Eating Out on a Budget in Florence

Ciao Readers!

Today I am taking a little different approach (hey, it’s my birthday, I can do what I want!).  I am going to attempt to play real “tour guide.”  If you don’t know, back when, I bought the domain name “” (I could not believe it wasn’t taken), with the idea that one day I’d know enough about this town to offer tour services.  So, to test the waters, instead of just telling you about places we’ve eaten without any useful specifics (address, hours, helpful hints), today I am going to try and give concrete info for those who may be interested in trying out my recommendations.  Now, if you are not planning a meal out in Florence, have no fear, I will add some fun facts (and photos, of course) to make it amusing nonetheless.

While I’m going to point out a few specific places, overall I can say that the best way to enjoy an affordable meal out in Florence is to make that meal lunch.  The prices of food, oftentimes the same exact food as dinner, are markedly cheaper at lunch time, and since here a 2 hour meal with wine is a very normal lunch, there’s really no need to wait until dinner to enjoy the dining experience (plus, if you’re like me, the thought of just starting a large meal at 8:30 p.m. doesn’t “go down” well).  If you do want to enjoy an evening out, though, I will have future recommendations for you as well.

Italian Lunch Specials – Many of the local restaurants have great lunchtime specials, which gets you a complete meal for a set price.  There are many touristy places that also have “fixed price” lunches, but you can spot those a mile away because 1) the sign will be in English, and 2) the price will be way more than you should be paying for lunch.  Here’s an example of a good lunch deal from one of our local finds….

I had written about Le Stagioni (Via Capo di Mondo 10/12 r, closed Sunday lunch) in my earlier pizza review, and after the enthusiastic comments by a reader, we decided to both give their pizza another try and to go there for lunch as well.  Turns out their pizza since my initial post has been cooked to perfection and they have a good lunch special to boot.   As with most Italian places, the lunch special only applies during the week.  Here you get a beverage of your choice (which includes a tiny beer or a 1/4 liter of wine), a choice off a list of pizzas and pastas, and the requisite after-lunch cafe for 7.50 euros (you can add an appetizer or dessert for another 2.50).  Since this is a lunch special, there is no “coperto” (and of course no tax or tip), making lunch for two exactly 15 euros total.  This is a pretty typical lunch deal and you can find them at many local places.  (For example, La Luna has a similar offer, except with more choices, for 8 euros.)  Here’s Steve’s and my lunch special:

pizza lunch

Foreign Food Rosticceria – Since I already devoted an entire post praising the virtues of these hole-in-the-wall foreign food places, I won’t repeat myself here.  However, I will provide some details.  First off, unlike Italian places, these are almost always open for lunch on Sundays and open every evening by 5:30 or 6:00 for dinner; so if you can’t wait until 8:00 to eat, this is the way to go.  They also have the same exact menu and prices for lunch and dinner (since they are not technically restaurants), so another good budget tip.  (Drinks at these places are usually 1.00 euro for bottled water, 1.50 for sodas; we never have wine with our foreign food, but I’m sure it’s inexpensive.)

After one commenter asked for the address of the Sri Lankin place, I thought “why didn’t she just google it?”  After I took my own advice I discovered you can’t actually find it on the internet, so here’s the scoop:  Eagle Food Centers is located at Via Del Moro 67/r (not far from the train station) and is open 7 days a week.  The lunch plate special (white rice, curries and a popadum) is 3.50 euros vegetarian (and maybe with chicken) and 4.00 if you have meat (vegetarian plate pictured).  From their flyer I’ve discovered that they actually have a Sunday special which includes the above, plus fried rice and desserts for 5.00 euros.  We’ll be trying that out soon!  Speaking of not being able to find it on the internet – the Chinese place I’ve spoken about is called Rosticceria Casalinga (Via Del Leone 53/r, closed Monday lunch).  This place actually does have a few reviews on Tripadvisor, but would do much better business if 1) their name gave some indication that it was a Chinese place (it just basically means “home-cooked”), and/or 2) they had a website (I made these polite suggestions when the owner asked me how I had found out about the place, which was pretty empty).  Their prices for typical dishes range from 3.50 – 4.50 (with rice being extra).

sri lankin food

PinGusto Wok – We ate lunch yet again last weekend at PinGusto, an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet (right across from Sant’Ambrogio Market at Via Petro Annigoni 11, open 7-days, Italian hours; you need reservations for dinner).  Now, as with most “Japanese” restaurants in Florence (there aren’t many to choose from), this one is not authentic in the sense that the cooks are from China, not Japan.  (As an aside, Japanese food is so uncommon here that your place-mat at PinGusto actually explains to you what wasabi is and how to use it, pictured).  And, no, they don’t have the biggest variety of fish on offer (almost all salmon).  But to us PinGusto has so many redeeming qualities that we really enjoy our lunches there (admittedly, I’ve talked to others who disagree).  First off, lunch is only 10 euros (even on the weekend) for all-you-can-eat (drinks extra; dinner is 20), and for those of you who know Steve, you know he can do some serious damage (okay, I can also do my fair share).  While there is an entire cooked food buffet as well (pictured), we pretty much stick to the sushi.  One of the great things about the sushi (served conveyor-belt style) is that, unlike every other all-you-can eat sushi place anywhere, they actually send out plates of sashimi, so if you are picky/patient, you can eat tons of fresh fish without getting filled up on rice.   While there are many things we wish they served (tuna, eel), for 10 euros I’ll take a never-ending plate of salmon and seaweed salad any time! (And their lemon gelato isn’t a bad palate cleanser afterwards).  Helpful hint: this place fills up fast and usually has a line – we have found that if we get there about 12:35 (they open at 12:30), we walk right in at the back of the line that’s been waiting since 12/12:15, avoiding that wait and the very long line that follows by about 1:00.

Thanks for letting me be your guide today!

Foreign Food in Florence

Florence is a “foodie” town – if we’re talking Italian food.  Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Italian food (a huge part of the draw here). And there will be many more posts to come about all of its deliciousness (we’ve started the arduous task of searching out the best pizza).  But once in a while, I just gotta have something different.  I have been surprised that (unlike Bologna), it is really hard to find decent foreign food here.  So, I have been on a quest to discover hidden restaurants and source ingredients.  Today I share with you some of what I have discovered:

Asian food – as there are quite a large number of Chinese immigrants here, there are numerous Chinese “rosticceria.”  From what we have tried, the food is cheap and tasty, though not of the spicy-Szechuan variety we like.  It also seems that Italians don’t really frequent these places (one explained to me they are rumored to be dirty – which leaves me wondering if this is true, or a prejudice…).  As for other Asian food, it is almost completely lacking.  There is not a single Thai or Vietnamese restaurant – not one!  And these are two of my all time favorite cuisines.  There are a few “Japanese” places though most of them don’t look at all Japanese.  We went to one very popular sushi buffet – Pingusto Sushi Wok.  It was not bad – the sushi comes out on a rotating belt and if you stand close enough to where the chefs are launching the plates, you can sometimes snag plates of whole sashimi.  The choices are very limited, (no unagi or umi; very limited tuna), but for 10 euros at lunch, it’s worth a visit.   I did stumble upon what looks to be (here’s hoping) a traditional Japanese ramen house (all the writing is in Japanese).  It wasn’t open when I saw it, but I know we’ll be trying it soon.  There is one “fusion” restaurant – Buddakan – which we have not yet tried – the menu has something that looks like pad thai and something else that looks like Korean bulkogi – will let you know.   So, if you want Asian food, here’s the best discovery in Florence – Vivi Market.  They have lots of imported foods, mostly Asian.  I was able to get authentic green curry paste, bamboo shoots, etc. (pictured below) and create my own green curry chicken (after 2 other stops for the chicken and veggies [hour+ walk total]) – it was extremely close to what I get at Thai II back in Albuquerque! (They also have “American” groceries, which appear limited to all varieties of Duncan Hines cake mixes and frostings, as well as 2 brands of peanut butter I have never seen and am pretty sure are not American).  There is also a lady at Sant’ Ambrogio market among the produce vendors who sells Asian ingredients – have gotten jasmine rice and ginger from her.

Indian food –  so far we have discovered two Indian restaurants (actually, I think the two Indian restaurants).  Neither of them have a buffet, which is interesting, because everywhere else we’ve been in the world (including Kyoto) has these.  However, we did try one of the restaurants and it was delicious (and the naan was fresh made on the spot).  We had the “fixed menu” for lunch an it tasted authentic to us (of course, we’ve never been to India, so “authentic” is relative).

“Mexican” food –  okay, this one is a real sticking point.  We’re from New Mexico, so we love all varieties of Mexican food (real Mexican, New Mexican, Tex-Mex).  There seems to be no Mexican food here.  There is one restaurant, Tijuanas, but the menu looks incredibly expensive, and an American I spoke with (from California, so she should know) said that it is not authentic, but a touristy thing.  There is a brand of “Mexican” food in all the grocery stores, and I was mistakenly excited when I saw it – “Casa Fiesta” (pictured below).  If you read the tiny print carefully you will discover that it is produced by a Swedish company (I know – what??!!!).  I have no idea how you make flour and water taste like absolutely nothing, but that’s what the tortillas in my fajita experiment tasted like (other than that, I got pretty close, though I cheated by having sent some salsas in our boxes).  I have never made my own tortillas of any kind, but since Vivi Market had masa, I have decided to give making corn tortillas a go.  (If you ever come visit and want to bring a present….).  The one ingredient that it seems I will never find here is cilantro.

American food – I am not really sure what this category is, but there are supposedly a few “American” restaurants, which we have not tried (there are also two Irish pubs).  There is a McDonald’s and a Burger King (which, I admit, we did try).  Burger King sells beer and all sorts of stuff you’d never see on a menu in the States, but the burgers taste exactly like you’d expect, or actually better (disclaimer – those who know me know I wouldn’t be caught eating at Burger King in the States, but, 1) Steve really wanted a burger and 2) here I consider it part of my culinary-cultural exploration).  As for groceries, as I mentioned, you can find cake mix and peanut butter; the grocery stores actually have these cute tiny jars of Skippy for about 4 euros (hint for present number two).  There is also a fine food store, Pegna, in which I spotted a big round of cheddar cheese (they also carry English teas and some of the Fauchon line of foods from France).

Other –  there is a Kosher Market and “deli.”  The market part is cool – I bought some matzo meal there so I can make matzo ball soup once the weather changes.  But the deli – oh my – this has been my biggest culinary let-down.  We had passed this place during ferie and saw “pastrami sandwich” on the menu (which is in English), so we were all excited and knew we had to go back and try it.  I am looking at all of this as an adventure, but I’m only human – when I saw the nice kid pull out pre-packaged turkey loaf and a bun from a freezer bag, my heart sank.  Wow, was it bad – not only because it didn’t even resemble a pastrami sandwich (I have the one from Katz or Carnegie Deli in N.Y. in my mind), but because it was just bad.  Lesson learned.

A ubiquitous (and luckily delicious) food here is “doner kebab.”  Now, when you think “kebab,” you may think food on a stick.  But think closer to a gyro instead.  There are little Middle-Eastern places all over town that have a big spit of slow-roasted meat (chicken? turkey? other?) (pictured below) and serve very delicious and cheap sandwiches and wraps (meat, plus veggies and chile and yogurt sauces; some have falafel; also pictured below).  I think kebab are actually the “fast food” of Italy (and all of Europe for that matter).

These are a few of my culinary discoveries (and non-discoveries) so far – if you live here, please post a comment if you have your own finds to share!

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