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

The Florentine neighborhood of Sant’Ambrogio may be just a 10-minute walk east of the iconic Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio, but this part of the Tuscan capital has a distinctive character far from tourist pizza traps and overpriced gelato. It is a tight-knit community that remains genuinely Florentine but also multi-ethnic. It is a food nirvana and a favorite place for students.

The crowds that throng the historic center thin quickly as I pass through Sant’Ambrogio and the peaceful gardens of Piazza dei Ciompi. It’s Friday at noon, and though Giotto’s bell tower may be tolling in the Piazza del Duomo, the noise that greets me in the piazza is the muezzin’s call to prayer. Crowds of Muslims unroll their prayer rugs in the middle of Piazza dei Ciompi, home to the Masjid Al-Taqwa, Florence’s main mosque.

At 83, Savino Zaccagnino is officially the oldest barber in Florence, and his salon is right on the Piazza dei Ciompi. “When I first opened here 55 years ago, the square was a fruit and vegetable market,” he says. “Today it has a weekly craft market, and now there is a mosque. Although it is actually a converted garage that is too small to accommodate everyone, on Fridays the community gathers in the plaza. This neighborhood prides itself on being a tolerant neighborhood: where else in Florence can you visit our medieval church of Sant’Ambrogio and then, a two-minute walk away, discover an immense and exotic Moorish synagogue built by the Jewish community 140 years ago?

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

What unites all of Sant’Ambrogio is undoubtedly its market: Florence’s first indoor food hall, opened in 1873, a few minutes’ walk east of Piazza dei Ciompi, is surrounded by outdoor stalls selling porcini mushrooms, olives, porchetta and pecorino cheese straight from the Tuscan countryside. The clothing stalls are packed with discount designs and vintage brands, and there’s also a famous flea market. Rosanna Vannini, who has sold antiques here for 30 years, says: “Sant’Ambrogio is like an island, the last popular Florentine neighborhood. Of course, some tourists find their way here now, but I really don’t think they are ruining the spirit of the neighborhood, as has happened in San Lorenzo around the central Market.”

Pier Paolo Pollini, who has been at the service of the emblematic Florence panino lampredotto – tripe sandwich – for 25 years from his food truck outside the church of Sant’Ambrogio, he says the same thing. “We get a few tourists on weekends, but you won’t see our menu translated into English or Japanese. Our regular customers are bricklayers or office workers, families shopping at the market, students happy to pay €4 for lunch, and even schoolchildren, because everyone loves it. lampararedotto.”

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

Giulio Picchi, restorer

One name that stands out in the mercato is Cibrèo, which operates three restaurants, a cafeteria and, more recently, the C.Bio community supermarket. This is foodie Florence at its best. Cibrèo was started by Fabio Picchi, a chef extraordinaire who died unexpectedly last year, leaving all of Sant’Ambrogio in mourning. His son Giulio says: “In 1979, when he opened Cibrèo, no tourist ever went as far as Sant’Ambrogio”.

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

Cibreo Restaurant

Cibrèo Restaurant: ‘The best of gastronomic Florence’.
Photography: Alamy

“In the streets here, visitors can discover our traditional community of bottega house, where the artisans live above their workshops, as I live above Caffe Cibrèo. Many artisans still work and live in Sant’Ambrogio: Borselli Cornici, where Signora Virginia makes gilt frames as they did a century ago; the ponytail from Fabio Figus, whose handmade knives are works of art; and exquisite handmade jewelry by Felice Nicoletti”.

Piazza dei Ciompi flea market

A lot of hidden treasures in the flea market in Piazza dei Ciompi. Photograph: Dorothy Alexander/Alamy

Glancing around Cibrèo’s kitchen, I see that the staff are of many different nationalities and Giulio says this is thanks to the local region’s program to help settle newly arrived immigrants. “There are great courses for learning Italian, as well as helping people get a job and a place to stay, so today our brigade includes people from Senegal and Nigeria, Syria and Armenia, Algeria and Iraq.”

Instead of the typical views of Florence, Sant’Ambrogio offers something very different at Le Murate. Originally a 15th-century convent, it was converted into an immense prison that only closed in 1985, and now houses an innovative cultural and social project that encompasses low-cost public housing, a center dedicated to human rights, performing arts spaces, a café night packed with students, and Le Carceri (The Prison), a pizzeria wine bar. The gallery space, located in a wing of the prison that has been deliberately left untouched, is just another example of how Sant’Ambrogio stands apart from the rest of the city.

Where to eat and drink

Cafe Letterario

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

Inside the Sant’Ambrogio market, the lively Vecchio Mercato bar serves wine for €1 a glass. Across the street, Il Giova is a friendly trattoria packed with locals enjoying their juicy beef. tagliata. 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
The Hotel Plaza Lucchesi isn’t cheap, with double rooms starting at €180, but it’s well worth the money for its rooftop pool alone.

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