Mercato Centrale is a historic food market in the San Lorenzo district of Florence, Italy. The district itself is utterly famous for the leather and tourist trap stands (selling mostly overpriced souvenirs and sometimes poor quality leather goods) lining the streets wrapping around the market. The reason I don’t particularly like these stalls is that they block the way of some truly legitimate foodie joints like Casa del Vino and the historical carb-oasis Forno, not to mention amazing cafes, wine shops and kitchen gadget shops. I think in someways, the mercato centrale is a huge sellout to its historical roots. There still remains some rustic Florentine spirit, amazing fruit and veg vendors, fish mongers, butchers, bakeries and wine shops…not to mention the always valid Nerbone comfort food pitstop which melts my heart with its luscious boiled beef sandwich with hearty Tuscan men serving it up to match and solid greasy spoon primi (like a rich, ragu’ smothered lasagnole pasta) which washes away any cynicism I may have walked into the market with.
The top floor of the Mercato Centrale has always been a mystery to me as up until recently, it was an unused space and now has been transformed into what I deem a sort of upscale food court, but that the marketers term “Street Food with Comfort”. In short, I absolutely love the idea. Finally. Something young and modern in the Florentine food scene. I love the rustic hole in the walls and food markets, but you know sometimes I want to see a semi-pretentious hipster food haven for the younger foodie scene in Florence. I like that there is a collection of food stands in one bustling space where it feels just a little like something I would find in London. I.e. Borough Market. Basically how it works seems like a food court. You pick your food from the variety of stands and mosey over to the bar or seating area to nosh. You can bring food to the bars which is nice. Easy access to booze.
But of course, because I am a critic there are things I must slam. The chairs: I personally don’t like to hover over a beer or a food plate. The high tables have even higher chairs. The inconsistency in service and quality: Once I visited the Il Fritto e Le Polpette stand which does only fried meatballs and battered fried seasonal veggies. No,actually I visited twice. The 1st time was pretty solid. Crunchy yet soft oily salty (aka blood pressure enemy) veg basket with warm, plump and savory balls (that could be cheeky!). The second time was completely unsatisfactory. The veg fry was almost inedible, too mushy and absolutely no flavor. The polpette, served almost with disdain, were cold, dry and puny. For 11 euros, I expect a little more than cold meatballs and baby food.
The wine bar was anticlimatic. It’s operated by the Consortium for Chianti Classico so I am a bit surprised by the lack of satisfaction I gained from my experiences there. Once I went with friends and asked the staff for a wine list and they pointed out very dryly (no pun intended) “we have these wine by the glass” Which were a few Tuscan reds and a mysterious “Bianco” which meant absolutely nothing to me. For being a DOCG Consortium run wine bar, I expected more. I asked what could they suggest by the bottle and then said ” we have everything here as you can see” and points to the wall of wines. Excuse me. I know you have a wine list somewhere- how am I supposed to know what your stock is?? How hard is it to talk to me? Or better yet, sell me something? Why are you working behind a bar if you are so rude and antisocial? And another time I went, we brought some fried fish over (which was also a bland tragedy that was worse than the fish and chips I had in my University cafeteria) and they had run out of white wine by the glass. Okay…luckily they had some franciacorta (the champagne of Italy) but how could a wine bar run out of white wine in the (nearly) summer? I mean, franciacorta was an amazing back-up plan but you get my drift I hope.
Anyways, back to my 1st story (rant). Finally, I managed to fanagle a wine list from a fairly competent woman who was pleasant and after dealing with my dates and making a final decision on a bottle, the former barman returned to pour. Insultingly enough, even though I had done most of the wine questioning, the barman directed (without asking) the 1st pour to my male (Italian) friend who actually then passed it to me to check for cork. Maybe it was a coincidence, but that is not the point in service. No matter how crazy your clientele (i.e. me) is, they should never leave a customer questioning or doubting the level or quality of service they were provided. I’m not a wine expert (I dabble!), but bar staff should first ask who is tasting rather than assume.
Another last jab I’ll twist into this critical rant, is that all the TV screens together with the Ikea furnishings make some parts of the place feel like an airport lounge. And what’s up with the Vietnamese-esque hanging wicker and cane lamps? Someone pointed out to me that Florence has a unique history with basket weaving (think fiasco!) so why would they choose these decorations that obviously look like more Ikea accoutrements when the market is supposed to represent Florentine traditions, albeit with a modern twist? I know it probably came down to the almighty budget and this one is probably a harsher criticism than necessary but I just had to say it.
I must give some positive vibes somewhere in this post. The pizzeria Sud: go. Just go. The manager is really sweet and it rubs off on his staff. The pizza is pretty damn super as it is the same masterminds behind Caffe Italiano (one of the best pizzerias in Florence, hands-down). And they make a cheesecake which rocks my world. And I usually never go crazy for cheesecake. It’s something so creamy, full of flavor and texture and cosmically delicious.
Also, the barmen? Oh, hello. Not bad eye candy, ladies! Those little vests, wannabe speakeasy vibe and hipster hats can serve me mass-produced beer anytime of the day. A side note because I’m starting to get too nice: why the heck aren’t they showcasing more artisan, Italian beers on tap??
The final verdict: I will still go. I’ll just avoid the places I ripped into. The cheesemongers look promising as does the meat stand that serves up mean tagliere charcuterie boards and my favorite: steak tartare. And I am at the end of the day, glad they are there to represent modern Italian food culture in such a traditional location while also being one of the few spots in Florence that breathes a European air.
In fierce criticism,