The city's move to fine people caught picnicking is a bid to tackle crowding and littering on four central streets: Piazzale degli Uffizi, Piazza del Grano, Via della Ninna and Via de' Neri, home to one of Florence's most popular sandwich shops and a victim of its own success.
“Neri has become awash with tourists over the past three years, part of the 'Trip Advisor effect',” says Nardia Plumridge, author of the Lost in Florence blog and an upcoming guidebook of the same name.
“The once small hole-in-the-wall panini joint, All'Antico Vinaio, started receiving rave reviews and then the throngs of hungry diners followed… Now this once quaint street is littered – excuse the pun – with sandwich shops all selling take-away food. So, it isn’t any surprise this issue of where to eat, overcrowding and rubbish has the council acting.”
But in a city famous for its street cuisine, it's no wonder either that visitors are keen to try Florence's original fast food – like schiacciata (salty flat bread, great on its own or in sandwiches), trippa (slow-cooked tripe with tomatoes, served to go in a bread roll) and lampredotto, the city's signature sandwich filling made from the fourth stomach of a cow and garnished with fresh, salty green sauce.
Lampredotto. Photo: Oded Tshesly
And besides, sometimes you just don't feel like sitting down for a restaurant meal – especially if you're on a budget, eating solo, or simply not that hungry.
So where's someone to go for a quick, casual and affordable Florentine meal, without getting in anyone's way?
Option 1: A moveable feast
“The concept of actually urban picnicking in the streets is a new thing, probably brought on by mass tourism and a lack of free space to sit and relax for the many hordes of people who pass through this Renaissance city and invariably get hungry,” says Georgette Jupe, who blogs as Girl in Florence and is the editor of Italy Magazine.
But that doesn't mean that Florentines don't eat on the street. They just do it differently: from chioschi, or street food carts.
“After living in Florence for over 11 years, I am used to street food being the odd lampredotto cart parked ambiguously on a crowded street corner or small square, as workers line up to eat their traditional broth-dunked panini with green sauce directly at the cart itself before heading off to return to work,” Jupe says.
“Nearby my house, people often vie for a panino co' i' lampredotto at the Trippaio di San Frediano, a local institution and mercifully he has a few chairs to ensure that you aren’t offending the world by standing and eating in the middle of the street.
“Or if you aren’t afraid of distance, try the much-beloved Aurelio near Rifredi in Piazza Bernardo Tanucci, serving up, yes, lampredotto but also other Tuscan favourites: bollito [boiled beef sandwich], trippa, peposo [peppery beef stew]. He has a cult following with many of my Italian friends.”
Meanwhile Rome-based gourmand Oded Tshesly gets his lampredotto fix at Lupen e Margo or Orazio Nencioni when he's in Florence. For less adventurous visitors, he advises ordering a bollito – a similar deal but with beef instead of innards.
Option 2: Seek out a seat
Part of the problem with All'Antico Vinaio et al on the Via de' Neri is the limited space, but there are such things as sandwich shops with seats.
Plumridge recommends Ino, a “quality panino stop just behind the Uffizi Gallery with tasty fillings, many laced with truffles, which you can eat within their store on stools. Wine is served by the glass to wash it all down.”
“I'd suggest Schiacciavino near Santa Croce,” says Coral Sisk, a culinary tour guide of Florence and creator of the Curious Appetite blog. “They have some seating and they do the oily, salty flatbread schiacciata panini stuffed with options of marinated vegetables, meats, cheeses and fresh vegetables and a higher quality selection of wines.”
Another of her panino picks is Panificio Brunori on Borgo Pinti: “You have to look closely for this one as there are not clearly marked signs. It is a great family-run bakery and they make fresh sandwiches to order for under a fiver with a short menu from their in-house baked bread. The sesame roll is soft and a delicious carrier for most fillings, especially their fennel salumi finocchiona.
Baked goods from Panificio Brunori. Photo: Jonathan Austen/Facebook
“SandwiChic near the Accademia is a step up in quality for what I'd deem more artisanal panini, meaning the sauces are all in-house prepared, whole ingredients like meats and cheeses from small producers (including IGP-quality mortadella and Pienza pecorino), they play nice music inside and have a few seats too.
“Cernacchino is a Florentine favorite, run by women with hearty, gut-busting, blue-collar fare like porchetta and lampredotto sandwiches and a neat selection of primi and secondi for cheap, filling, quick lunch plates. Seating is available inside as well, and it's and just a stone's throw from Piazza della Signoria.”
Meanwhile itty-bitty Semel in Piazza Ghiberti may not have much room to sit, but being further out of the centre you're exempt from the no-eating-in-public rule. It's a favourite of Jupe's: “Mario’s gourmet panini and tiny glasses of wine are always the welcome treat after browsing Sant’Ambrogio’s market.”
Option 3: Adventure out of the centre
A short walk across the river takes you to Piazza San Spirito, “a leafy square which has Gustapanino, Tamerò for pasta and many more eateries offering a seated experience for a decent price,” says Plumridge. “Caffè Ricchi has inside seats in a cosy nook offering primi plates from €5.”
And if you're prepared to travel, you can take your panino with you for a more leisurely picnic.
“If people have the patience, head over to the river past Ponte alla Grazie towards Ponte San Niccolò, as there is some green space and park-like areas to picnic along the river, but it's definitely outside the historical centre,” says Sisk.
“Otherwise, Cascine Park is big and spacious but it is a mission to walk to.
“There really should be more parks and green space in the centre: there is one little park area near Piazza Sant'Ambrogio but just bench seating – there isn't really a picnic culture in the city and most people pack into the car to go the countryside.”
Try venturing further down the River Arno to find more space in Florence. Photo: sakhanphotography/DepositPhotos
Wherever you go, mind your manners
But leaving town isn't really the point for the millions of visitors who flock to Florence's Unesco-listed historic centre, and nor should it have to be. So if you find yourself in the city's lovely heart, panino in hand, just show some consideration.
“It’s really about treating a place like you would want someone to treat your home,” Jupe tells The Local.
“Be mindful of those around you and when you can, get your panino to-go if there is no space to eat on-site and find a bench in Piazza San Firenze or in the park at Piazza Demidoff rather than eating in the street or under the Loggia dei Lanzi.
“Do not block storefronts and do not sit on curbs, or the steps of churches to eat; common sense prevails here. I know the city has a serious lack of public spaces to relax but apparently this is something they are working on. Make sure to throw away your trash, especially plastic bottles of water and the paper the panino comes in.”
That way neither Florence, its residents, your stomach or your pocket have to suffer.
Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP