HE San Lorenzo Market, also known as the Central Market (Mercato Centrale) is in the heart of Florence and a great place to have lunch, shop for dinner or just stroll around. The market itself is in a large open building, designed by Giuseppe Mengoni, and built in the 1870s to replace the older market in the center of the city which was demolished as part of a general “urban renewal” effort. It now features a ground floor with meat, poultry and cheese vendors as well as a couple of cafès and some stalls with food items aimed for tourists and an upstairs area primarily filled with stalls for vegetable vendors. The second level is a fairly recent addition, added in the 1970s.
The butcher and deli (salumeria) stands have the usual array of Parma hams (prosciutto), salami, beef, pork and chicken, but also traditional Tuscan favorites like pheasant, rabbit, hare, cinghialle (wild boar), venison, horse and veal. The veal selection is outstanding and not just limited to the overpirced scallopine and occasional roast in US supermarkets. Calves’ heads, sweetbreads, big meaty chops (lombatini), rolled roasts with a variety of stuffings, ground veal and scallopine cut to order are available from multiple vendors.
The range of cheeses is dazzling—one vendor typically has a dozens kinds of pecorino—and most vendors will vacuum pack cheeses so a tourist might be able to get through customs with them. I would recommend just eating as much as possible while you are there and take the memories home. You can also get a variety of balsamic vinegars which come from Modena—a small city about an hour north of Florence—and are aged for 8 years or more. They are not cheap, but are really unrelated to the watery product labeled balsamic vinegar in US supermarkets. Check the ingredient list and if the first item isn’t mosto di uve (grape must) don’t buy it. These you can take home. A fresh avocado sprinkled with real balsamic vinegar is about as good as food gets.
Much of the meat and produce in the market is from the surrounding area and vendors supply many of the restaurants in the neighborhood. The eateries in the market are excellent, but my favorite trattoria in Florence is immediately north of the market, Trattoria Mario. It has been a popular spot with locals for over 50 years and you will usually find some of the vendors lunching here (a good sign) as well as students and tourists. The meat and poultry is delivered every morning from the market, as are fresh vegetable and herbs. There are no freezers at Trattoria Mario.
The area around the market is filled with street vendors selling leather goods, t-shirts, souvenirs and post cards. While you always need to shop wisely and keep your eyes open, many of these vendors sell quality goods, particularly some of the leather merchants.
Mercato Centrale in the San Lorenzo neighborhood in Florence.
A typical “deli” counter with prepared dishes, cheeses and hams.
The “new” second level for produce vendors.
Fresh calves’ heads.
A butcher breaking down a large piece of beef.
Shopping in the stalls around San Lorenzo.
Photos © Miles DeCoster 2009.