The ritual is this: A small, round, crusty bun, sliced in half, with some of the fluffy, soft white bread pulled out to make room for the filling, which is never too much.
One or two, maximum three, things go inside a Florentine panino. Creamy, unsalted butter and anchovies. Thin slices of prosciutto with a single layer of thickly sliced pecorino cheese. Truffled pecorino cheese and spicy, bouncy, fresh arugula. Creamy stracchino cheese, fennel-studded finocchiona, and spicy grilled eggplant (my favourite combination at Antico Vinaio in Firenze), or fennel, anchovies, and orange like they do at Semel at the Sant'Ambrogio markets.
The bread may also be schiacciata (crunchy, wood-fired, olive oil-lathered focaccia) instead, or not too-thick slices of unsalted Tuscan bread. But the idea is that it should be something you can hold in two hands and finish in a handful of bites.
A glass of wine—a small, almost miniature serving of chianti or vermentino in a rounded glass, just enough for a few gulps—is the usual accompaniment, and many of the typical hole-in-the-wall paninoteche (panino shops) have a little shelf built into the wall that serves as a handy spot to place your glass so you can eat your panino with two hands while you stand on the street.
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A panino al lampredotto, a bun filled with juicy boiled offal and salsa verde, makes up Florence's favorite and most typical snack, and these are served by lampredottai, lampredotto (abomasum tripe) sellers who boil the tripe in deep pots directly on the vans where the panini are sold and eaten.
Florence has a centuries-long tradition of little places that serve wine and food. Even as far back as the Middle Ages, wine-selling was considered an “arte,” and the vinattieri formed one of Florence's important guilds, setting up cellars and mescite, where you could buy wine or drink it right there. And you can still see, along the back streets behind hefty palazzi, the little buchette di vino ("wine doors"), many dating to the seventeenth century, where wine was sold to the public.
The tradition of Florence's many paninoteche were undoubtedly born from these ancient businesses, and many of today's favourite spots date back to the nineteenth century, where, along with glasses of wine, freshly baked bread from the forno (bakery) and prosciutto, finocchiona, and salame from the salumaio (salumi maker/seller) came together in the simplest of ways for a quick lunch or an impromptu merenda (snack).
Places like I Due Fratellini, which is literally large enough to hold the eponymous two brothers, Michele and Armando, and a wall of wine bottles, are doing what that paninoteca has been doing since 1875. Another Florentine institution, the elegant bar Procacci, which is famous for its finger sandwiches filled with truffle paste, has been serving Florentines truffle-laced panini and pouring wine since 1885.
In a city that is known best for its past, what better way to enjoy a little piece of Florentine history than with a delicious panino, standing on the street, washed down with a tiny glass of wine.
Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.
Describe the best panino you've ever had in the comments below.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.