Part One: Mercato Sant’Ambrogio
A Magical Car Park
Have you ever been to a place that doesn’t feel like it should be real? Where the magic is tangible and tantalizing, no matter how many times you return?
While Florence has countless magically captivating locations, the place in the city that has captured my heart is called Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. On the surface, Sant’Ambrogio is nothing more than a food market in the center city, providing produce, meats, and cheeses to the local community. But underneath, Sant’Ambrogio is a treasure of Florence that is irreplaceable. Open from 7 am-2 pm Monday-Saturday, the space becomes a parking lot for the community at night. Walking by this area most evenings, one would never know the hidden treasure held by this unassuming parking garage.
Being a food student, part of my love for Sant’Ambrogio comes simply from the quality of ingredients found here. Many outdoor stalls hold the most beautiful seasonal and local produce at the best prices in the city. Inside, one can find artisanal cured meats and cheeses, fresh fish and seafood, and even a few restaurants that put all these ingredients to good use.
This quality is a huge part of the market’s attraction but it is not why I dare to call Sant’Ambrogio my favorite place in Florence. While the quality of the food was what originally brought me here, it is not what draws me back each week. Here in this open-air car park is the strongest sense of community which I have felt in the city.
At Sant’Ambrogio, nearly every shopper is known by name. Each customer has their stand for produce, where they know the sellers and chat with them about their weekly meals and grocery needs. It is a place to run into friends, chat over a coffee or sandwich, and meet new people from your community.
Lunch at Stefano’s
But in speaking of the community at Sant’Ambrogio, I can’t go without mentioning Stefano. Months ago, a friend recommended this cheese and meat stand to me because of the quality of their products and the kindness of the owner. Stopping by one day, I mentioned her name and was greeted by an unexpected smile of familiarity. From that moment on, I have been treated with the kindness of a friend. Going back each week, I buy cheese, meat, dried tomatoes, preserved artichokes, and any other delicious treat by his recommendation.
Believe it or not, the best part of Stefano’s stand is not the ingredients he sells. Although it may not seem possible from the small size of the corner stand he occupies, if you know to ask, you can get the best lunch in the city.
“Stefano, possiamo pranzare?”
“Si! un schiacciata o un po’ di questo e quello?”
While a schiacciata (traditional Tuscan sandwich) on his fresh bread is to die for if you are in a rush, believe me, you want to say yes to his offer of, “a bit of this and that.”
“Un po’ di questo e quello”
A meal at Stefano’s is an endeavor you do not want to venture into alone. At the request for lunch, Stefano and Andrea will pull out a few small stools next to his display window and so the lunch begins. “A bit of this and that” lasts as long as you would like and consists of more food than you will be able to eat.
While you stare with hunger like a kid in front of a shop window, Stefano prepares small chopping boards of culinary delights to satiate your appetite. Truffle pecorino, fresh toasted bread with garlic and local olio nuovo, stracciatella and sausage crostini, his self-proclaimed “bomb salad” (salad of tuna, artichokes, carrots, olives, and other fresh veggies), porchetta, olives, and anything else you can imagine. At each presentation, an explanation is given with pride and joy of what he has prepared, followed by a smiling, “buon appetito.”
While you enjoy your lunch, a bottle of wine and plastic solo cups are always open and left on the counter for self-service. The lunch always begins with a toast, as Stefano never fails to pour him and Andrea a glass while they work. And even after you feel you can’t eat any more, you must finish with something sweet. He will prepare either a sweet lemony baked ricotta or yogurt topped with local honey: both mouth-watering perfections to finish off a delightful meal.
A Culture of Love
Eating with Stefano is an experience where time stands still. You never have to ask for anything and before you know it, you will have been there for hours (typically after the market is already “closed”). At the end of your meal, Stefano will give you a number of how much you owe, but I have never paid more than five or seven euros for all the food he puts before me.
This price is unimaginably lower than it should be, but this is because eating here is not about the money. This lunch is an act of Stefano’s generosity and his love for what he sells. Each product and combination is presented with pride and a desire to share the beautiful and delicious ingredients from his region.
Stefano, this stand, and this lunch experience embody so much of what it is about Italian food culture that I love. Italians hold to food traditions and value preservation of food quality. But this is not from a spirit of stinginess, exclusivity, or pretention. It comes from a spirit of generosity and love. Love for the ingredients, love for the history, and love for the people who enjoy them: both now and in generations to come.
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