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Outdoor Cafes in Florence: The Search for the perfect Mojito

Nancy Lytle

Between May and November, Florence opens its doors and sets up outside with gusto. The tables and chairs come out, the umbrellas go up and life is good. Several major piazzas turn into evening cafes with free entertainment, including concerts and film screenings.

It's possible to combine a sight-seeing walk with stop-offs for all types of refreshment along the way at some of the city's hippest open-air bars. In this report, most of the cafes are on the south side of the Arno river, the Oltarno. Two other interesting finds are located around the Piazza San Ambrogio, a few blocks from Santa Croce.

One popular fascination involves the Mojito, the sensational summer long-drink that mixes aged rum, fresh lime juice, a bit of sugar and lots of crushed mint leaves, sometimes a dash of bitters, topped with sparkling water. Seeing it served at Dolce Vita, the arty cafe on Piazza del Carmine, one could think it is the traditional Mint Julep, but no, it's better. A Mojito usually comes served in a tall glass loaded with green mint and ice (an attractive feature to an American).

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

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

A stop at Dolce Vita for a drink from their extensive menu can be combined with a visit to the Brancacci Chapel in the adjacent church of Santa Maria del Carmine. The frescoed chapel holds Massaccio's finest work, including the Expulsion of Adam and Eve.

A short walk from Piazza del Carmine along Via S. Monaca and Via S. Agostino brings the Florence visitor to Piazza Santo Spirito, the tree-lined square faced by Brunellechi's famous church, now displaying an early Michelangelo crucifixion recently returned to its original site. The piazza sports several bars and restaurants and a lively scene, a mix that includes students, locals and fashion workers from Gucci, headquartered in an old palazzo two blocks away. Drinks outdoors can be enjoyed at either Cabiria, an almost terminally trendy bar, or at Caffe Ricchi, which also serves a tasty, inexpensive lunch and has a wide choice of gelato. Amid the sounds of the piazza, Mozart can often be heard from one of the music studios above. After nine in the evening in summertime, Piazza Santo Spirito itself becomes an open-air bar, with tables scattered around the fountain. Drinks are served from a center kiosk while loungers enjoy free concerts by classical and folk musicians.

Continuing a stoll east on Via Mazzetta, one arrives shortly at Piazza San Felice, just off a corner of the vast Pitti Palace. Between 3pm and 5pm, a visit can be made to the apartment of poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Florence's most famous exiles. Ring the bell at Casa Guidi (Piazza San Felice, number eight), and once inside, enjoy the slightly spooky ambience of the couple's home, furnished with their flea market finds from the mid-1800s.

At this point in the Oltarno walk, a serious stop-off could be the Pitti Palace itself, with its fabulous Palatino Gallery as the focal point. An amazing display of masterpieces is housed on the second floor, stacked atop one another on lush silk walls; it's "hunt and find" for Raphael, Fra Fillippo Lippi, Botticelli and the other usual suspects that make Florence so special. In the courtyard of the Pitti Palace, under the massive stone loggia, is a shadowed outdoor cafe that provides a truly cooling pause on a hot day, serving a variety of drinks and food.

Via Guicciardini runs from the Pitti to the Ponte Vecchio and this narrow street is choked with passing crowds and traffic, but the shops provide interesting possibilities for the Florence visitor's gift list. At the Ponte Vecchio, a right turn on Via de Bardi presents a walk along the Arno inself, with views of the duomo, the Uffizi and the other monuments of central Florence just across the river. After passing the Ponte alle Grazia, a thirsty walker can make a stop at Zoe, a charming outdoor bar tucked behind the small riverside piazza Demidoff. Here, the neighborhood pace is slower and the late afternoon ambience is lazy and relaxed. People-watching and the warm, slanting light on the old buildings are the main attractions, in addition to the drinks list and plates of free snacks available to the inbiber.

The final two destinations along the south side of the river are found a bit further along, at Piazza G. Poggi, which marks the location of a former ring of the walls that once guarded Florence. At the top of the hill is Piazzale Michelangelo and, below, one ancient tower still stands. In summer, a breezy cafe is installed on the symmetrical ramps behind the tower. Here, at the Rampa del Torre, tables are arranged around a stage that is used for free evening jazz concerts. While enjoying drinks and plates of free, self-serve snacks from the bar, patrons enjoy the glimpses of Florence turning golden in the sunset hour. Later on, dinner is served and the entertainment begins.

The last great cafe is just below the ramp at Piazza G. Poggi, to the right, the Cafe La Torre. Outdoor tables fill rapidly at around six o'clock when the free hot buffet is available with well-made drinks. The clientele is young, hip and often with their dogs, who lie under the tables wondering when their walks will recommence.

Backtracking a bit, and crossing the Arno on Ponte alle Grazie, a walker can follow Via de' Benci, then cross the great Piazza Santa Croce. One can duck inside the immense church for a pause at the crypt of Michelangelo and a viewing of the famous frescos by Giotto. Outside again, turning right, past the statue of Dante, the stroller soon makes a turn onto Borgo Allegri, a pretty and narrow old street. Allegri leads to the old shanty-like flea market now permanently installed at the small Piazza dei Ciompi, chock-full of interesting junk and antiques. Just on the other side, a right turn on Via Pietrapiana brings the wanderer to Piazza S. Ambrogio. This tiny spot is a nexus of activity in the late afternoon.

Relaxing at an outdoor table provided by the Caffe S. Ambrogio, next to a busy newstand, the scene provides free entertainment while sipping a Mojito or expertly-shaken Martini, served with a platter of tiny tidbits. Small electric buses and bicyclists come and go, the flower truck dispenses bargain blooms and the bakery is serving crowds on their way home. A daily clutch of elderly ladies sits on benches outside the simple white church to discuss you while you're looking at them. Looking up Via Carducci, the hills of Fiesole are visible above the trees of Piazza D'Azeglio, a block-square park. Inside the caffe, the decor is strange-modern, the jazz and world-beat tapes are hot and the day's International Herald Tribune and Italian newspapers are scattered on a counter for your reading pleasure while you sip at your table.

The final destination on this excursion is just around the corner on Via de' Macci, at the corner of Via Verrocchio. The friendly Caffe Cibreo is part of the dining kingdom that includes the Ristorante Cibreo and the Trattoria Cibreo, just across the lane. At the cafe, between 5pm and 7pm, the outdoor tables are available for drinks prepared with the same care as the well-known cuisine. Here, the Mojito cocktail reaches for the stars, proudly presented in a chilled goblet with the mint so finely minced that it is totally integrated with the other impeccable ingredients. Thus, in the most sublime manner, the quest is ended.

Starring the Mojito

Bars serving the Mojito, ranked by stars, four stars being the top

Caffe Cibreo, Via Verrocchio, open 9am to midnight
Mojito cocktail, 7.00 euro, Perfection. ****

Caffe San Ambrogio, Piazza San Ambrogio, open 9am to 1am
Mojito Cocktail, 5.00 euro from 5pm to 8pm, more expensive later.
Good, although not well-shaken. **, but the early price is right.

Caffe La Torre, Lungarno-B. Cellini (Piazza G. Pozzi), open until 1am
Mojito Cocktail, 7.00 euro, Very good, a little light on mint. ***

Rampa del Torre, Piazza G. Pozzi, open in summer until 1am
Mojito Cocktail, 6.00 euro, Good version. ***

Zoe Cafe, Via dei Renai (Piazza Davidoff), open noon to 1 am
Mojito Cocktail, 6.00 euro, Very good, not large. **

Caffe Ricchi, Piazza Santo Spirito, open until midnight
Mojito Cocktail, 7.00 euro, Excellent, nearly perfect. ***1/2

Cabiria Bar, Piazza Santo Spirito, open until midnight
Mojito Cocktail, 6.00 euro, Short version, merely OK. *

Dolce Vita, Piazza del Carmine, open 5pm until 1am
Mojito Cocktail, 6.00 euro, Usually very good. ***

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

© Nancy Lytle, 2004

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