Panini & Vini
After exploring the Ponte Vecchio, I walked parallel to the Arno River, on a street called the Lungarno Generale Diaz.
I was making my way down to the second bridge, called the Ponte alle Grazie. This bridge would take me to the other side of Florence. My goal was to buy tickets for the Stefano Bardini Museum.
I walked the sidewalk next to a large wall which separated the Lungarno Generale Diaz and the Arno River. Young people sun-tanned on top of the high ledge or posed for photos with the Italian landscape warming the background.
It only took a few minutes and dodging tour groups to get to the Ponte alle Grazie. A gorgeous view of the Ponte Vecchio and the rest of the city greeted you from its railing.
San Niccolò District
By now, the afternoon sun made it too warm for my scarf and cardigan, so I tied them around my bag. I crossed the bridge into San Niccolò, a district of Florence. I followed the road parallel to the river, to enjoy the view, before turning right down a side street.
The streets on this end of Florence were how I envisioned Italy. Narrow streets of uneven cobblestone had charming buildings melting into one another. The streets were empty except for a painter on a ladder in the middle of the sidewalk.
Street art peeked out of grates and on the sides of alleyways. Small businesses were prepping for lunch, and their creations wafted into the streets.
As much as I adored Florence, the San Niccolò district was a dream.
Winding Roads and Apple Maps
I used Apple Maps to find the Stefano Bardini Museum. Despite my confidence, I did end up going in the wrong direction.
Committed to my error, I continued straight and decided to stop into the museum on the way back to my apartment.
Exploring the Piazzale Michelangelo
If you’ve seen any long-distance photographs of Florence, they were taken from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
A recommendation from a friend who lived in Florence told me that it was worth the hike up to the top of the Piazzale.
Since my directional error put me closer to the Piazzale, I decided to follow maps to an archway in the road.
It was like crossing into another part of the city. The road was crooked and steep, the cars tilted on angles with staggered buildings. This part of town felt authentic to me.
I trudged up the hill, crossing from the sidewalk into the street. I was already sweating in the afternoon sun.
When I made it to the top of this hill, I followed a bend — greeted by a massive staircase of flat stone steps. This was a workout, considering you could take two or three steps before stepping up to the next one.
I felt like I was doing a stair climber. I couldn’t find a gait that complimented the stairs. I ended up zig-zagging in a loose “S” to keep a decent pace.
Resting Among the Roses
Halfway up the hill you could turn left into the Giardino delle Rose. Thick knotted trees, unlike what I would expect in Italy, provided a shaded sitting area. I passed another wooden bench as I made my way to the railing overlooking the gardens. It had a built-in Pinocchio carved into its seat.
In the center of the sitting area was a solid metal monument of a ship. I didn’t see a plaque explaining anything about it, but I did stand nearby and wait my turn to peer over the railing overlooking the rose gardens.
The flowers weren’t blooming, but they did offer greenery before the city. Within our eye level, the Duomo and city rooftops peaked between the foliage.
After taking photographs and catching my breath, I continued my zig-zag up the side of the hill to the top of the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Cold Beer and Live Music
I stepped onto a paved road. A cafe’s glass windows were to my left. I passed them, following the road. A gelato shop handed out sherbet to its line of customers. This was the only spot in Florence that I saw a sign for Italian ice.
I made my way into the Piazzale Michelangelo — a stone plaza so large you could play football in it. In the center was the monument of Michelangelo.
A U-shape of stalls facing the city sold patterned scarves and shawls. Another watercolor painter laid his artwork across the stones. Racks of t-shirts from souvenir carts swayed in the occasional breeze.
I started at the entrance of the Piazzale and looped around it. Tourists waited their turns at the piazza’s ledge, trying to get a photo of the city. I passed a staircase going down to a lower garden and restaurant. People took photos from the stairs and listened to the musicians in the piazza.
Several food-truck style carts were on my right: one for dessert, beer, panini, and more. The cold drinks looked even more appealing, as the square was in full sun. I will still hot from my trek up the hill. But I wanted to explore the rest of the square before I stopped for a snack.
I took photos from every ledge — blessed to have an incredible zoom on my Canon camera. I could see Florence’s famous architecture rise above the roof line. If I zoomed, I could see the entire Ponte Vecchio and the Arno River. It was gorgeous.
Of course, I could order a panino and beer from the cart in the square. But I decide to continue wandering the area to see what was available.
I ended up climbing higher up the mountain, to a small church.
This was the Chiesa di San Salvatore al Monte. I didn’t know if I was really allowed to be in the church, but I went inside anyway.
The walls of the church were large stone archways. Sculptures rested within each archway. In the middle archway, prayer candles flickered and melted.
The only light in the church was from its dark windows. The floors were stone with engravings near the pews. I know this, because I nearly snapped my ankle in a shadowed part of the room, where the floor dipped with a missing piece.
I exited the church into a gravel parking lot. The paved road curved upward, to another structure, the San Miniato al Monte, one of the highest points in Florence. I didn’t go in here, though I wish I did.
By the time I reached the top of its stony view, the sky towards the Duomo had started to turn and I was worried I was going to get caught in the rain.
Back Down the Hill…
It was a steep climb back down towards the river. I was glad the trip down the hill was easier than going up. The sky was still cloudy and grey. I put my cardigan and scarf back on, just in case it rained.
I continued down the crooked streets at the bottom of the hill. Two men smoked out of the top-floor window and shouted down to the girls on the street. A restaurant patio was packed with afternoon guests — a waiter circling tables with a bottle of wine. A man walked a shaggy dog up the hill, avoiding the groups coming down. I stepped into the street to avoid them, snapping photos as I made my way to the archway.
I knew I wanted to eat at a restaurant in San Niccolò, I just didn’t know where.
I don’t know if it was by luck, or if I was trying to retrace my steps back to the bridge, but somehow I found myself in front of a hole-in-the-wall panini restaurant called Panini & Vini.
Panini & Vini
Panini & Vini was a tiny store-front on the corner of a side-street. I could stretch my arms across the doorway and reach both ends, it was so tiny.
The shop had no front to it — just the open frame. A skinny woman with chunky jewelry took the one chair in the doorway as she ate her panino.
Long narrow menus hung on either side of the doorway. The right-hand menu was in English. Each panino had a number and ingredient list.
Personally, the Italian menu sounded better, especially since they wrote “ham” on the American menu when they really meant prosciutto.
I couldn’t decide between the panino #1 or #13.
The notion of “following the crowd” was especially true in Italy. As I stood in the doorway pondering the menu, a 10-person line began to form on this little side-street. There were so many people hoping to visit this special panini shop, that we started to block traffic. The longer the line formed, the more people noticed, and decided to join in.
Luckily, I stepped into the line as it started to form, so I was closer to the front.
This is how I imagined food in Italy. The panini shop was the size of a walk-in closet. The counter was an upside-down “L.”
Tiny red ceramic dishes of sauces and toppings lined the glass separator. The butcher-block counter was stacked with traditional Florentine rolls. Two cutting boards balanced on the counter edge — one for cheese and one for meat. The elderly man of this shop (presumably the father of the young man making the panini), cut the various meats paper thin before handing them to his son.
It was an incredible experience. Fresh basil grew from a jar on top of the counter. Cured meats hung from the ceiling — it was everything charming and quaint you would imagine a family-business to be.
Which is why I had no problem waiting 20+ minutes for my panino. I watched the young man make 6 panini for the girl in front of me. And the best part? These loaded sandwiches were only €5!
I tried not to overthink my panini options on this one. I figured going for locally sourced ingredients would create an authentic and delicious experience.
So I ordered panino #1 which was raw ham DOP, mature pecorino, rocket salad (arugula), and white truffle oil. Luckily, the young man behind the counter spoke perfect English, and happily served me my sandwich. He worked methodically, which I appreciated, despite the long line of people.
What made this roll spectacular was that it came directly from the oven. I watched the father remove them from an oven under the counter, shake them (steaming) off the tray and onto the counter. The son would grab one, brush oil on the outside, sprinkle with salt, and slice to assemble the sandwich.
See, the addition of salt really helped, as did the brush of olive oil. I also believe I enjoyed the flavor of this bread more, because it was smeared with white truffle oil.
My “raw ham” as labeled not to frighten Americans, was A1 prosciutto. Super tender and buttery. You can tell good prosciutto by how easily you can bite through it. If it is stringy and tough, it’s not good.
To be able to smoothly bite through, as if it was butter, means it’s high quality — and that’s exactly what Panini & Vini offered.
You can’t go wrong with shaved Pecorino cheese. Arugula is also my favorite. The peppery kick was a fresh addition that this rich panini needed.
As for the sandwich ratio, I think for how thick the bread was, there could’ve been a little more of everything, but overall this was a deliciously filling lunch for an amazing price.
The Brits, the Dudes, and the Church
As you may have heard, Florence passed a law this year making it illegal to eat and walk around. This was to prevent litter and congestion in the touristy locations.
But, as a tourist, I found that you want to multi-task. For instance, I wanted to take my panini and eat and walk along the river. Instead, I claimed the last stool on the nearly non-existent, ledge-of-a-sidewalk in front of Panini & Vini.
Not only did I have the dudes across the street, eating lunch under their patio umbrella watching me eat, but I had the dog walker waiting by the church, our whole line of hungry panini-lovers, and a bunch of Brits who assumed I was Italian.
“What’s she got there?” The younger man asked his mother.
“Looks like arugula.”
“And what else?”
“What sandwich do you think that is?”
They tried to look at the menu over-top my head. I’m a conscious eater to begin with, let alone to have narration with my meal.
“The bread looks great. What are you going to get?”
“I don’t know, I want to know what she’s having.”
“She’s got a mouthful.”
Indeed, I did. This sandwich was large and 1.) I wanted a composed bite and 2.) I was really hungry.
I turned to them, not even halfway through my sandwich. “Do you want to know what I have?”
They didn’t seem surprised that I spoke English. Maybe it was obvious I was American.
“The number 1.”
“I knew it!” The mother said to her son. “That’s what I’m getting.”
It took me a while to finish the panini but I did. There was still a line when I finished. A son and daughter raced from the church steps to grab my empty seat.
I made my way through the streets and back towards the river. I passed two drivers yelling at each other in the middle of the road. Apparently the one had turned into the other. A woman with a dog nearby was the witness but she didn’t look like she wanted to stay.
It all seemed like something out of a movie. The language echoing throughout the streets. The way the sun cozied into the architecture — the cobbled streets with their surprise street art, or the way the river barely moved its greenish color down towards the mountains.
And there I was — walking among it all.
Florence Day 2 | Part 3
Yes, Day 2 in Florence has been a long adventure. But, I’m excited to share my second dinner review, in Part 3. Read it here!