My Grandfather used to say: “If the knives look like they can cut we’ll eat well.” It is an antique expression from a man that appreciated good food way before the emergence of a “foodie” culture or molecular gastronomy. It is a phrase that in many ways clearly illustrates the underlying notions in the hearts and minds of many aficionados of gastronomy. The final link between good food and food that makes a lasting impression on the diner is if it somehow triggers a recollection of the context in which a prior great meal was enjoyed. My meals at Trattoria Mario in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Florence do just that.
Trattoria Mario opened in 1953 as a fiaschetteria (an Italian version of what could today be considered a wine bar) on Via Rosina in a building that was once home to a horse stable. It catered to a clientele of workers from the Mercato Centrale and locals who made up the majority of inhabitants in the neighborhood. A few years later the fiaschetteria became a trattoria, serving many of the typical rustic Fiorentine dishes still served today. The trattoria’s success throughout the decades is due to various factors aside from the food. The sixties saw rejuvenation throughout the city of Florence. The expansion of the University of Florence and the influx of foreign students as well as tourists helped Trattoria Mario become somewhat of a significant locale for social gathering in the area. As is the case with most traditionally well-known restaurants, its clientele and history are just as important as the food.
When first entering Trattoria Mario, you are greeted by Fabio who feverishly scratches your name and the number in your party on his pad. After a short wait you are then assigned a seat in the restaurant’s crowded and hectic dining room. Diners are seated communally, meaning that you are seated with strangers based on the availability of spots at a particular table. It should go without saying that Trattoria Mario is not somewhere a couple would go for a romantic private lunch. Sliced homemade style Tuscan bread is then placed on the table along with the napkins, forks, and knives. The tables are short, cramped, and not strategically placed. The dining area faces an exposed kitchen that is somehow kept immaculately clean and running smoothly regardless of whatever havoc is taking place. The restaurant is decorated with various memorabilia of Fiorentina, Florence’s local football club and the daily menu is posted right next to the kitchen in fairly illegible handwriting. The service is relatively fast and food normally arrives hot. In the end, one should be aware that this is a locale that makes no frills about its ambiance, but rather prides itself on the quality and irreparability of its food and what it represents in the neighborhood. As opposed to most restaurants in its vicinity that gratify the gullible appetites of inexpert tourists, Trattoria Mario seems to not go out of its way to seem “homey” or “typically Tuscan.” Rather, Mario’s serves as the classic exemplar for what many of these deceiving eateries aim to be.
The attention to quality and honest prices are the foremost aspects that keep diners coming back. The kitchen’s menu changes in accordance with what is available seasonally from the local San Lorenzo market and vendors. Mondays and Thursday means that the traditional Fiorentine tripe makes its biweekly appearance on the menu. In my first visit to Mario’s when first moving to Florence I ordered the tripe and was taken away with the freshness of their tomato sauce used in the dish. It quickly took me back to a hint of what my grandmother’s tastes like in early September shortly after she has finished making her jars for the winter. Fridays means an array of fresh fish pasta dishes and second courses. This is due to the Catholic tradition of fish on Fridays and the markets restocking of fish on that particular weekday as well. The infamous Bistecca alla Fiorentina is served daily and only comes cooked medium rare with a wedge of lemon and pinch of salt. First courses as zuppa di fagioli (bean soup), Ribollita (a Tuscan bean, bread, and vegetable stew), and pasta with ragu sauce are almost always available. Second courses to highlight are the peposo di manzo (beef stew cooked with black peppercorns and tomato sauce), vitella arrosto (roasted veal), and braciola fritta (fried veal loin). Usual side dishes are fagioli bianchi (cannellini beans simply topped with olive oil and garlic), fagioli all’ uccelletto (cannelloni beans cooked in tomato paste and sage), and patate lesse (boiled potatoes topped with parsley and olive oil). The menu does get tweaked from time to time, but mainstays such as the Ribollita, pasta dishes, and Bistecca alla Fiorentina can be expected daily. Mario’s is only open for lunch from 12:00 to 3:30 Monday through Saturday and doesn’t take reservations. After all, did you think reservations are something typically Tuscan?
Photos Courtesy of Flavio
Via Rosina 2r
Phone #: 055 218550
Price Range: €10+