Portrait of a Piazza

In Italy, it’s called a piazza. In Spain, a plaza, in France, a place. No matter where you go in Mediterranean Europe, the town square is the focus of local life and organisation. In small towns and villages, the piazza is the social centre, the setting for countless conversations over coffee or aperitivo, and the stage on which the daily ritual of the passegiata is performed, during which couples and groups of friends take in the evening air while strolling around the square. And in larger cities like Florence, the piazza originally provided a focus for neighbourhoods, replicating the rural function of the piazza in an urban setting. Today, of course, they tend to be overwhelmed by the weight of tourism, and the grand piazze of modern Florence host swirling hordes of tourists busily rushing from one sight to the next, pausing only to consume tourist meals in the restaurants that line the square.

We are fortunate in that our local piazza, Santo Spirito, still retains some of that old-fashioned character. That’s probably because on this side of the Arno there are far fewer tourists, and those who do come here are intent on visiting the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, a couple of blocks away to the east.

Piazza Santo Spirito is a kind of irregular quadrilateral, widening slightly towards its southern end, lined on each side with what were originally town houses, and are now mostly apartments. They are uniformly four stories high on the eastern side, and five stories on the western, giving the square a slightly lopsided appearance. The western side is also the side where the bulk of the restaurants are, six of them, each with outdoor seating under massive umbrellas. Two rows of trees – a rarity in central Florence – flank the long centre of the piazza, providing welcome shade in the summer. In the very centre there is a fountain, which serves as a perfect rendezvous point. It’s also where the local drug dealers hang out at night.

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Most public places all over the world host a statue to someone or other whose contribution to society has long been forgotten by all except the most enthusiastic local historians; Santo Spirito is no exception – ours, located at the southern end of the piazza, almost tripping up the traffic on Via Sant’ Agostino, is a gentleman named Cosimo Ridolfi. An agronomist and politician, he came from one of the most ancient of Fiorentino families. In between serving in various governments of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, he found the time to establish a bank, specifically to encourage investment in farming. Operating from the family Palazzo in the Via Maggio, just round the corner, it eventually became the Cassa di Risparmio of Florence, still an important financial institution today. So I guess a statue is probably justified.

Also at this end of the piazza is its second-most important building, the Palazzo Guadagni. Built in 1502 for a merchant who just couldn’t cope with having multiple houses, the Palazzo follows the standard Tuscan design – rusticated stonework at the ground level framing an imposing gate, two further elegant stories above, topped by a wide loggia to catch the breeze (and probably also to look down on the poor people in the square below!).

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Palazzo Guadagni and Signor Ridolfi are at the southern end of the piazza; balancing them at the opposite end is the blank off-white face of Santo Spirito church, in front of which there is a broad apron, raised above the square, that is a popular place for people to sit and chat at every time of the day. It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi – the guy who put the dome on the main cathedral of Florence – but it was not completed before his death in 1446. Brunelleschi did in fact design a facade for the church, but it was never built due to post-mortem wrangling, hence the blank face that it presents to the world today. Like many churches in Florence, an unfinished exterior does not mean a drab interior – quite the reverse; the elegant renaissance interior of Santo Spirito hosts a dazzling array of art works, including a newly-restored Michelangelo crucifix.

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Of course, any piazza worthy of the name must have at least one restaurant; Santo Spirito has nine. Let’s do a quick tour. Starting from the north eastern corner, which is where we usually enter the square, the first cafe you come to is called Gustapanino – which roughly translates to “tasty sandwiches”, actually a pretty accurate description of their specialisation – panini, foccacie, and crostoni, all variations on sandwiches; this place is very popular with younger people. Next one along is another little cafe, Volume, which is a kind of trendy hipster hangout. The first proper restaurant is the next one, Borgo Antico (“The Old Village”). This was the first restaurant we went into on the evening we arrived, and it has become a favourite. With a simple menu, great pizzas and cheerful staff, communal tables where complete strangers readily find themselves engaged in conversation do give it a real “village” feel. Next door is Caffe Ricci, similar in style to Antico, but with a more extensive menu of Tuscan specialties. It was here that we first tried peposo, the peppery Tuscan beef stew, served with creamy mashed potatoes. Finally, at the end of the run is Tamero, best known for the fact that they make all of their own pasta on site; though we haven’t eaten there yet, we have bought fresh pasta from them.

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The other side of the square has only three restaurants. Pop Cafe is a cute little place where I go most days for a caffe latte and a pastry. Unlike most Italian cafes, they serve their coffee hot without being asked – Italians prefer their coffee lukewarm so they can drink and go. A little further up is Pitta M’Ingoli, a cafe to which I took an instant dislike when the bartender ostentatiously ignored me in favour of those customers who were clearly Italian-speaking; needless to say I’ve never been back. And finally, in the corner is Osteria Santo Spirito; the term osteria denotes a family-run restaurant, usually offering good quality but rustic food, and that is a good description of the fare here. It is very popular and probably has the best food on the piazza, though their serves are absolutely enormous – we generally find a ridotto portion is plenty.

So those are the restaurants – plenty to choose from. But the piazza also has a couple of other important shops that are very typical. One of these is the local tabacchi. As the name suggests, the principal function of these outlets, which appear every few hundred metres on every main street, is the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products. But over time they have also become the main outlet for all sorts of other small but important services, For example, you can generally get your phone plan topped up at a tabacchi. They sell bus tickets and lotto tickets, along with an array of tourist related items such as maps and guides, and many also have an ATM. After hours, if you want to buy cigarettes you can do so from a dispenser located outside the tabacchi’s shuttered shopfront – but there’s a catch: to use the machine you have to insert a valid Italian identity card. Needless to say this has perplexed many a hapless tourist in need of a nicotine fix. But in Italy bureaucracy just stimulates innovation – in this case encouraging an enterprising local who hangs about the machine offering the use of his ID card for €1 to anyone who needs it!

If you want to buy a newspaper or magazine in Italy, you usually do so by going to an old-fashioned news kiosk; ours is on the corner of the square next to Osteria Santo Spirito. It’s a metal box with fold out doors on which are displayed an array of newspapers and magazines; the proprietor lurks in the back, a barely visible grey-haired guy who gives you a grumpy look if you don’t produce the exact change – in my case €3.20 for my copy of the New York Times, the only English language newspaper that he sells. At around 1pm, the whole thing is shuttered up while the proprietor, no doubt exhausted from his morning’s labours, goes off for a couple of hours lunch, before reopening from 3pm until the early evening.

For Italians, shopping for food is a daily routine, and consequently the type of small and specialised food provider that has all but disappeared in Australia remains very much the norm here, and so we have our local pasticceria, a source of fresh bread as well as pastries of every kind, the macelleria, or butcher’s shop, run by the cheerful white-smocked duo Leonardo and Massimo, as well as a polleria (poultry shop) and several good alimentari (small grocery stores, where you can buy fruit and vegetables as well as basic grocery staples). Venture into any of these shops, and you’ll find locals buying their daily provisions, focusing on whatever is fresh that day.

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As well as all these permanent shops, there is also a daily market which sets up at the southern end of the square; as well as fruit and vegetables, there is an array of other goods that vary through the week – one day it’s men’s clothing, the next might be women’s clothes, while later in the week all sorts of hardware and household items appear.

The market starts the daily routine – first thing in the morning the vendors are busy carefully and painstakingly setting up their stalls, while the street sweepers are at work giving the square a brush-up. By about 9:30 or 10:00 students and other locals who are at leisure have begun to appear, and settle into the cafes on the sunnier side of the square. The market starts to pack up at around 1:00, which is also when the lunchtime trade starts to fill the bigger restaurants on the eastern side – by 3:00 the place is filled with the sound of people enjoying lunch. About this time, too, the paved area in front of Santo Spirito church fills with people – mostly students – eating their panini and soaking up the afternoon sun.

There’s a bit of a hiatus until around 5:00pm, when the excellent Italian tradition of Aperitivo kicks off as a prelude to the dinner hour. During the week, this is the time when Italians get together with friends after work, enjoying a Campari or an Aperol spritz, and feasting on the array of finger food that is provided by most bars either free or for a small cover charge. Aperitivo leads into dinner – the Italians eat later than Australians or Americans, though not as absurdly late as the Spanish, and the restaurants on the square pump until midnight or later, when peace and quiet finally descend and the piazza goes to sleep until the whole routine starts again the next day, as it has for hundreds of years, and hopefully will for many years into the future.

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