The next time you go to Florence, you absolutely must go to Mario’s if you’re looking for traditional Tuscan food and an unadulterated passion for cooking it. This small fiaschetteria can be found just behind the covered market, and stallholders have been eating there for more than sixty years.
My friend Sarah (the one who knows where the bodies are buried*) and I spent a study year in Florence in the seventies. The word on the street was that the food at Mario’s was good and cheap, and so we ate there most days
Mario was always front of house, burly, rosy-cheeked, and with a magnificent Tuscan accent. La gola Toscana, as it’s called, is a phonological feature of the region which means that every C is pronounced as an H, so that Coca Cola becomes hoha hola. He presided at the till, a fine vantage point overlooking the market square, adding up bills, cutting bread and filling carafes of wine for his son Romeo to take to the waiting diners. Romeo was the very image of his father, only thirty years younger and ganglier.
While Mario was a ruspante free-range kind of guy, his wife was a signora, smiling and svelte in her blue overall. She was never without earrings and a discreet slick of lipstick, and the old guys from the market would quietly admire her as she serenely served up Ribollita. Everyone sat together at oilcloth-covered tables in one room which served both as kitchen and dining area. This was in the days before health and safety but there was surely no better quality assurance system than watching your lunch being prepared in front of you. The menu was simple but completely reliable. And it was an unspoken rule that when you had completed your meal you vacated the tables for other diners. Il caffe si prende in piazza.
I make a sentimental trip to the trattoria every time I visit Florence. The internet has brought Mario’s a new, international clientele to share its tables with the locals. These days, to eat there you have to get your name on a list. Sadly, you will no longer find Mario at the till, but Romeo, the image of his father in the seventies, is hard at it in the kitchen, and the business still runs in much the same way.
I was there again last month and very little has changed. The Ribollita is as good as ever.
* The Heights Bar and Grill. 4/12/2013