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Picnics in Florence: Where to Find the Tastiest Treats, Where to Eat Them

Nancy Lytle

On a glorious spring, summer or fall day, the Florence visitor can become a part of la vita bella by lunching oudoors on great tidbits while in the midst of the city. Florence has an impressive collection of take-out establishments and they are often handy to sympatico places to picnic. Just say "porta via" and, if appropriate "calda" (hot) and you will emerge on the street with a sack or two of well-wrapped goodies for lunch. Plastic forks and napkins are usually offered also, and look for a refrigerator case to pick out beverages to-go, including wine.

Oltrarno (south of the Arno River), a wonderful place to find picnic-fixings is Vera, just off the elegant Ponte S. Trinita at the corner of Borgo Jacopo. This well-stocked deli-bakery-wine store was good enough for Hannibal, in the book version, when he longed for the perfect array of morsels to enjoy in his moody palazzo. Look for the unusual little pizzas and other savory baked goodies. Your treasure trove can be walked over to Piazza S. Spirito, a square with big old trees and a fountain. If a stone bench is not available, sit on the broad steps of the church with the students who are wolfing down pannini. The scene is vibrant, sometimes a bit scruffy, but the real thing. Depending on the time of your picnic, you can duck into the church afterward for a view of the magnificent basilica designed by Brunelleschi. If it's closed, compensate yourself with a gelato from the vast array at Cafe Ricchi, facing the piazza.

Florence, Hotel La Scaletta, terrace, September 1993, water color by Nancy Lytle

Florence, Hotel La Scaletta, terrace, September 1993, water color by Nancy Lytle

Perhaps following a morning visit to the Science Museum (Museo della Scienza), a sunny lunch on the banks of the Arno would be the perfect thing. After viewing the collection of fascinating old science instruments, including Gallileo's telescope, head left across the museum piazza onto Via Castello. One block away, at Via dei Neri 74r is Rosticceria Mazzanti, one of the most popular take-out establishments in Florence. You'll be able to tell by all of the hungry people crowding the counter. Take a look at the offerings, which include three kinds of succulant polpetti (deep-fried meat or seasoned vegetable crochettes), fried and roasted chicken, grilled kebobs, ribs, chops, a zillion prepared vegetables, pasta and breads, then make yourself highly visible to the counterman to get your rightful turn for service. Don't be shy.

Afterward, backtrack your way to the river, where, looking over the wall you'll see a sloping ramp down to the private boat club. Stroll down a short way and pick your place to sit and picnic. You'll be able to see the crowds on Piazza Michelangelo and the shining facade of San Miniato just above it, plus all of the riverside palazzi on the south side of the Arno.

Piazza D'Azeglio is close to Florence's Synagogue, a magnificent temple that is open for visiting. The nearby piazza, a park really, is a square block of huge old trees, a green lung in the heat of the summer. A picnic here involves a shady bench in view of the children's playground, the gaudy carousel and the antics of a wide variety of dogs walking their owners. Wonderful fixings can be gathered two blocks from the park, just off Piazza S. Ambrogio, at La Ghiotta Gastro/Rosticceria, Via Pietrapiana 7r. Open at noon, packed by 12:03, customers take a number from a ticket dispenser at the front door. Try to see and choose ahead what makes you salivate from the variety of roasted meats, rabbit and chicken, the deep-fried mixed vegetables and polenta, the pastas and greens and the succulent cups of genuine creme caramel. Cold wine and other drinks are in a cooler near the door; choose them while you're waiting for your number to be called. Service is fast and no-nonsense, but point and ask anyway, putting on your biggest smile.

The Tuesday Open Air Market, at Parco Casine along the Arno, is a long, long corridor of "stuff" for sale, punctuated by food and drink stands. If you can't make it to southern Italy, you can find the prosciutto bread, the buffala mozzarella, and other authentic Campana region treats offered by vendors at this market. These items and many other foodstuffs are plenty good enough to make a picnic to be enjoyed from a park bench on the river bank. The number 12 bus will take you to Parco Casine; catch it just across the street from the train station's east side.

Bombay Rosticceria, on Via Ghibellina near Via Macci is a great place to take a break from Italian cuisine, if you feel a need, and if you get this delicious Indian food to go, there are two nice close-by places to eat outside. The little Bombay cafeteria-restaurant has a counter display of just-broiled kebabs, curries, rice (I recommend the lemon rice, it's yummy); they will make you fresh naan in their little oven and heat your treats in the micro. Take your feast to the Community Park (Children's playground), on nearby Borgo Allegri, between Ghibellina and Santa Croce church, or enjoy your picnic on the side steps of the church itself. You'll see an amusing stream of local artisans and bus tourists coming and going. Lots of sore feet for the turisti because the City makes the big buses park nearly a half-mile out of the edge of the centro!

The last juicy picnic-fixin' source is Panoteca, on Via dell' Ariento, across from Florence's Central Market. This is, seems to be, an Egyptian family enterprise. The giro sandwich is fabulous, with crusty roasted meat, fresh salad and three sauces stuffed and dribbled into a pita fresh-baked in the back of the store. You can take your giro or container of other tasty mid-eastern food outside and walk around the Mercato Centrale building to the Piazza di Mercato Centrale, where, if the gods are smiling, you will find an available park bench to relax on and not feel guilty dripping your giro juice on the ground.

Heaven is out-of-doors.

Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2004

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