In Florence street food usually means a truck serving lampredotto (tripe simmered in its juices) served on Tuscan bread. Tradition here also calls for serving this same unsalted bread with every meal but also finding ways to use what remains, which means that nothing is wasted.
There are several theories as to why Tuscan bread is sans sel (without salt). One is that during the Middle Ages salt—a valued commodity—was severely taxed and expensive. Another is that because Florentine cuisine was highly seasoned the unsalted bread was the perfect complement to sop up the juices. According to Dante, in his Divine Comedy, when he was exiled from Florence he told himself “You shall learn how salt is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and climbing of another’s stairs”.
Tradition lives on, as it usually does in Italy, and the bread in Tuscany remains the same. In order to use it in different ways and be thrifty—the Florentines are notoriously thrifty—it is integrated into other dishes in order to make use of the leftover bits: think pappa al pomodoro (summer bread soup) or panzanella, a kind of bread salad.
Across the street from Florence’s Sant’Ambrogio farmer’s market is a tiny place that sells crostini, which are small slices of toasted bread topped with a variety of delicious ingredients, like long simmered beef; chicken with spinach; duck ragout plus other yummy seasonal dishes.
Semel is known as one of the best places in Florence for crostini and panini sandwiches. Unusually, this shop’s name is German and after my last visit to the market with my colleague, Coral, she suggested we drop in for a quick snack and a glass of wine. I asked one of the owners, Marco, why a German-sounding place is in the center of this Renaissance capital of Italy. While we were devouring the delicious snacks he served, he explained a bit of Tuscan history.
After the Medici, from 1737, Florence was ruled by the Habsburgs—Austrian dukes—thus the Germanic name (who knew?). Just the same, the crostini treats here are purely Tuscan but with a twist, since they are traditionally served with liver, cheese or vegetables. They are different from a bruschetta, which is made with a more rustic type of bread (the word bruschetta comes from bruscare (or to toast on an open fire) and usually just smeared with some olive oil and garlic or with chopped tomatoes, salt and garlic.
Marco’s menu changes frequently so you may find his crostini and panini with unusual ingredients like herring or anchovies with fennel and orange or roasted pork with broccoli and the list goes on according to the whims of the chef, including a venison stew in season. He’s passionate about his products so trust him with whatever is on the menu!
For around €10 you can have an assortment of these tasty snacks with a nice glass of local Chianti wine. Then you’ll be ready to hit the museums, churches and even stop for a gelato at Carapina or Procopio along the way. When you cross over the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio you’ll discover another part of this splendid city and one of the best enoteche in Florence, le Volpi e l’Uva, where the selection is tops and the welcome is warm (the snacks are great too). Have fun e buon appetito!
Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti, 44 Florence
Open Mon-Sat 11:30-3:30