‘We are like an island’: inside a secret Florence neighborhood

The Florentine neighborhood of Sant’Ambrogio may be just a 10-minute walk east of the landmark Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio, but this part of the Tuscan capital has a distinctive character far removed from the tourist traps of pizza and overpriced gelato. It is a close-knit community that is still truly Florentine but also multi-ethnic. It’s food nirvana and a favorite student haunt.

The crowds in the historic center quickly thin out as I enter Sant’Ambrogio and the tranquil gardens of Piazza dei Ciompi. It’s midday on a Friday, and while Giotto’s bell tower may be tolling back in the Piazza del Duomo, the noise that greets me in the piazza is the muezzin’s call to prayer. Crowds of Muslims spread their prayer mats in the center of Piazza dei Ciompi, where the Masjid Al-Taqwa, Florence’s main mosque, is located.

At 83, Savino Zaccagnino is officially the oldest barber in Florence, and his salon is right on Piazza dei Ciompi. “When I first opened here 55 years ago, the piazza was a fruit and vegetable market,” he says. “Today there is a weekly craft market, and now there is a mosque. Although it is a converted garage that is far too small to accommodate everyone, the community gathers in the square on Fridays. The quarter is proud to be a tolerant neighborhood: where else in Florence can you visit our medieval Chiesa di Sant’Ambrogio and then two minutes’ walk away discover a huge, exotic Moorish synagogue built by the Jewish community 140 years ago.”

Florence's famous tripe panino lampredotto sandwich

Queuing for Florence’s famous tripe panino lampredotto sandwich. Photo: Domenico Tondini/Alamy

It is what Sant’Ambrogio brings together without a doubt mercato: Florence’s first covered dining hall, opened in 1873, is a few minutes’ walk east of Piazza dei Ciompi, surrounded by outdoor stalls selling porcini mushrooms, olives, porch and pecorino cheese straight from the Tuscan countryside. Clothing stands are piled high with bargain outlet designs and vintage brands, and there’s also a famous flea market. Rosanna Vannini, who has been selling antiques here for 30 years, says: “Sant’Ambrogio is like an island, the last neighborhood in Florence. Sure, some tourists are finding their way here now, but I don’t really think they’re ruining the spirit of the quarter, like what happened in San Lorenzo around the country. central mercato.”

Pier Paolo Pollini, who was serving the emblematic Florence panino lamparedotto – tripe sandwich – for 25 years from his food truck outside the church of Sant’Ambrogio, says the same thing. “We get some tourists at the weekend, but you won’t see our menu translated into English or Japanese. Our regulars are builders or office workers, families shopping in the market, students willing to pay €4 for lunch and even school children, because everyone loves lampredotto.”

If you visit Florence and see a painting by Botticelli, don’t settle for a fast food pizza or a sandwich on the street

Giulio Picchi, restaurant

One name that stands out around the mercato is Cibrèo, which operates through a restaurant, a café and, recently, a C.Bio community supermarket. This is foodie Florence at its best. Cibrèo was started by Fabio Picchi, a larger-than-life chef who died unexpectedly last year, leaving Sant’Ambrogio in mourning. His son Giulio says: “In 1979 when Cibrèo opened, no tourist had ever gone as far as Sant’Ambrogio.”

He explains the philosophy behind Cibrèo: “If you visit Florence and see a Botticelli painting and a Michelangelo statue, you shouldn’t settle for a fast food pizza or a sandwich on the street, like many people do, unfortunately. Therefore, Cibrèo drew visitors to Sant’Ambrogio to complete their experience with a wonderful meal of traditional Florentine cuisine, using local products straight from the market across the street.

Cibreo Restaurant

Cibrèo Restaurant: ‘Foodie Florence at its best.’
Photo: Alamy

“On the streets around here visitors can find our traditional community casa bottega, where artisans live above their workshop, just as I live above Caffe Cibrèo. So many artisans still work and live in Sant’Ambrogio: Borselli Cornici, where Signora Virginia makes gilded frames as they did a century ago; the coltelleria by Fabio Figus, whose handmade knives are works of art; and exquisite handmade jewelery by Felice Nicoletti.”

Piazza dei Ciompi flea market

A wealth of hidden treasures at the Piazza dei Ciompi flea market. Photo: Dorothy Alexander/Alamy

Looking into Cibrèo’s kitchen, I see that the staff are of different nationalities and Giulio says that’s thanks to the local region’s program to help settle new immigrants. “There are great courses for learning Italian, as well as helping people find a job and somewhere to stay, so we have people from Senegal and Nigeria, Syria and Armenia, Algeria and Iraq included in our brigade today.”

Apart from the typical sights of Florence, Sant’Ambrogio offers something very different at Le Murate. Originally a 15th-century convent, it became a massive prison that only closed in 1985, and is now a modern cultural and social project that includes low-cost public housing, a center dedicated to human rights, performance spaces arts, late night. a cafe full of students, and Le Carceri (The Prison), a wine bar pizzeria. The gallery space, located in a wing of the prison that was deliberately left untouched, is just another example of how Sant’Ambrogio stands out from the rest of the city.

Where to eat and drink

Cafe Literario

Spritz and cocktails at Caffe Letterario. Photo: Hemis/Alamy

Inside Sant’Ambrogio market, lively bar Vecchio Mercato offers wine for €1 a glass. Across the road Il Giova is a friendly trattoria full of locals enjoying their juicy beef tags. Vegetarians will love the fried artichoke on Ruth’s kosher vegan menu next door to the synagogue. Barista coffee is served at Coffee Mantra, while Caffè Letterario is more for spritz, wine and cocktails.

Where to stay
Hotel Plaza Lucchesi isn’t cheap, with doubles from €180, but it’s worth splurging on just for its rooftop pool.

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