(Updated in May 2021, due to a literal global pandemic bear in mind to check/call in advance, don’t rely totally on google listings as spots here listed are usually managed independently/don’t update google as frequently/plus restrictions change on a dime. Bookmark as more updates are coming. Opinionated spirals were written pre-pandemic. Please support pretty much anything. Except bad aperitivo buffets)
One of my least favorite questions to get from people, whether friends or strangers, are “can you recommend a restaurant in Florence dove si mangia bene ma per poco. (where you eat well but paying little)” Even worse, is when someone asks “where is a good place for aperitivo in Florence that has loads of food and doesn’t cost a lot.” Or even better “where can I eat well, with a view, in the center, eat well and pay little.” I decided to respond to my least favorite question with a curated, quality round-up of frill-free eats & budget restaurants in Florence.
The thought to make a more complete “budget” guide came after The Guardian asked me to provide a piece on where to eat in Florence near her major attractions, and the editor requested budget-friendly addresses. I realized after composing it that “hey- there are indeed some valid budget eateries in Florence!”
But first! A spiral. My initial gut reply wants to say: QUALITY COSTS, PEOPLE!
While I understand the need to have budget options for people who sincerely do not have the means, this post is not targeted towards them or diminishing their needs.
Clearly, traveling to a foreign country for leisure purposes is a luxury (although it should be more inclusive) and if you have the money for a plane ticket to take a vacation in Italy- you can handle a little shade in the realm of being told to stop expecting cheap or prices you think things should be.
If you’re a student abroad, of course budget dining options are crucial and this list may be helpful to you. But the visitors who think an infinite growth model is sustainable to make it possible for them to travel the world and benefit from cheap food, should reconsider their attitudes or expectations.
To better understand why on the other hand locals are obsessed with “having it all” i.e. spending the least and getting the most- let’s start with my observations of the system.
Unless you were born into a rich family or inherited property- people in Italy live modestly. Italian stipends are relatively low that even studied professionals are forced to be modest in dining expenditures.
The dining culture in Italy granted is generally more low-key and isn’t as expensive or developed in fine dining as it is in various premier dining cities like say London, Tokyo, San Francisco, etc. Italians are used to paying a certain price when going to a trattoria.
Of course there are more concept dining establishments and fine dining growing in comparison to even a decade ago, but for the average Italian earner (again, unless they were born into wealth) these pricier outings are extremely reserved.
It is my belief everyone should be earning a dignified living in order to comfortably afford the occasional (or even weekly) dining splurge. Dining to me is a crucial investment in terms of safeguarding (and advancing) the culinary arts.
People in Italy eat out typically at simple eateries/trattorie as a more social gesture or out of convenience. Traditional comfort dishes are served and scrutinized, comparing them to their own home cooking or that of their family.
Of course Florence (relatively speaking to other Italian cities of similar size not counting Milan or Rome) is an incredible city for fine dining, concept eateries and Michelin-style creativity.
Generally speaking around Italy, (outside fine dining) restaurants are divided between osteria, ristorante and trattoria driven where benchmarks lie in finer presentations of local dishes and products as well as service (for ristoranti), comfort food with the occasional creative play with a seasonal product or riff on a traditional dish.
But also the stagnant nature of more interesting, progressing dining scenes in cities like Florence or Bologna for example can be attributed- in part- to local stubbornness in justifying spending a premium to dine out, provincialism and lack of appreciation for dining as a form of art.
In apart to a slower creative/modern dining scene, well-made traditional food is becoming increasingly more difficult to come by. Some blame mass tourism for disappointing traditional food in Florence’s historic center, but I also blame a lack of will towards investing in dining. Whether its because of the status-quo of low stipends or personal stubbornness.
I.e. stubbornness in being objective to appreciate a dining experience with the whole picture, vs focusing on the sheer cost and familiarity. Some fall in the trap of comparing meals to the ones had at mamma’s or made at home, or worse only expecting the flavors familiar to the Italian flavor spectrum and deeming anything else: strano.
I once made a Persian ice cream (vanilla, rose water, saffron, pistachio bastani) for friends and they barely ate it and told me it tasted like risotto. Consider in Italy they use saffron for savory dishes and it was odd to them to experience it as a dessert. This is an example and thankfully there are plenty of younger Italians who travel and have contact with international communities to broaden their world view, but I think you get the point.
The other end of this spectrum are well-to-do Florentines who developed a taste for luxury foods (for status) such as caviar or sushi and suddenly feel “worldly”, but lack a well-rounded palate (or lens) for other aspects of creative or modern dining.
Surely, there are plenty of Italians who invest in dining experiences with appreciation (I’ve found mostly with those who work in the hospitality/dining/drinks industry), but compared with my friends in the states who work in completely different fields, the appreciation is skewed. Granted, these are in cities like San Francisco or Seattle who have developed exceptional dining scenes.
And apologies for my over explaining spiral towards cheap questions- but it must be said. How does anyone expect quality on a shoestring budget, not to mention a god forsaken profit for the staff/owners who are expected to work & provide seamless services & products?
The entitlement certain people have towards cheap food and cheap labor (and who are probably the same ones who are also xenophobic/rail against immigrants or are extremely self-centered/individualistic) will be the demise of our existence, says my inner existentialist.
For this reason, I have staunchly avoided any “budget eats” lists. The propensity for cheap, quantity vs quality is troubling to me. It has gotten us in part of the mess we are in with unhealthy habits, preventable pollution and climate change.
Cheap meat? That has an ecological effect. Cheap labor? This too has troubling socio-economic impacts. Not to mention- I want to support earnest (and passionate) entrepreneurs who willingly open restaurants to do something different with food and to source ingredients, wine & drink from careful makers.
I’d rather invite readers to consider eating smaller quantities of something high quality than cheap quantities of filler feed. Of course, cheap food is stigmatized when really it’s food of the poor. Instead of attacking poor food, how about we question the system that keeps people poor and reliant on cheap food? This is a rather simplistic solution to a larger problem with various socio-economic factors at play.
Which is why I strongly criticize the outdated, inefficient Italian system, one which punishes entrepreneurship (or career fervor) with obstacle course bureaucracy, low wages and high taxes, which yield low monthly stipends or prohibitory hiring practices.
All things considered- I understand under 10eu apericena formulas (aperitivo buffets treated as dinner) and why they have their place.
That being said, there are some tricks & locales in Florence where you can eat well on a budget, bearing in mind that portions may not be of the essence but quality still remains. Bearing in mind also the food will be simple and unelaborated.
Thankfully, food in Italy is relatively affordable so it is not difficult like it is in the states to eat dishes based on fresh, whole foods for accessible prices.
A few rules of thumb:
- Italian breakfast is relatively cheap (under 5eu) anywhere you go- just do not take a seat at most bars & caffes inside the city center, and especially at the historical caffes in Florence’s major squares. When you sit, there is a service/table charge which is implemented and in some cases 8euros per person. The trick is to pick a fine establishment like Caffe Gilli or Rivoire in Piazza della Repubblica for luxury quality coffee & baked goods, consume standing or snag one of the small standing tables near the bar. Nencioni near Sant’Ambrogio has a very small no-charge seating area (seems like eating in a tornado shelter though) and has some of the best breakfast pastries in town. There are some quality 3rd wave coffee bars but usually their pastries leave something to be desired, unless they are doing “anglocized” muffins/etc. I would love to see a 3rd wave coffee doing pastries at the level of Pasticceria Giorgio in the center. But we can all agree hopefully by now, that Italian breakfast well- isn’t the best. Yes, the Italian breakfast is a daily pass for sweet pastries and cappuccino- however it has got to be one of the most unhealthy ways to start the day next to the stereotypical American breakfast of eggs & bacon. You know which country does do breakfast right? Turkey.
- Don’t fool yourself into thinking a Florentine steak is budget-friendly unless you share it with at least 5 other people. The Florentine steak is charged by the kilo, the right ones, will be minimum 1kilo, but usually 1.5 depending on which part of the cut the kitchen staff hacks from. If you see someone advertising a personal-sized steak for 20eu per person- chances are the meat quality is probably disgraceful. I.e. provenience, butchery technique and down to how the cow died- cows who died in fear left tense muscles behind (i.e. won’t cook well nor be tender) and reportedly get sold at discount for cheap distribution.
- Florence has (sadly) few green garden & park spaces. If you don’t mind the treasure hunt for a green picnic spot (like along the river past Ponte alle Grazie), yes go for it and load up at a local gastronomia (deli) like at the Sant’Ambrogio Market. Even at the grocery store, ordering rations from an alimentari or gastronomia has heaps quality passed the packaged stuff. If you don’t speak Italian, it may seem intimidating to order. Know this: 100 grams (un’etto) is a standard measurement and equates about 3.5 ounces or half a cup. 100 grams is what a normal serving size of meat is and 100 grams of cheese is sufficient for 2 people. At the alimentari you can ask for “un’etto di prosciutto, un’etto di pecorino” or just point to what looks nice and say “un’etto di questo/quello per favore” Un’etto means 100 grams. Learn numbers (uno, due, tre, etc) and you’ll be a metric system ordering pro!
- If you end up going to dinner, skip dessert unless it’s at Sabatino because I would rarely not be disappointed at a cheapie trattoria for dessert. Instead, save room for dessert calories and head to a great quality gelateria (my list of the best gelato in Florence HERE) and dessert will be under 2eu in most cases.
- The Italian menu is divided by: Primi, Secondi and Contorni. Primi means first courses so pasta, rice or soup dishes, or even something called “timballo” which are like small encased cassaroles, timballos are usually starch based (rice, pasta, potatos, etc) or “sformatino” a cheese & vegetable souffle-like shaped mold. Secondi are protein-based courses and contorni are sides. Secondi generally don’t come with contorni. My suggestion is to go with a pal, order a primo, secondo and a contorno and split all 3, then get gelato for dessert after. Budget meal and quality done- a miracle!
Now for the cheap advice you’ve all been waiting for: Budget eats in Florence
WHERE TO EAT LUNCH ON A BUDGET IN FLORENCE
For panini lunch, head to Semel in Sant’Ambrogio (Tuscan cooked specialties stuffed in a roll, like stews and pastas), Panificio Brunori (bakery which makes the best panini, sweet & savory baked snacks) on Borgo Pinti, I Due Fratellini near Piazza della Signoria (super hole in the wall experience), Pugi in Piazza San Marco or Piazza della Signoria (one of the best bakeries for schiacciata in town) SandwiChic near the Accademia.
You must visit Bondi in San Lorenzo for one of the best filled focaccia ever for under 3 euros, plus the decor is rustic and I dig it.
For street food, head to Ara’ near the Accademia or now in Sant’Ambrogio as a fast-casual tavola calda kinda place. I love Ara’- it is a Sicilian-themed street food outpost famous for massive fried rice arancini balls stuffed with ragu’ and cheese or my favorite- the black squid ink risotto with calamari. While you’re there- don’t miss best gelato ever, especially the sheep’s milk ricotta, pistachio or the wild forest strawberry fragoline.
Il Cernachino for a sit-down shack with generous panini and homestyle fast food (deli-style soups, stews, roast meats, porchetta & pastas). I would suggest Nerbone in Mercato San Lorenzo for brisket sandwiches and plates of duck ragu’ pappardelle (only available certain days) if the crowds & long lunch lines didn’t give me anxiety (pre-pandemic, obviously)
If you’re an adventurous eater, hit up a lampredotto food truck for a gut sandwich & a tipple of wine for under 5eu. My favorite lampredotto carts are in Via Gioberti, Via de’ Macci, Borgo San Frediano (as they also have plates of pasta for non-offal enthusiasts) Piazza delle Cure and the Lampredottore near the Careggi hospital. For bakery-quality street eats, hit up Forno Canapa di Bruschi Ivana tucked behind the stalls of San Lorenzo Market to stock up on plain and/or stuffed coccoli (fried, savoury dough balls, especially the ones stuffed with mozzarella.) And speaking of coccoli, head to the Friggitoria on Via Dei Cerchi for loads more coccoli/street food goodies a stone’s throw from Piazza della Signoria. Another good street food friggitoria in Florence “off path” is the Friggitoria dell’Albero on Via dell’Albero near the station which does fried pizza and you will thank me. Anytime you see the words “friggitoria” you’re in a world of fried food stand temptation, my friends.
For greasy spoon sit-down eats with loads of charm & character while being able to get away with spending 10-15eu per person for lunch, head to Trattoria da Rocco inside mercato di Sant’Ambrogio (dirt cheap and quality home-style Florentine fare- top pick) Il Ghiotto near Piazza Sant’Ambrogio, Trattoria Sabatino in San Frediano for truly simple, non-fussy food which I think should be an alternative to Trattoria Sostanza. More blue-collar trattoria picks would be Trattoria I’Radda in Santo Spirito, Club Paradiso for the best worst food I’ve ever had in my life.
For meals slightly more refined but still way affordable (30eu or less) head to Trattoria Cibreo or better yet, Teatro del Sale (both on Via de’ Macci). Each of these are part of the Cibreo empire, by Fabio Picchi- one of my culinary heroes. Teatro del Sale does a lunch buffet of extremely nourishing food, a top notch find for vegetarians too as the buffets tend to be rich in well-prepared vegetable dishes and legumes. Must become a member to eat at Teatro del Sale.
La Cucina del Ghianda near Santa Croce has a cafeteria style ordering system (minus the self-service aspect)- go up the hot bar, order whats freshly made or off the menu at the register. Primi clock in at 5euros and include lasagna or Tuscan tomato-rich bread soup pappa al pomodoro and secondi at 6-7 euros and include meatballs, roast veal, porchetta and plates of offal.
And if you don’t order the steak, you can get away wit a cheap lunch at Trattoria Sergio Gozzi or Trattoria Mario. If the line isn’t nuts at Mario’s, that is. If it is, head to Trattoria Enzo e Piero. I wish Mario had the vibes of Da Nennella in Naples, they practically put on a show while you wait, to me the food worth it and the experience is unrivaled.
WHERE TO APERITIVO IN FLORENCE ON A BUDGET
Now this is my least favorite recommendation because if you’ve known me for at least 5 minutes you’ll know I hold deep anguish for aperitivo buffets and think they should be done away with (perhaps a silver lining with the pandemic!)
For Aperitivo, I’d much rather spend 10-15eu on a small plate of meats & cheeses and a glass of wine at say Le Volpi e L’Uva, Enoteca Bellini or Il Santino. Or a craft cocktail with a few snacks like nuts, olives & canapé like at Rivoire or Manifattura. I love Caffe’ Sant’Ambrogio for reliable, consistent martinis with potato chips, olives and peanuts.
Also, a big gourmet crostone toast with truffle, goat cheese and prosciutto and a glass of sparkling from Enoteca Fuori Porta– still spending around 12eu and light years ahead in quality. That said, a lot of bars during the pandemic have come up with new small plate formulas and I hope they stay.
HOWEVER! (and buffets are still TBD during the pandemic)
If you insist on doing Apericena-style Aperitivo with more quantity of food than snacks, consider T’Amero (a pasta bar which has decent wines by the glass and cocktails to go with their freshly made aperitivo buffet), Serafini in Via Gioberti (they bake goods onsite and so you’ll find savory bites, etc plus actual vegetables)
Caffe Dogali near Campo de’ Marte does decent, freshly made food for their aperitivo (fried coccoli, meats, cheeses, sformatini, pastas which don’t sit at a buffet but they come around and serve as they come out of the kitchen)- and primarily locals frequent here so it would be a nice break to get out of the center. This list may not seem so enthusiastic- but I warned you I’m not exactly passionate about advising on apericena bars. For a dignified list of Aperitivo in Florence, hit up THIS ARTICLE.
WHERE TO EAT DINNER ON A BUDGET IN FLORENCE
From above, you can pretty much pick all of the lunch spot trattorias listed except Trattoria Da Rocco, Gozzi and Mario. In addition, while spending slightly more (if you order right & share, you could get away with a 20eu dinner), I’d add Osteria de’ Pazzi (quite possibly the only spot where you could get a nice piece of steak (tagliata- not the same as “la fiorentina”) for under 20eu, Teatro del Sale again for a splurge dinner (30euros I believe) which is again buffet style and includes a performance (theatre, music, etc) to follow- great value! I love Club Culinario da Osvaldo but I wouldn’t classify it as budget- but you could fill up and not spend a ton if you stuck to the potato-filled pastas and house wine.
Any spot for a pizza will generally not break the bank. The places which I’d go back to intentionally would notably be La Divina Pizza (by the slice plus craft beers), Berbere (new wave pizza), O’Scugnizzo in San Frediano (Neapolitan pies, few tables, gritty atmosphere), I’d suggest Santarpia but their pies are not cheap (and a bit outside the city center) but you could still get away with a gourmet pizza dinner for under 30eu. I didn’t hate the pizza from Fermento 1889 and Da Michele (but also just because a place does something alright doesn’t mean it makes the cut for a curated list- that’s my approach at least!)
For more sit-down joints, consider Trattoria Da Giorgio near the train station for seriously dirt cheap food in a time capsule old school blue collar restaurant, they do a fixed dinner menu for under 20eu with wine.
Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori is my absolute fave for family-run classic doing homestyle Florentine & Tuscan fare with some regional Italian bits (i.e. saffron zucchini flower paccheri). If you’re lucky to plan in advance & get a table, you’ll get away with a traditional meal with wine for less than 20 (but order wisely). I suggest sticking with the soups and first course pastas and wine to fill up on good food and saving a buck OR splitting a soup or pasta and splitting a meat-based main and a vegetable side.
La Cucina del Ghianda near Santa Croce for dinner (primi start at 8, secondi start at 12) The atmosphere is quaint and classy, a step-up from the greasy spoon joints but still extremely competitive costs. In San Niccolo’ there is L’Antica Mescita which provides loads of rustic decor & atmosphere and no-frills dirt cheap Tuscan fare, I enjoy their soups and meat dishes the most. While I consider Fiaschetteria Nuvoli by the Duomo is more of an Aperitivo joint (for crostini and goblets of wine) or a lunch spot, I think it could be a valid cheap dinner spot if you stick to the tagliere (charcuterie) boards and maybe a primo like a soup or pasta. Love the underground cellar & dining area- it’s got soul.
Banki Ramen does cheap bowls of delicious ramen in the back of a coffee bar near the station as well if you’re looking for something international. Vino e Ravioli off Porta al Prato is a gem for dumplings. Another international food pick would be Ristorante Tehran because I believe piatti unici (a term for singular plates with a few courses on one) are under 15 euros and include flavorful meat, rice and roasted tomato. For Indian, Nura Indian Food does delivery/food truck (find on IG) and they specialize in the cuisine of Kerala.
For Vegetarians who’d like to eat sweet & cheap check out Il Vegetariano in San Lorenzo as it is a solid choice for both lunch & dinner with fresh cooked, hearty fare in a trattoria atmosphere. Most vegetarian places try to copy some futuristic hipster bistro and what I like about Il Vegetariano is atmosphere is traditionally Tuscan. If you want the tragically hip boho artsy vibe, do check out Brac near Santa Croce which does fun “piatti unici” which are plates that mix all sorts of “portate” like salad on the same plate as pasta but their salads use decent avocado and tasty layered bakes with music sheet bread from Sardinia.
Curious for more dining advice? Hit up my press clippings for dining guides on sites like Eater, The Guardian and Vogue, my complete curated dining guide to Florence, and my where to drink guides
In your affordable trust,