The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours.

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar.

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. I’ve never been to either Florence or Bologna but am DESPERATE to explore more of Italy after my trip to Rome. What a gold mine that ‘dive bar’ is – all of that food for 12,-? It would be wasteful not to go, right??!

    • I am going to look harder to uncover it for you! Fall and winter are great times to go because of less tourists and better prices, too!

  2. What a coincidence! I actually went there last weekend with a friend that I met in Seville who is from Faenza. He surprised us and arranged a 100-km motorbike ride in the countryside, last stop Firenze! Hopefully, I’ll get chance to write a post on it as it was my first motorbike experience.

  3. Hi Cat,

    It just so happened that I was in Bologna early last week, having ridden from England. I was staying with friends at their farm outside Parma. During my stay I also visited the old walled fortress at Sabionetta, the Gonzaga city of Mantova, Verona, Cremona and Pisa.

    Being a university city, I found food fairly inexpensive in Bologna when compared to other places. One thing though, I found fuel and toll prices quite high in Italy, but all in all an enjoyable tour, specially since unlike cars, I could park my motorcycle quite near the centre of things, free of charge.

    Keep producing and mailing those reports, they are read avidly.


    • Wow, Carlos – what a lovely trip! We lucked out with food on our visit, but while we spent a lot of time eating and drinking, we didn’t pay too much.

  4. Melanie Murrish says:

    I’ve never been to Florence but I’ve been to lots of other places in Italy-we loved it so much we got married in Sorrento. You know some of our most memorable holidays have been where we skipped the “sites” and just pretended we lived there (it’s my favourite pastime). By the way Cat, are you sure you actually went to Firenze-it looks like you’re in front of a greenscreen in that first photo! 😉

  5. I loved everything in Italy when I visited 5 years ago during my time studying abroad, and Florence was my favorite city of my quick Italian tour! My parents, and Dad in particular, were especially jealous that I was there. Bologna is a city that I would love to get to sometime soon. It may not be this year, but I’ll get there as I have a feeling I’ll be living in Europe for more than just this year…
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..A Tour of Bodegas Franco EspañolasMy Profile

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