was maybe 10 days old. It was so soft and mild that any description I might be able to give would just ruin the memory of it.
The Baroni shop also has a stunning array of prosciutti and salumi, several types of Parmigiano, snacks, bread, mostarde, fresh cheese such as feta, mozzarella, and sheepsmilk ricotta, vinegars (including an impressive selection of aceto balsamico), canned tuna and anchovies, butter, wine, pasta, chocolate, coffee, and grappe. Basically, if it were the only food shop in Florence, no one could complain.
Another Gastronomia with an especially good selection of house made mostarde is Perini, run by two brothers, Claudio and Andrea. Their orange, apple, fig, apricot, and pear mostarde are wonderful -- sweet and shockingly spicy. Sold by the etto, or 100 grams, these mostarde are perfect with a bit of that Baroni pecorino.
My final stop on the ground floor is at Naturalmente di Barbara Conti, where Signora Conti and her husband Leonardo sell all sorts of candied fruits, which I've never actually tried, and charming tins of biscotti and amaretti, the little almond and egg white cookies that find their way into a variety of northern Italian sweet and savory dishes. The Amaretti Virginia and Roman Gentilini biscotti are what draw me back time after time (not to mention their most beautiful packaging).
On the top floor of the mercato, the sheer selection of fruits and vegetables can be intimidating until you find a regular fruttivendolo. I get my vegetables from Mari Battagliani and Simona Cavaciocchi, a mother-daughter team situated at the top of the southern stairs. They've got everything a cook could ask for, and always in season; they've never tried to sell me anything questionable. In fact, I've never even seen anything questionable at their stand. But do watch out for Mari, because she's really good at getting you to buy things you don't really need or want.
And right behind them is Leonardo Maggi's fruit stand. His unparalleled Tarocchi and Sanguinelli blood oranges single-handedly got me through the winter, and his strawberries are the sweetest I've ever tasted. He's always got several types of apples, and right now he has those special white Tuscan peaches that are simply perfect.
For porcini, I always go to Stefano Parigi, just a few steps to the left of Mari's stand. He may have less mushrooms than some of the other vendors, but he's always willing to split them in half to show that there aren't any worms. Plus, the lamps above his stand are shaped like porcini. You can't beat that.
In the far corner of the second floor is Emilio Castro's humongous dried fruit kiosk. He's got everything you could ever imagine could be dried, including kumquats, apricots, berries, cherries, peaches, coconut and melon. Though I must say that some of the bright colors elicit a raised eyebrow from me, his tomatoes, nuts, and peperoncini are among the best I've seen at the market. And, they aren't pre-packaged, so you don't have to buy a half-kilo or some absurd amount that might take you 6 months to use.
Usually, by the time I reach Signore Castro's stand, I am so laden with produce and other foodstuffs that I don't even want to think about the fifth floor walk-up apartment, so I've taken to trying to stagger my shopping with produce one day and meat, cheese and eggs on another. That way, I get to go to the market every day. It breaks my heart to think of all of the foreign students and picnickers in town who think it's cheaper or more convenient to shop at one of the dinky grocery stores. It's not. The art of bargaining is alive and well inside the mercato. My trick, especially with produce, is to wait until as close to 1:30 p.m. as possible, when most store owners are starting to close up shop and want to get rid of their stuff. It's a great strategy. Just don't wait too long, or you'll miss out on all of the good stuff and get stuck eating a tripe sandwich when all you wanted was a bit of bollito.