A long overdue food-shop crawl in Florence, a last hurrah before the coronavirus lockdown
Back in January, during the kind of sunset stroll in Florence that always makes me sigh with admiration and fantasize about making squishy squares of focaccia in my house in the Tuscan hills, I had a horrific realization. I have somewhat neglected my resolution to Shop Small.
I can justify this. I live exactly three feet away from the most ferocious beast of Big Grocery: Conad, the Italian supermarket chain known affectionately in my mind as Gonad or The 'Nad. There I buy my unglamorous but highly necessary provisions, like tomato paste, peanut butter, and canned beans.
But I'm not so bad. I buy about 80 percent of my produce from local farmers at Mercato Sant'Ambrogio, and I'm always revisiting independent coffee shops and bakeries for sweets and schiacciata. (I'm so noble.)
"But still," I thought. "I could be doing more." Where were my frequent perusals of local cheese shops? My raids of standalone salumerias for cured meats? My trips to family-run pasta makers for fresh pici, huh???
I decided then that I'd not only change my grocery habits, but I'd also dedicate an entire Saturday to Shopping Small. I'd walk the entire city, buying a wedge of pecorino here and a loaf of bread there, finding new local gems to support and getting major steps in along the way. Then I'd make dinner for friends with the loot. This plan was feeling mighty exciting.
Two months after my breakthrough, I finally had an obligation-free Saturday at my disposal. On a rainy March morning, my roommate Ann and I took to the streets to shop for an aperitivo at our apartment that evening (to which I'd invited far too many people), and we had ourselves a day.
Here's what we found. (I'd have kept my receipts and calculated my costs at each place, but I think that would just be painful for everyone involved. Instead, here's a Google map detailing our impressive route.)
Besides having extremely cool signage and an entourage of motorcycles out front, Enoteca Bonatti is home to hundreds of bottles of wine from all over Italy, plus some varietals from France, Greece, and Germany. I told the staff that I wanted a sparkling wine that was facile da bere (easy to drink) and was handed a dry prosecco from the north of Italy, plus a fruity Ruché because I liked the flower-haired lady on the label. That night, I'd hoped to sit down and really appreciate their flavors, but as you can see from the photo below, we were drinking less like sommeliers and more like college kids. C'est la vie.
If anything has helped me realize my personal transformation into a somewhat assertive Italian woman, it was the few minutes I spent in Antico Forno Giglio that morning. A tiny and trusted bakery just past Piazza Beccaria, it's always full of locals who want their usual pizzette and biscotti, fast. I took my number (00 — ha, like the flour) from the ticket machine and plotted my order: a super doughy, olive-oily bread that I don't know the name of, in sage and sundried tomato flavors.
Numbers 97 through 99 got their orders as I was eyeing some sugary bomboloni, and suddenly, we were on Number 2. The old me would have sighed and taken a new ticket, but today, that wouldn't do.
"Scusami, sono zero," I told the bespectacled woman behind the counter before Number 3 could butt in. Slight surprise flashed across her face, followed by what I'm going to tell myself was admiration. "Dimmi," she said. "Tell me." And I did.
Just shy of my 24th birthday, I've started to concern myself with typical young-adult matters, like cholesterol. This party needed vegetables, I decided. So after strolling through a market that has literally every seasonal fruit and vegetable in the world, I ended up with exactly one small bag of Jerusalem artichokes for roasting (reasonable) and two adult- eagle-size bunches of chicory for salad (questionable). No one ate it, and is still in the fridge, seemingly multiplying in size every day, mocking me because I cannot finish it.
Formaggi e Salumi Sandro & Ivana
I've always loved the name of this small shop in Santo Spirito, which sounds like a meat- and cheese-loving husband-and-wife duo living their best lives. Whether or not Sandro and Ivana are married, their store is packed with a very romantic variety of cured meats and cheeses from Tuscany and beyond, plus jarred condiments, dried pasta, and infused oils. I chose some fatty mortadella, a trusty favorite, and a gorgonzola-mascarpone hybrid, which I'd never seen before but was so entranced by. It sounded like a creamier, more mild version of blue cheese — a dream, right? It tasted like death itself.
In the age of coronavirus, it was actually possible to get a seat at this popular bakery, which is owned by the same people behind two of my favorite places in Florence, Il Santo Bevitore restaurant and Il Santino wine bar. I could stare all day at their jarred products (tasty honeys, jams, and even Florentine tripe!) and ever-changing dessert display (on Saturday, blueberry-lavender loaf cake and pesche di Prato, a brioche bun that's filled with citrusy custard and soaked in a reddish liqueur called Alchermes to make it look like an adorable little peach). Ann and I sat for a snack break — a bun filled with butter and anchovies for me and a slice of cheesecake for her — and grabbed a baguette for the party.
Also graced by arresting signage, this place always catches my eye when I pass it on the way to my internship at Essenziale. If I lived in the neighborhood, I'd probably pop in all the time for to-go boxes of freshly made Tuscan dishes, like peppery beef stew called peposo and ravioli filled with fluffy ricotta. But today, a wedge of pecorino rolled in what looked like grass called to me. "Quali sono gli ingredienti?" I asked the shopkeeper. "It's my recipe," he answered, rattling off a list of herbs: Rosemary, marjoram, sage, thyme... That night, it was just right with thinly sliced pear.
I don’t know if it was exhaustion or hunger or both, but the fluffy schiacciata at this unplanned stop, whose perfect crumb I could see from the sidewalk, called to me like a cool river in a desert mirage. There I found a snack for myself and a braided baguette for the party.
After hours of walking farther than we'd ever ventured outside of the city center on foot, Ann and I made it to the most alluring destination on our pilgrimage: Amozzare, a shop specializing in cheeses from the south of Italy. It was recommended to us by one of our teachers, a Pugliese woman named Manuela, who spoke of this store with the same adoration that one of my friends has for Harry Styles.
"Ohhhh, the burrata, Jesus Christ," she wailed as she wrote the address for us on a piece of paper. I thought she might cry.
Inside was the kind of dairy display that promotes inner peace and delight (you know the type). There was fresh yogurt, stretchy stracciatella, and several types of the milky mozzarella that give the store its name. We walked in with high expectations and out with full hearts, plus bags of explosive burrata for crostini with prosciutto, fior di latte mozzarella for homemade pizza, and spicy caciocavallo (a firmer, slightly smoky cow's milk cheese) because the shopkeeper said it would go nicely with my mortadella.
Four little piggies sit around a table at the front entrance of La Norcineria, a pork lover's paradise located by the Central Market. There was fennel-scented finocchiona, spicy 'nduja, and specialty hams from multiple regions. With simple crostini on the brain, I chose lardo di Colonnata (pure, salty pork fat, brined in special marble basins and cut into meltingly thin slices, for toasts with a drizzle of honey) and prosciutto di Parma (for that big ol' ball o' burrata).
And where else would our journey end but at the beast of Big Grocery itself? I’d planned to stop at a few more specialty stores after La Norcineria, but after four hours of shopping at nine different destinations, I was starting to worry about my retirement fund — and poor Ann, who I’d dragged with me for 5.5 miles around the city.
So, our last few items — pears, olives, anchovies, and more wine — came from Conad, and I have no shame about it.
We had more than enough food for our feast. Of course, Ann’s frozen dumplings and Mia’s store-bought chicken wings were even more popular than Jessie’s homemade pizza and my four types of crostini, as these things always go. The mood was jovial.
Little did I know, it would be a kind of last hurrah before the coronavirus changed our lives drastically. Two days after this gathering, the Italian prime minister announced a complete "lockdown" of Italy, which means that our classes will remain canceled and all restaurants, museums, cinemas, clubs, and other gathering places will remain closed until April 3 — at the soonest. We’re encouraged to stay in our homes as much as possible, using the hashtag #iorestoacasa to stay in touch with friends through social media while we may not be able to see them in person.
My classmates and I won’t be able to clink glasses (well, plastic cups) of wine as a group of 15 for a while, but at least we can make plans to do so when all of this is over — hopefully, very soon. For now, my roommates and I are bonding through cooking.
And we’re still working on that leftover chicory.