Florence, Italy's food history is full of dishes with curious legends to match, like peposo beef stew (a dish from nearby Impruneta selected by Brunelleschi to fuel his "project Duomo" team of builders), and saltless Tuscan bread (one legend points to Pisa hastily cutting off salt supplies to its feuding neighbors during the Middle Ages). The key elements of traditional Tuscan food are primarily dominated by Renaissance food history and la cucina povera, born from post-war times of scarcity: Think soups made with leftover bread and pasta; cured meats; and aging cheeses for preservation.
Florence’s culinary scene is "at least 15 years behind the rest of Italy and Europe."
But while other European cities with strong roots in culinary tradition — like Barcelona— are seeing chefs pushing boundaries and allowing in culinary influences from Japan to Lebanon, in Florence, the city has done little in the way of evolving from the culinary legacy it formed centuries ago.
"It's at least 15 years behind the rest of Italy and Europe," says chef Damiano Vigna, owner of Piazza Peruzzi's Club Culinario, which pays homage to traditional la cucina Italiana. According to Vigna, that lag is in large part due to the "Disneyfication" of the city, fueled by Florence's economic reliance on the global tourism industry. Short-sighted restaurateurs pandered to tourists' tastes, leaving the city behind in terms of innovation, chefs say. And now, Florence is having to do some damage control.
Italy's tourism sector is one of its fastest-growing industries, reportedly pulling in nearly 190 billion euros a year from over 47 million visitors. For a city with just 350,000 residents, latest figures suggest that nearly 16 million visitors descend upon Florence and its environs annually. The historical center of Florence specifically welcomes about 3.5 million visitors per year, about 25 percent of which are Italian. Americans make up the largest number of Florence's foreign visitors.
"These restaurants figured that people were coming to Florence once and that they could serve inauthentic food."
It's little wonder that restaurateurs depend on foreign clientele, who arrive to the country with a preconceived notion of Italian food being pizza and pasta. Prior to the viral potential of online travel resources, like rating site TripAdvisor, blogs, and social media, visitors to Florence usually ate blindly. Restaurateurs had an idea of how foreign travelers expected Italian food: lasagna (which originates from the Northern Emilia-Romagna region but became an ubiquitous symbol of Italian food abroad), spaghetti (traditional to the southern Italian region of Campagna), meatballs (considered a stand-alone main dish in Tuscany not belonging in any sort of pasta), fettuccine (the Roman name for tagliatelle, again a pasta from Emilia-Romagna and never dressed with chicken and "alfredo"), chicken marinara (non-existent to any regional Italian culinary repertoire but rather an invention in the new world), and so on. Instead of showing the traveler how Tuscans really ate, restaurant owners simply recreated a sense of what they'd recognize from home.
"These restaurants figured that people were coming to Florence once and that they could serve inauthentic food, because there was no platform to find highly rated eateries as there is now, with sites like TripAdvisor," says Faramarz Poosty, director of the new restaurant/bar Locale, which opened last fall. "Plus, international travel then was expensive. They didn't expect their foreign clientele to come come back, and didn't try to foster loyalty through quality and service."
Prior to the global economic crisis of 2008, which triggered Italy's recession, the country's unemployment rate was lower than the current figure of nearly 13 percent, and Florentines could afford to eat out somewhat frequently. Mass tourism and the ease in consumer spending meant many subpar eateries were sustained. The global financial crisis meant fewer Florentines and tourists could afford to eat out, ironically prompting the dining scene to improve the quality of basic foods.
However, this did not mean that creativity and innovation started to flow freely. Florence has always been tightly connected to tradition, and progressive approaches toward cuisine are welcomed with suspicion rather than curiosity. Poosty says that up until a few years ago, it was nearly impossible to get a Florentine to eat a piece of raw shrimp. In 1999, the restaurant Beccofino opened its doors to serve a modern menu. "The owner didn't care if Florentines came — in fact, he didn't want them." Poosty says, explaining that locals didn't have the capability to appreciate a dining experience premised on creativity rather than gut-busting satiety. "Locals would just complain either about the price or the kind of food served."
"The owner didn’t care if Florentines came — in fact, he didn’t want them."
The ongoing tension emerges even at Florence's internationally recognized restaurants. Last year, at the three-Michelin-starred Enoteca Pinchiorri, longtime chef Italo Bassi resigned to flock to an "East meets West" fusion restaurant in the Northern city of Verona. Chef Filippo Saporito, behind restaurant La Leggenda dei Frati, sees Bassi's decision as a positive move for the chef, at the city's expense: An interest in global fusion would be out of character for the Pinchiorro brand.
Vigna, whose Club Culinaria has successfully promoted the importance of Tuscan and regional Italian culinary traditions, doesn't seem to think that the modern food scene in Florence is making memorable strides. He notes the current trend to glean from modern molecular gastronomy techniques such as foams and cooking sous vide, which he dismisses as "cooking in a plastic bag instead of what we were intended to cook with: fire."
But despite a slow movement towards accepting new culinary approaches, there are signs of renewal. In only the last few years, there has been a mini explosion of new restaurants opening up that challenge the worn-out culinary institutions currently defining the city.
With Florence becoming more dynamic through its expat communities, coupled with the ease of international travel, Florentines have started to expose their palates and minds to new concepts. At recently opened Gurdulu', in the artisan quarter of Santo Spirito, celebrated chef Entiana Osmenzeza reflects this newfound internationalism with creative dishes like capelleti filled with suckling pig in a dashi daikon broth. This dish alone speaks volumes to the strides that Florence is now making: Capelleti in brodo is, in Italy, the equivalent of the quintessential chicken noodle soup in America. Osmenzeza uses a distinctly flavored broth inspired from another old-world cuisine, fusing it with this symbolic homemade pasta.
Saporito, of La Leggenda dei Frati, sees this use of new techniques as a positive attempt to make a mark on modern cuisine. "New technologies have brought a breath of fresh air in many contemporary traditional dishes," he says. "Now sauces have pleasing color and distinct textures."
Diners seems to be adapting. They are slowly warming up to places like Locale, where chef Silli fuses his international experience to procure high-end culinary presentations divided by land and sea, with respect to tradition. The venue itself is a controversial space for local diners; it definitely comes with a price tag. Even vegan macrobiotic eateries like the astrology-themed Le Fate, where the owner designs the menu based on astrological sign's predisposition to nutritional weaknesses, are gaining traction among curious diners.
This overall shift in culinary curiosity from locals, plus the demand for unique dining experiences from international diners with experienced palates, is proving a promising influence on Florence's culinary evolution. Pioneers of the better food scene in Florence have one fundamental concept in common: a dedication to respecting tradition by maintaining focus on product selection and seasonality. Gurdulu' and others are offering a second component: the art of building unique flavors. While Florence's other 2,000-odd restaurants may have some catching up to do, there are vital signs pulsing from local restaurateurs indicating a new culinary Renaissance.