This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
What’s your first thought at the mention of Florence? Art? Shopping? Food?
Half-day food tours are all the rage these days in cities around the world. Seven years ago, Toni Mazzaglia, an Italian-American expat hailing from North Carolina, started one of Italy’s first such tours and the very first food tour in Florence – Taste Florence.
With eight food- and wine-related stops in the course of a four-hour walk, Taste Florence is part culinary history lesson, part moving party (with guests like Toni or one of her engaging guides and the characters who run many of the places on the tour) and part scrumptious buffet.
Mazzaglia’s itinerary takes into account the increasingly refined palates of today’s travelers. “Due to lots of cooking shows, travel shows, the internet, the farm to table movement, guests are more sophisticated now. Many are ready and willing to try tripe, tongue, anchovies,” Mazzaglia says.
While Italian food varies by region and even by town, the culinary customs of one area influence on neighboring gastronomic traditions. This is evident at the first stop at a norcineria – a shop selling the pork products made by the famous butchers of Norcia, a town in neighboring Umbria. Mazzaglia leads a comparative tasting of the traditionally sweet San Daniele prosciutto and the saltier Norcia variety.
“I like to mix up the savory and sweet,” Mazzaglia says and our next stop is a biscotteria. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Italy, especially Tuscany, you’ve tasted plenty of biscotti especially dipped in Vin Santo (sweet wine). I can generally take or leave biscotti but dear God, the chocolate and orange variety at Il Cantuccio di San Lorenzo (Via Sant’Antonino, 23) knocked my socks off.
“In Tuscany, the foods that taste good, don’t look good,” Mazzaglia says and brings us to Pasticerria Sieni (Via dell’Ariento, 29) a 106-year-old bakery to prove her point. We’re served an unimpressive looking pudino di riso, a pastry made of rice pudding that turns out not only to be rich and mouthwatering but surprising – as rice isn’t a very common ingredient in Tuscany.
Mazzaglia first lived in the San Lorenzo neighborhood as a student studying Italian gastronomy and culture and though she has since moved, we hear shouts of “Ciao Toni” ringing out as we make our way to Florence’s Central Market.
The first floor is home to the Florentine institution Nerbone, home to perhaps Mazzaglia’s favorite dish in Florence – panino a bollito di manzo.
“Not many people think of Italy and dream of a steaming pile of boiled beef. But when they take the first bite and realize that even boiled beef is a work of art when crafted by Italians, guests have a magic moment,” she says.
After a visit to the renovated second floor of the market (a must-see) for tastings of mozzarella and truffles, it is on to wine and balsamic vinegar, where Mazzaglia, a sommelier, leads more seated, relaxed tastings.
“I decided to add it to the tour in Florence even though it is from another region (Emilia-Romagna). Balsamic is too special to be left misunderstood, or even worse, misused,” she emphasizes.
What gourmet experience would be complete without chocolate and gelato? Mazzaglia brings us to Vestri (Piazza Gaetano Salvemini, 11) for a tasting of six – count ‘em – six exquisite varieties of chocolates sourced from Vestri’s own cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic. Florence has plenty of gelaterias to choose from but Leonardo Vestri has combined passion and science to create mouth-watering and memorable flavors like dark chocolate with chili peppers and white chocolate with wild strawberries.
The only thing left to do after a Taste Florence tour – take a nap!
(866) 736-6343 (toll-free in U.S.)
Tours are held Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m.
Private tours and custom food experiences are available on request.
Tickets: $89 per person (or $75 for children 17 and under)