Historic cafés in Florence, an antique-flavor Espresso
The cafe that faced the Palazzo Vecchio was a favorite spot for them; without discussion they sank down at an empty table. – Elizabeth Spencer
Those who are lucky enough to visit Florence with slower pace, will have the opportunity to savor an even more special taste of the city. The taste, smell and atmosphere that permeate some special places: not museums, palaces, monuments or the beautiful churches, but rather the old cafés of Florence, the famous bars, the century-old bakeries: witnesses to the cultural life of the city.
Since the middle of 1800, the historic cafés of Florence – some of which are still open to the public – have been meeting places for intellectuals, renowned forums for cultural and political discussions. In the cafés on Piazza della Repubblica, Via de’ Tornabuoni, Piazza della Signoria, and all the historical centre of Florence, many intellectuals, poets, and writers used to spend their time engaged in intense discussions and often bitter quarrels, which have marked the cultural history of the city and the whole of Italy right from the banks of the Arno River.
Great personalities, including Giovanni Papini, Gaetano Salvemini, Giuseppe Prezzolini, Gabriele D’Annunzio, have been sitting at the tables of Florence’s cafés, along with Milanese Futurists such as Tommaso Marinetti opposed to the Florentine intellectuals from the magazine La Voce, artists Boccioni and Carrà, cultural avant-garde artists such as the Macchiaioli. These were all intellectuals and true Bohémien, who, between a drink and a cup of coffee, often paid by others, have found their inspiration and glory here, but also the courage to go on in their difficult life, which only posthumously has given them fame and honor.
The historic cafés of Florence are one of the highlights of this beautiful city. A tour around the places where you can savor the secular, cultural and intellectual life that has pervaded the city in the past 150 years. Many of these ancient meeting places have shut down over the past few decades, others have been transformed into new businesses, but many are still open to the public and offer tourists their great burden of history and passion.
The Cafés on Piazza della Repubblica, a Refuge for Artists and Intellectuals
Some of Florence’s most famous cafés are located on the historic Piazza della Repubblica. Caffè Gilli, for example, one of the oldest in the city. Opened in 1733, it moved to its present location in the Twenties and today is the only representative of the Belle Époque-style café in Florence. Its premises are refined yet rich in frescoes and stained glass, antiques, chandeliers in Murano glass: here you can taste the creamiest cappuccino in the city, but also enjoy delicious pastries in the lounge and excellent wine and liqueurs at the wine bar. Caffè Gilli is found at the intersection between Via Roma and Piazza della Repubblica, and is famous also due to a famous photograph by Ruth Orkin. The historic shot, dated 1951, entitled American Girl in Italy, depicts a young lady passing the bar with a haughty expression, under the ‘flattering’ gaze of young idle Florentines, leaning against the wall of the café or on board a Vespa.
Moreover, always in Piazza della Repubblica, also the door of Caffè Paszkowski opens every morning, since 1846. Originally conceived as a bar, became a Caffè Concerto in time, known throughout Europe as a meeting place for artists and intellectuals. Between the ‘fin’ and ‘début’ du siècle, the tables of Caffè Paszkowski set on beautiful mosaic floors in rooms decorated in Art Deco with walls covered with precious wood, have been the setting where poets and intellectuals of the likes of Giovanni Papini and Gaetano Salvemini, held musical evenings and debates of high cultural importance. Since 1991, the café has become a national monument, yet since 1988 its popularity has risen thanks to director Francesco Nuti, took inspiration from its name in his movie Caruso Pascoski – Of Polish Origin. The beautiful rooms of the café are now used for meetings and fashion shows, and the wine bar is famous for its selection of Italian, French, Australian and Californian wines.
Another of the historical sites of Florence overlooking Piazza della Repubblica is Caffè Le Giubbe Rosse. Founded in 1897 by German brewers, the Reininghaus brothers, this café is named after the uniform of the waiters at the time, a red jacket (that is, giubba rossa) in perfect Austro-Hungarian Empire style. Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Le Giubbe Rosse was the meeting place of Florentine and Milanese Futurists, who used to sit at the Café to discuss about politics, and often ended up coming to blows: Ardengo Soffici and Tommaso Marinetti were among the most famous antagonists from the local and Milanese factions. Le Giubbe Rosse’s history is told by its same walls, literally covered with vintage photos, drawings, writings and memories of that time. The Cafè is still a very elegant place today, with selected staff, and charming rooms hosting presentations and literary contests. The chefs propose weekly menus, delicacies that tourists and locals can enjoy in an environment of high historical, human and sentimental value.
In the Cafés of Via de’ Tornabuoni, Negroni and Truffle Specialties
The other traditional pole of Florence’s historic cafés is Via de ‘Tornabuoni, the “salotto buono” of the city. The first venues of this beautiful corner of Florence that must be mentioned, however, are commercial spaces that have closed down.
In 2001 Caffè Giacosa closed down, replaced by a fashion store. The cafe is famous for its centuries-old history and its prerogative to welcome in the first decades of the XX century the most eccentric, unconventional and free spirited children of the noble families of Florence. One of these, Count Negroni, in the twenties he used to add a dose of Gin to the American cocktail, thus giving birth to the Negroni.
Another historic place now closed down in Via de’ Tornabuoni is Gran Caffé Doney, wonderful tea room and bakery founded by the noble and French officer Gasparo Doney, exiled from the family after the defeat of Napoleon. Being near the British Consulate, the bar had become the favorite meeting place of the community and the British tourists visiting the city, as well as the good Florentine bourgeoisie.
In Via de’ Tornabuoni you will find one of the most intriguing, and still thriving, historic venues of the city, a wine bar and deli named Procacci. Founded in 1885 by the Procacci family, the place soon became one of the most famous in the city for its specialty dishes prepared with truffles. This is one of the oldest delis in Florence, but its fame has crossed national borders and, between 2006 and 2010, two more Procacci Bars were opened, in Vienna and Singapore.
The Cafés on Piazza Duomo, for rustic breakfasts and homemade cakes
The tour of the historic cafés of Florence cannot neglect a passage between the tables of Caffè Michelangiolo, Via Cavour, 21. When you sip a drink or an aperitif at the Michelangiolo, remember that here the Macchiaioli laid the foundations of their art, the young artists had established a pictorial movement of great value in the mid-1800s, naturally misunderstood at the time. The Macchiaioli used the ‘spot’ technique to depict rural life and work, with strong color contrasts and a few details, considered unnecessary to represent life. Gathered around the critic Diego Martelli, the Macchiaioli group also included, among others, Serafino De Tivoli, Telemaco Signorini, Giovanni Fattori, Odoardo Borrani and Niccolò Cannicci.
A short walk from Caffè Michelangiolo in Piazza Duomo, is a self-service restaurant named Bottegone which has taken its name from an ancient place very famous in the first half of 1900. The Bottegone was a great bar and pastry shop on the corner between Via de’ Martelli and Piazza del Duomo, one of the most classic meeting places for Florentines because it was the last to close late at night. In 1962, the venue has become an area of Motta and only recently took over its old name.
Behind Piazza Duomo in Via degli Alfani 39, there is a place opened in 1920 as a dairy shop, where since 1840 there was a butcher shop, which thing is shown up by the presence of hooks used to hang slaughtered meat. The Latteria Caffellatte cafe, a century after the opening, has restarted serving breakfast as they used to, milk in bowls, wooden trays with bread, butter, jams and desserts prepared directly in the back. The cafè-dairy shop has always been popular with students and professors from the nearby Faculty of Letters and therefore soaked with a deep humanist spirit that is found in the high quality of the products offered, made with organic ingredients and originating from fair trade.
Not far from Via degli Alfani, in Via dei Servi 112, opens Pasticceria Robiglio, historic venue since 1928. For three generations the pastry shop delights the palate of the Florentines with excellent home-made cakes that have become a trademark for the factory, such as the Torta Campagnola or the Fruttudoro. The first owner, a nobleman named Peter Robiglio, came from Piedmont to open the shop, then inherited by his son Pier Luigi, and now run by his grandson Edoardo. The flood of 1966 has ruined some of the furnishings that at the behest of the owners have been reconstructed as the originals. The Award Winning Robiglio company opened other places in the course of time, in via Tosinghi and in Viale S. Lavagnini.
The Cafés of Piazza della Signoria, Sweet Stop over with a View
To the south of Piazza Duomo, in the middle of Piazza della Signoria, stands one of the most famous historical sites of Florence, Rivoire. It was opened in 1872 on the ground floor of Palazzo delle Assicurazioni Generali and since then is famous for its chocolate. From the tables of Rivoire you can admire Palazzo Vecchio and the Fountain of Neptune, the Uffizi Gallery and the Loggia dei Lanzi. Founded by Henry of Savoy, the royal family’s chocolate-maker, the Rivoire café offers delicious pastries and cakes, but also offers lunch and dinner services. It is a very sophisticated place that prefers a well-dressed clientele and less globetrotters possible.
From Piazza della Signoria, parallel to Lungarno, runs via dei Neri, where at number 76 we find the Pasticceria Bar Ruggini. It is there since 1914, when it was opened by Giuseppe Ruggini, who started to bake wonderful pastries and cookies for the delight of locals and tourists. Moved on to its third generation, it is still one of the best places in Florence, always well attended by middle-class ladies and tourists who love old local specialties. The fresh pastries processed daily, or the homemade praline chocolates, make this place one of the must-visit in Florence, as the monuments and museums. The wisdom of the master pastry of the Pasticceria Bar Ruggini make it a must in all seasons and in all festivities, from Christmas Ricciarelli to Easter “Colombe” (traditional cakes shaped like doves).
Florence’s historic cafés are therefore a mandatory stop for those visiting the city. Entering one of these venues, you will get into and understand the atmosphere that made Florence a must-visit for young nobles and bourgeois in late 1800 and early 1900, people who have given luster to the social life of the city.