At just 100 square kilometres in size, Florence is a very compact city that is totally crammed with art and food. It’s estimated there are over 3,000 places to eat.
So don’t settle for the tourist-trap 15EUR plate of over-seasoned and microwaved pasta with cardboard-like bread, while being ushered out the door to make space for the next greenhorn, after a surprise extra 3EUR coperto charge!
Head away from the crowds to Oltrarno across the Arno River for a breath of fresh air.
A 20 minute walk from the historical centre across the river is San Frediano suburb. Believe me it’s well worth the walk. This is one of the ‘real Florence’ working class neighbourhoods. Walk past Santo Spirito and look for a dusty square where kids are playing soccer. This is Piazza Torquato Tasso and here you’ll find the hidden gem Al Tranvai.
This family-owned and operated trattoria serves Cucina Casalinga - good old hearty home cooked traditional Tuscan food and scrumptious house wine, all served with welcoming smiles. It will have you (and your wallet) feeling warm and fuzzy.
Like the food, the setting is unpretentious, decorated by rows of empty wine bottles (of which I'm sure they have a bottomless supply) and old pictures of Florence...perhaps some around the time when the trattoria first opened in 1985 and many that are much older. There are also lots of pictures and posters of trams, after which the trattoria is named and styled after, with long tables and seats running up the sides of the room like the inside of a tram.
At a guess they might seat up to 30 people, so we were extremely lucky to snatch the last table when we wandered by. I'd highly recommend booking as this place is always packed with locals with the occasional table of curious tourists like us.
You know you're in for a good meal when instead of menus the dishes are written in Italian on blackboards and a bits of butchery paper sticky-taped together.
The house red is still the best house wine I've tasted in Europe. Waaayy too easy to drink.
Keeping with traditions, the bread is typically Tuscan and at first bite, can be a bit of a shock. It's what I reckon eating a dishwashing sponge would be like. Soapy in taste and spongey in texture. That's because it's made without a key ingredient: salt.
There are a few theories why traditional bread in Tuscany and Umbria is made like this. The most popular belief stems from the Middle Ages when Pisa was at war with many neighbouring regions and cut supplies of salt to central Tuscany. Since salt was used to preserve many foods, this was a major problem. Florence reduced its use of salt by making bread without it and continued the tradition, possibly as a bit of a *%#^ to Pisa.
Without salt, Tuscan bread is perfect for soaking up other flavours like in Cacciucco (fish and bread soup), Panzanella (tomato and bread salad) and my all-time favourite Tuscan dish, Ribollita.
Al Tranvai's Ribollita will forever be etched in my heart. It was my first one and since then I've been unable to find another that comes close. Matt the ultimate meat-eater also thought it was exceptional.
For me it tasted like coming home (strange statement from a Malaysian-Chinese!). Ribollita literally means 're-boiled' and like many comforting Italian dishes, it has 'poor' origins. Some say it came from servants saving the scraps from their boss's leftovers. Anyway it's made from cheap veges like cabbage, carrots, potatoes and beans cooked with bread and olive oil; and it reminded me of my childhood when my parents would throw all our leftovers into a big pot or slowcooker over the course of the day and it would become a big porridge, stew-thing and be the most comforting food imaginable for a winter's night.
Matt ordered the Tortellacci ai Funghi (fresh pasta stuffedd with ricotta and spinach in cep sauce) because he's obsessed with 'stuffed' pastas and it did not disappoint - it was delicious. Rich in flavour from the porcini mushrooms but well balanced with the creamy ricotta and fresh tomato.
For secondi we shared the Polpettine di Carne Mista accompagnate da Verdure di Stagione (meatballs with seasonal vegetables) and Coniglio Fritto con Zucchine (deep fried rabbit and zucchini).
The meatballs were lovely and moist and the eggplant ragu very tasty. The rabbit dish was a surprise - we did not expect EVERYTHING to be deepfried. But it turned out to be a winner. The batter was super-light, nicely seasoned, crispy and not too oily like a good tempura should be and the rabbit was super juicy.
It was only wise to copy what everyone else was ordering for dessert.
Tiramisù in Italy is much more like a creamy trifle served in a bowl or cup than in New Zealand and Australia where it's more of a coffee cake. Italy wins!
The Cantucci di Prato con Vin Santo ("holy wine") is simply almond biscotti dunked in sinfully sweet Italian dessert wine. So simple yet so elegant. I took a mental note to recreate this back home and impress my besties.
For two primi and two secondi piatti, two desserts, half a litre of the house red, two large beers and sparkling water, the bill came to a very decent 74EUR.
We could not believe our luck finding this terrific little trattoria on our very first night in Florence. Although we enjoyed a lot of delicious food around Florence, Al Tranvai was most definitely our favourite meal and a highlight of our trip. We still think about it all the time!
Do you have any favourites in Florence? What are your most memorable meals when travelling?
[Al Tranvai: Ph: 055 225197 - Piazza Torquato Tasso, 14/r - Closed Sundays]