The Heart of Florence

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Piazza Santo Spirito          

(excerpt from my upcoming book Italy: Do More, Spend Less)

One lovely Florentine evening, as the heat of the day subsided, Russell and I decided to explore more of the Oltrarno side of the city.  Looking through entertainment listings in The Florentine, a local English language newspaper produced for visitors, I discovered that there was a film festival in town that included free outdoor movies projected onto the façade of a church.  I deduced that a movie was to be shown that very evening on Santo Spirito Church, so that’s where we headed.

Strolling along the Arno River was charming in the twilight.  The Ponte Vecchio, imposing in its long and tumultuous history, yet precariously constructed, still cast a medieval spell over me.

Soon we turned away from the river on Via del Santo Martino towards Santo Spirito. As we approached, we fell in behind some English speaking tourists who were looking for a specific restaurant.  A young woman insisted it was the best restaurant in town, based on someone’s recommendation, and she particularly said they had to have the antipasta, which she appeared to think was a specific type of spaghetti.  (I am not making this up.)

Trying not to chuckle, my husband and I slowed down a bit so as to put a distance between ourselves and this group.  In another few moments, Santo Spirito Church rose up on our right with its imposing, and rather austere, pale brick exterior.  A crowded restaurant was straight ahead, and I could see the group looking for antipasta standing wearily outside waiting for a table to become available.

I could also hear the sounds of happy chatter and the clink of glasses coming from the piazza on our right, so we turned that direction to see if other dinner options might be available.  Just around the corner were six or seven more eateries, all with ample seating in the shade of lovely old trees.  We made our way down the row at a leisurely pace, checking out the menus posted on walls or simple wooden pedestals at each place.  The wait staff was cheerful and greeted us in English and Italian, but they were not aggressive like their counterparts on the other side of the river.  Eventually we chose Ricchi Caffé, and settled in for a lovely dinner.  A fountain splashed in the center of the piazza, and a dozen little boys chased a soccer ball all around while their families gathered in trios and pairs to gossip.

A carafe of supertuscan house wine between us, we toasted the moment.  Two older gentlemen passed by us, one wearing a beautiful white linen jacket and the other a pale plaid sportscoat.  They were dressed for the evening passagiata, another wonderful Italian tradition.  It seemed the whole neighborhood was ready to participate.  A leisurely stroll in the cool of the evening, greeting neighbors, stopping for a drink or simply walking, watching each others’ children grow up, and passing the days into years with friends and family all around.  To me, this is the heart of Italy.