How Florence is coping with its ‘foreign’ food clamp down

All new restaurants and food shops in Florence's historic centre must now ensure that at least 70 percent of their produce is local. But how are things bearing up? Our reporter in Florence, Stephen Caruso, finds out.

How Florence is coping with its 'foreign' food clamp down
All new restaurants and food shops in Florence's historic centre must now ensure that at least 70 percent of their produce is local. Photo: Frank Kovalchek

Salumeria Verdi — better known as Pino’s sandwiches after its ever present owner Palmiero Giuseppe — is usually buzzing with customers around 1pm.

Giuseppe's business has nothing to worry about when it comes to Florence’s new law which mandates that within the next three years, 70 percent of products sold in all new eateries and shops in the city's historic centre must be 'made in Tuscany'.

But that doesn’t mean he supports it.

“For me, it is not good,” he told The Local, and he didn’t mean financially.

As a pre-existing restaurant, Salumeria Verdi wouldn’t have to change a thing.

But as a chef, Giuseppe worries what the overall effect could be on Florence’s other cultures, and on those who live, work and eat in the city centre.

“Sometimes, I like to eat sushi,” Giuseppe notes, as he slices mortadella for a hungry customer. He worries the law could get in the way of further culinary experimentation in Florence.

Ryan Weilheimur, an American tourist in Florence, munching on a panini at Pino’s, agrees with the owner’s concerns.

“I don’t think it’s a good law. I feel like it won’t allow for there to be a variety of food,” Weilheimer said. “There’s just going to be a bunch of the same shops.”

But to Brett Auerbach, an American expat who’s been in Florence for six years, the law shouldn’t effect the end-product — only the initial ingredients.

“Local products can be used to make a lot of different things,” Auerbach. “Meat coming in locally — that doesn’t mean you have to use that meat to make only things that are Tuscan. You can use that to make anything.”

Michele Zhao own’s Mili Asian Fusion, an Asian restaurant five minutes from the Duomo. He acquired the restaurant a year ago. When asked for comment, he didn’t even know the law existed. However, he liked the message of it.

“I think it’s better, food will be fresher,” he said.

He also said that it shouldn’t impact his business as far as he knows, unless it affects the suppliers he buys from.

With the 70 percent requirement carrying over to pre-existing shops, it seems possible it could.

As Oscar Farinetti, the founder of the global supermarket chain Eataly, noted in an interview with La Repubblica, such a measure could drive up prices for every part of the restaurateurs supply chain.

“It's sensible for regions to protect their biodiversity but 70 percent might be a bit too high,” Farinetti said.

Samantha Spear is an American studying abroad in Florence with CEA Global Education. She liked the spirit of the law, but like Farinetti, worried the threshold might be too rigorous.

“I like the idea of having a percentage of foods coming from Tuscany, but 70 percent seems like too much,” Spear said.

Auerbach also liked the principle, but said that depending on the place “you can get a lot into thirty percent” of the foreign food allowed.

The law itself also includes exceptions. A five-man commission will give approval to individual stores and restaurants that seek exceptions.

“That opens the whole other question about enforcement,” Auerbach said.

But for Florence native Filippo Rosi, regardless of the realities, the law is a great idea.

“The products from Tuscany are always fantastic because they are coming from the country,” said Rosi, who had made a career out of opening Italian restaurants in foreign countries and now teaches cooking classes in his spare time.

“I used to try and get ingredients for my country from mile zero,” he added. “This is because it is a guarantee of freshness.” He also noted that the “mile zero” approach helps cut down on pollution from transportation.

“So I think it’s a great idea and I would support it in anyway I can.”

“Mile zero” groceries would also help local suppliers compete in a global economy, Auerbach opined.

But regardless of his lack of support, Giuseppe knows he is following the law already.

With a smile, Giuseppe gestured towards the heaps of salami and bread behind the class of his shop.

“I have 70 percent Tuscan food,” he said.

By Stephen Caruso

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.