It is difficult to dine cheaply in Florence. Not only are restaurants generally expensive, but it's difficult to distinguish between the overpriced menus, omnipresent panini display cases and tawdry-looking pizza staring at you in the face.
But there's hope.
Following are three specific tips, all aimed at helping you find cheap eats in the birthplace of the Renaissance. Don't expect these joints to be open for dinner, and don't anticipate sophisticated ambiance. These food stands, rosticcerie and pizzerias are all about good, cheap food—not touristy charm.
Try a Trippaio
Ten or so food stands, or trippaio, dot central Florence. They serve hearty sandwiches with tripe or lampredotto (offal, or cow's stomach), a singularly Florentine specialty.
Be forewarned: Neither tripe nor lampredotto are for the weak of heart. Those looking for something less exotic should opt for the panino con porchetta (a roast pork sandwich) or grilled sausages.
Generally, trippaio are not outfitted with tables. Happily, eating on the corner is a fine way to take in the street life or even spy an offbeat Annunciation scene.
One fantastic trippaio, L'antico Trippaio, is located in the Piazza dei Cimatori, a stone's throw from Casa Dante in the heart of medieval Florence. Try the panino con lesso (boiled beef sandwich). Nearby, the trippaio in Piazza del Mercato Nuovo serves focaccia sandwiches. Florence's best trippaio sits in Piazza de'Nerli in San Frediano in the Oltrarno. Outfitted with stools and tables, this one-man stand serves steaming plates of tripe with grilled vegetables.
Rock a Rosticceria
You can choose to sit and dine in a rosticceria (roast meat and specialties shop) or take your lunch to go. Classic dishes include roast chicken, meat skewers and crocchette di patate (crispy fried potatoes). Rosticcerie abound in the city and are clearly marked. Prices and fare vary.
Tiny Rosticceria Centro Giuliano, Via de' Neri 74/R (behind the Uffizi) sells inexpensive chicken and sides of roast potatoes. There is seating in back, though the dining room is dimly lighted. Moderately priced dishes of pasta and ribollita are also served here.
Down the street from the Palazzo Pitti, La Mangiatoia, Piazza S. Felice 8/R (tel. +39 055 224 060) serves up mouthwatering heaps of roast meats with sides of potatoes and vegetables, beginning at a measly €4.50. La Mangiatoia is also open for dinner.
Amble Towards an Aperitivo
Though swiftly becoming known as Happy Hour in Italy, the aperitivo is a native phenomenon. Between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., bars in Italy fill up with Italians spearing prosciutto e melone while swigging Campari Soda. Bars charge more for drinks at this hour, but the free buffet compensates.
If you have not yet adapted to Mediterranean time and your stomach is growling before sunset, head to a cocktail bar and pile on seconds. For some this snack spells dinner; for others it's a good way of avoiding secondo piatto later in the evening.
Two bars offering abundant portions of food are Moyo, Via de' Benci 23R (tel. +39 055 247 3738) and Popcafé, Piazza Santo Spirito 18 A/R (tel. +39 055 213 852). Don't fret over the upscale digs at Moyo—order a €6 cocktail and make a beeline for the black table near the bar. At Popcafé, heap a healthy portion of pasta onto your plate and head out onto the piazza to chew.
...And Some General Suggestions
Didn't think we'd leave it at three, did you?
Florence takes pride in its diverse neighborhoods and each neighborhood takes equal pride in its local retail scene. Don't simply rush into the generic ristorante or plainclothes bar. Keep your eye out for the Forno (bakery) and Pasticceria (pastry shop). You'll spend less, eat better and (pat yourself on the back) contribute to the local economy.
Pack a picnic. Instead of waving down waiters or standing in line, purchase fixings in an alimentari (grocer's store) and find a place to put up your feet. Florence is home to picturesque piazzas, pleasant parks and innumerable church steps, all great places for a picnic meal.
If you absolutely must have a sit down meal, be prepared to travel. Most good, inexpensive places are far off the beaten path. For example, two of the best pizzerias in Florence are located on or near the Piazza Sant'Jacopino: Pizzeria Sant'Jacopino, Piazza Di Sant'Jacopino (tel. +39 055 333 195) and Trattoria Santa Lucia, Via Ponte Alla Mosse 102/R (tel. +39 055 353 255).
There's no question that Florence is pricey, but with a little care, cheap eats can be found here.
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Updated and edited: June 2011