Ah, Florence, the Renaissance jewel of a city celebrated for the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Boboli Gardens, and, for many tourists, the carnivorous thrill of huge red hunks of beef dangling brashly in restaurant windows, often near stickers that read, in Italian, “my favorite animal is steak.”
But now, influenced by COVID-19’s toll on tourism and by well-traveled, health-conscious young locals, a new wave of restaurants is offering exciting pescatarian dishes, highlighting Tuscany’s extensive coastline as a critical feature of their cuisine.
Italians typically eat extremely locally and seasonally, so landlocked Florentines have long associated fish and seafood with seaside holidays and don’t typically prepare fish dishes at home. As fish distribution has become more developed and restaurants are adapting to meet local tastes, city dwellers are embracing the kinds of ingredients and beloved dishes once entrusted to the nearby coast.
“Before COVID, restaurants catered to mass tourism, making the same food, even out of season,” says Alberto Galli of the fish bistro Burro e Acciughe, named for the classic Italian after-school snack of bread topped with butter and anchovies. “Now, there’s a wish for simpler, purer cuisine.”
This move toward marine-influenced cuisine marks a major culinary shift. Beef and organ meat have long been both a mark of Tuscany’s “cucina povera,” with the nose to tail philosophy of using every part of each animal, and a status symbol. With the arrival of an upper-class British community in the 1930s, la bistecca—the phoneticized Italian rendering of the English “beefsteak”—became extremely fashionable, notes Florentine food critic and wine journalist Aldo Fiordelli.
In recent years, though, that classic appeal has waned. It’s not that traditional restaurants aren’t still popular: Buca Lapi, one of the city’s most prestigious restaurants, has been turning out wild boar, rabbit, and tripe since 1880 and shows no signs of slowing down. But when COVID hit and the tourism that long sustained Florence’s meat-heavy menus plummeted, restaurants focusing on local tastes found room to flourish.
Today, chefs are courting younger diners beholden neither to the city’s traditional meaty ingredients nor to its classic antipasto–pasta–main course pattern of eating. At La Ménagère, an Instagram-friendly restaurant, flower shop, and bookstore that opened last December, diners can eat sea bream ceviche served with sweet potatoes, lime, coriander, red onion, and ají amarillo chile, followed by a classic plate of spinach-ricotta gnudi (the Tuscan version of gnocchi). It’s a Florentine-South American mash-up anathema to traditional Tuscan dining, but one that encapsulates the city’s growing culinary diversity.
When cookbook author Emiko Davies moved to Florence from Sydney nearly 20 years ago, she recalls that “there was one fish restaurant. It was really expensive and saved for a special occasion.” She’s watched as Florence has become a vibrant place for fish and seafood, with many options beyond the fancy white linen institutions such as Fuor D'Acqua, a revered precursor to today’s more accessible restaurants.
One of the most dynamic of this crop, Vivo in Padella, opened in May 2016 in Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio neighborhood. Part of a small chain of restaurants founded in Capalbio, on Tuscany’s Argentine Coast, Vivo employs its own fishermen, has an oyster farm in France, and buys the remainder of its fish from the daily auction at the port town of Santo Stefano, 120 miles southwest of Florence. Devoted to ecological-friendly practices, the restaurant chain rigorously traces every item of fish and seafood on its menu, and the waitstaff’s uniforms are made from plastic recovered from the ocean.
COVID lockdowns presented an unexpected opportunity for Gianmarco Innocenti, the restaurant’s manager. He and his colleagues began an online delivery platform—something relatively uncommon in Florence—and found themselves with a new group of clients: local professionals nostalgic for the coast and young people committed to sustainability.
“We have clients now who discovered us in lockdown and come in once a week,” Innocenti says. “They’ve made eating fish a habit.”
That enthusiasm for new ways of eating also inspired Nerina Martinelli to open her restaurant, Nugolo, in late 2019. It is named for one of the 200 varieties of tomatoes she cultivates on her family’s 50-acre property in nearby Settignano. “I wanted to cook the way I want to eat, and to make a restaurant for my friends who were tired of the typical Florentine trattorie.”
In her cheerful dining room near the University of Florence’s architecture school, Martinelli is featuring local ingredients—fish comes from Viareggio, about 60 miles west of Florence—with a modern, international spin. “We travel so much more today, and this is affecting our food culture,” she says. Martinelli’s menu features spaghetti with a saffron red mullet sauce, and a sumptuous egg and pecorino cheese foam, with crunchy celery and bottarga, that suggests El Bulli by way of a Tuscan farm.
Changes are afoot in less formal settings too. When he opened his tiny and beloved sandwich shop ’Ino in 2006, cookbook author and former fashion executive Alessandro Frassica focused primarily on meat-based sandwiches. Recently, he’s added pescatarian panini. A sandwich Frassica calls la costiera, or “the coast,” combines burrata cheese, Cantabrico anchovies, and a lemon-infused oil on a ciabatta roll.
Across town, Gianni Pierattoni and his wife, Francesca Zotti, are also serving fish and seafood in low-key surroundings at their restaurant, La Cucina d Pescepane, which evolved from the food truck they launched in 2015. Recently, a crowd of well-dressed locals sat on the restaurant’s small terrace, enjoying crostini of anchovies and creamy cod, a mixed grill of local shrimp, octopus, and calamari, and tuna tartare with a sauce of shallots, capers, and homemade mustard. The daily homemade paccheri pasta special featured gurnard fish prepared with tomatoes and parsley. The scene was emblematic of the city’s adaptation to COVID.
“Florence is really sensitive to tourism, in a good way,” notes food critic Fiordelli. “When tourism drops, restaurateurs look for new ways to stay relevant to Florentines. That spirit has really led to innovation.”
It’s an exciting evolution, and one that remains true to its Florentine roots, informed by the food culture that has long brought tourists flocking and cemented by the city’s international reputation as a deeply satisfying dining destination.
At Burro e Acciughe, the menu deftly balances Florence’s culinary past with a more seasonal, seafood-heavy future. Galli cheekily serves a dish inspired by lampredotto—the famed Florentine street food sandwich of cow stomach cooked slowly with tomato, onion, parsley, and celery. Only in Galli’s version, the cow is gone, replaced by a generous helping of octopus.
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit