A picnic fit for a Medici

TK restaurant in Florence, Italy. (Photo courtesy of )
TK restaurant in Florence.

Where to grab picnic supplies in downtown Florence for an excellent cheap meal

Whether you want to take your Florentine picnic sitting around Piazza della Signoria, in the Bellosguardo Hills, at a spot on the wall overlooking the Arno River, or just back in your hotel room, here are a few prime shops in the heart of the historic center for picking up cheap but excellent fresh foods for a quick meal in Florence.

Be careful where you snack
Many monuments in Italy are now off-limits for panino munching, gelato licking, and even just plain old sitting on the steps—including the steps in front of Florence's Duomo (which, as of 2012, are beingcordoned off during daylight hours so you cannot even sit on them).

You will likely just get a stern talking-to by police or local authorities.

Persist, however, and you could get slapped with a $650 fine.

Conveniently, both are on a short street running between Via del Corso and the little Piazza de' Cimatori with the famous tripe stand, about halfway between the cathedral and the Palazzo Vecchio/Uffizi (and are practically the only everyday Florentine shops remaining amid the glut of tourist-oriented stores on these bustling downtown streets).

When I want a light meal of excellent bread, pastries, or a focaccia—either plain, sauced and cheesed to make pizza, or split and stuffed with meat and cheese—I head to the popular bakery Forno Sartoni (Via de' Cerchi 34r). Sometimes you have to elbow through the crowds—Florentines flock here at morning breaks, lunchtime, and just after work during the passeggiata to fill up on comfort snack foods—but that's only a sign of how good the joint is.

Just remember: after you place your order, the woman behind the counter will total it up and hand you a receipt; while she's wrapping up your goodies for you, turn around and pay the lady at the cash register on the opposite wall, who will give you another receipt, which you then turn around and hand back to the first woman behind the counter in exchange for your bag of food. (Hey, don't look at me; I didn't invent this quirky Italian system.)

To make Mom happy (and keep you healthy), bolster the bread with some fresh fruit and vegetables at nearby Mauro Frutta (Via de' Cerchi 16r, tel. +39-055-295-452).

For more serious picnic pickings, head to the Mercato Centrale, Florence's central food market in an airy, train-stationesque structure hidden behind the outdoor stalls of San Lorenzo leather market.

Tips & links

Culinary tours of Florence
General dining tips
  • "Pane e coperto" is not a scam: Nearly all Italian restaurants have an unavoidable pane e coperto ("bread and cover" charge) of anything from €1 to €15—though most often €2 to €5—per person that is automatically added onto your bill. This is perfectly normal and perfectly legal (though a few trendy restaurants make a big deal about not charging it).
  • Find out if service (tip) is included: Don't double-tip by accident. If the menu has a line—usually near the bottom of the front or back—that says "servizio" with either a percentage, an amount, or the word "incluso" after it, that means the tip is automatically included in the price. (If it says "servizio non incluso," tip is, obviously, not included.)

    Even if the menu doesn't say it, ask É incluso il servizio? (ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo)—"Is service included?" If not, tip accordingly (10%–15% is standard).

    Don't be stingy about tipping, though. If il servizio is, indeed, already included but the service was particularly good, it's customary to round up the bill or leave €1 per person extra—just to show you noticed and that you appreciated the effort.
  • Tourist menus: The concept of a bargain prix-fixe menu is not popular in Italy. Some restaurants do offer a menu turistico ("tourist menu"), which can cost from €8 to €20 and usually entails a choice from among two or three basic first courses (read: different pasta shapes, all in plain tomato sauce), a second course of roast chicken or a veal cutlet, and some water or wine and bread. With very few exceptions, tourist menus tend to live up to their name, appearing only at the sort of tourist-pandering restaurants that the locals wisely steer clear of.

    However, a menu à prezzo fisso ("fixed-price menu") is often a pretty good deal, usually offering a bit more choice than a tourist menu.

    Then—especially at nicer (and pricier) restaurants—there is the menu degustazione ("tasting menu"), usually far more expensive (anywhere from €25 to €110) that is a showcase of the chef's best, or of regional specialties, and can make for an excellent way to sample the kitchen's top dishes.
  • Book ahead: For restaurants that I am truly eager to try, I go ahead and book a table—at least at dinner. I find that a corollary of Murphy's Law seems to apply. If you prudently book ahead, you are likely to show up to a half-empty restaurant and feel a bit like a fool for having worried about finding a table. If, on the other hand, you just show up at the door expecting to find a free table, the place will inevitably be packed and its bookings full for the evening.
Italian dining phrases
English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a restaurant un ristorante oon rees toh-RAHN-tay
...a casual restaurant una trattoria
oo-nah trah-toar-RHEE-yah
oon ohst-air-EE-yah
I would like to reserve... Vorrei prenotare... voar-RAY pray-note-ARE-eh
a table for two una tavola per due oo-nah TAH-voal-lah pair DOO-way
...for 7pm per le sette pair lay SET-tay
...for 7:30pm per le sette e mezzo pair lay SET-tay eh MET-tzoh
...for 8pm per le otto pair lay OH-toh
I would like Vorrei... voar-RAY
...some (of) un pó (di) oon POH (dee)
...this questo KWAY-sto
...that quello KWEL-loh
chicken pollo POL-loh
steak bistecca bee-STEAK-ah
veal vitello vee-TEL-oh
fish pesce PEH-shay
meat carne KAR-neh
I am vegetarian sono vegetariano SO-no veg-eh-tair-ee-YAH-no
side dish [veggies always come seperately] cotorno kon-TOR-no
dessert dolce DOAL-chay
and e ay
...a glass of un bicchiere di oon bee-key-YAIR-eh dee
...a bottle of una bottiglia di oo-na boh-TEEL-ya dee
...a half-liter of mezzo litro di MET-tzoh LEE-tro dee
...fizzy water acqua gassata AH-kwah gah-SAHT-tah
...still water acqua non gassata AH-kwah noan gah-SAHT-tah
...red wine vino rosso VEE-noh ROH-so
...white wine vino bianco VEE-noh bee-YAHN-koh
...beer birra BEER-a
Check, please Il conto, per favore eel COAN-toh pair fah-VOAR-eh
Is service included? É incluso il servizio? ay een-CLOU-so eel sair-VEET-zee-yo

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