‘We’re like an island’: inside Florence’s secret neighbourhood

The Florentine neighbourhood of Sant’Ambrogio may only be 10 minutes’ walk east from the landmark Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio, but this part of the Tuscan capital has a distinctive character far removed from the tourist pizza traps and overpriced gelato. It’s a tight-knit community that is still genuinely Florentine but also multi-ethnic. It’s a food nirvana and a favourite student haunt.

The crowds thronging the historical centre quickly thin out as I pass into Sant’Ambrogio and the tranquil gardens of Piazza dei Ciompi. It is noon on Friday, and while Giotto’s bell tower may be chiming back in the Piazza del Duomo, the noise that greets me in the piazza is the muezzin’s call to prayer. Crowds of Muslims unroll their prayer mats in the middle of Piazza dei Ciompi, home to the Masjid Al-Taqwa, Florence’s principal mosque.

At 83, Savino Zaccagnino is officially the oldest barber in Florence, and his salon is right on Piazza dei Ciompi. “When I first opened here 55 years ago, the piazza was a fruit and vegetable market,” he says. “Today it has a weekly craft market, and now there is a mosque. Though actually it’s a converted garage that is far too small to accommodate everyone, so on Fridays the community gathers in the square. This quarter prides itself on being a tolerant neighbourhood: where else in Florence can you visit our medieval Chiesa di Sant’Ambrogio and then two minutes’ walk away discover an immense, exotic Moorish synagogue built by the Jewish community 140 years ago.”

Florence’s famous panino lampredotto tripe sandwich
Queuing up for Florence’s famous panino lampredotto tripe sandwich. Photograph: Domenico Tondini/Alamy

What brings all of Sant’Ambrogio together is undoubtedly its mercato: Florence’s first covered food hall, opened in 1873, a few minutes’ walk east of Piazza dei Ciompi, is surrounded by outdoor stalls selling porcini mushrooms, olives, porchetta and pecorino cheese straight from the Tuscan countryside. Clothes stands are piled high with bargain outlet designs and vintage brands, and there’s also a famous flea market. Rosanna Vannini, who has been selling antiques here for 30 years, says: “Sant’Ambrogio is like an island, the last popular Florentine neighbourhood. For sure, some tourists find their way here now, but I really don’t think they are ruining the spirit of the quarter, as has happened in San Lorenzo around the mercato centrale.”

Pier Paolo Pollini, who has been serving Florence’s emblematic panino lampredotto – tripe sandwich – for 25 years from his food truck outside Sant’Ambrogio’s church, says the same. “At the weekend we get some tourists, but you won’t see our menu translated into English or Japanese. Our regulars are builders or office workers, families shopping at the market, students happy to pay €4 for lunch and even schoolkids, because everyone loves lampredotto.”

If you visit Florence and see a Botticelli painting, you shouldn’t settle for a fast-food pizza or sandwich on the street

Giulio Picchi, restaurateur

One name that stands out around the mercato is Cibrèo, which operates three restaurants, a cafe and, more recently, the C.Bio community supermarket. This is foodie Florence at its best. Cibrèo was started by Fabio Picchi, a larger-than-life chef who died unexpectedly last year, leaving all of Sant’Ambrogio in mourning. His son Giulio says: “In 1979 when Cibrèo opened, no tourist ever wandered as far as Sant’Ambrogio.”

He explains the philosophy behind Cibrèo: “If you visit Florence and see a Botticelli painting and Michelangelo sculpture, you should not have to then settle for a fast-food pizza or a sandwich on the street, as sadly many people do. So, Cibrèo drew visitors to Sant’Ambrogio to complete their experience with a wonderful meal of traditional Florentine cuisine, using local produce straight from the market across the street.

Cibreo restaurant
Cibrèo restaurant: ‘Foodie Florence at its best.’
Photograph: Alamy

“In the streets around here visitors can discover our traditional community of casa bottega, where artisans live above their workshops, just as I live above Caffe Cibrèo. So many craftsmen are still working and living in Sant’Ambrogio: Borselli Cornici, where Signora Virginia makes gilded frames like they did a century ago; the coltelleria of Fabio Figus, whose handmade knives are works of art; and exquisite jewellery handmade by Felice Nicoletti.”

Piazza dei Ciompi flea market
A wealth of hidden treasures at Piazza dei Ciompi flea market. Photograph: Dorothy Alexander/Alamy

Peeking into Cibrèo’s kitchen, I see the staff are of many different nationalities and Giulio says this is thanks to the local region’s programme to help settle newly arrived immigrants. “There are excellent courses for learning Italian, as well as helping people to get a job and somewhere to stay, so today our brigade includes people from Senegal and Nigeria, Syria and Armenia, Algeria and Iraq.”

Rather than the typical Florence sights, Sant’Ambrogio offers something very different at Le Murate. Originally a 15th-century convent, it became an immense prison that only shut down in 1985, and now houses a groundbreaking cultural and social project spanning low-cost public housing, a centre dedicated to human rights, performing arts spaces, a late-night cafe packed with students, and Le Carceri (The Prison), a wine bar pizzeria. The gallery space, housed in a wing of the prison that has deliberately been left untouched, is just another example of how Sant’Ambrogio stands apart from the rest of the city.

Where to eat and drink

Caffe Letterario
Spritz and cocktails at Caffe Letterario. Photograph: Hemis/Alamy

Inside Sant’Ambrogio market, the lively Vecchio Mercato bar serves wine at €1 a glass. Across the road Il Giova is a friendly trattoria packed with locals enjoying its juicy beef tagliata. Vegetarians will love the deep-fried artichoke on Ruth’s kosher vegan menu next door to the synagogue. Barista coffee is served at Coffee Mantra, while Caffè Letterario is more for spritz, wine and cocktails.

Where to stay
Hotel Plaza Lucchesi is not cheap, with doubles from €180, but is worth splashing out on just for its rooftop pool.