We’re outside the Gothic church of Saint Ambrose, in Florence’s less touristy Santa Croce district, waiting for a woman called Nemi.
“We’ve got time for a quick coffee, haven’t we?” I ask Pete, craving caffeine.
With minutes to spare before our rendez-vous, we haul ourselves off the church steps, the ideal place to observe Florentines in Piazza Sant’Ambrogio walking their dogs, chatting and enjoying the sunshine.
At Cibero Caffe, a street away, we’re soon downing our coffees at the bar alongside the locals. (The bill comes to just 1.5 Euros each – about a third the cost of most coffees we’ve ordered in Florence.)
Ten minutes later, we’re back in the piazza, awaiting Nemi, who’s going to be our guide on Urban Adventure’s “Morning Market Food Tasting Tour.”
A slender 20-something woman in jeans with long blonde hair emerges; a stand-out amongst the grandmothers in loose frocks. “Here for the market tour?” she beams.
Soon we and a middle-aged American couple who’ve also signed up for the tour are following Nemi away from the square.
We find ourselves walking past the café we’d just visited – “I recommend that place,” she gestures. “Want to stop for a coffee?” We reply that we’re fine, thanks anyway. Soon we’re at what’s been billed as Florence’s most vibrant local grower’s market. We wander past stalls laden with fruits, veggies, vintage clothing, jewellery, manned by the usual kinds of characters that abound at markets.
Perhaps we could have just come here alone – do we really need a guide? I find myself wondering.
But five minutes later, when I’m seated, tucking into delicious salted bread and fried polenta that Nemi has procured from one of her friendly associates, I’m eating my words.
“This is a classic local dish,” she informs, launching into a knowledgeable spiel about where the ingredients are sourced.
Next, we’re feasting on sangiovese grapes in a sweet slice, and a nutty hazelnut slice. Nemi moves us on to the next stall, where the butcher races over and makes a great show of hugging her, as if she’s his long lost love.
Nemi handles his tight embrace with rolling-eyed good humour as she tells us about the tasty sausages we’re to sample.
And so it goes on: there are breads with creamy cheese and pesto, pecorino, parmegiano and a cheese aged in barollo wine barrels. It’s delicious – but wait, there’s more! We’re introduced to a cheese vendor who’s selling a truffle-infused cheese that for the past three years has won an international award for the best cheese in the world!
It’s so delicious we buy a slab of it to present to Peter’s sister Pia in Milan.
Nemi, who’s extremely knowledgable about local wines but has just enrolled to do her sommelier course, then pours us a Leopoldo chianti.
“It’s only 4.5 Euros a bottle,” she beams again. “Top up?” Why not?
Our humble market is starting to seem more like a Michelin-star restaurant. Little wonder it’s bustling with locals who know what gems come from these unassuming stalls.
Without Nemi, we wouldn’t have had hope of sorting out the wheat from the chaff. Further, we feel we’ve just made friends with a half a dozen characters peddling their very yummy foodstuffs.
Florence Urban Adventures (www.florenceurbanadventures.com is run by a Perth woman, Linda Sorgiovanni (who has also recently taken over Urban Adventure Tours in Rome too).
Linda, 46, whose parents are Italian and Maltese, grew up in Leederville before taking off to the UK to study art when she was 20.
“A couple of years later I ended up in Florence for a holiday – and I’ve never really left,” Linda tells The Starfish when we meet up with her a few weeks later, back in WA.
While she loves her annual visits home to Perth, these days she’s very much ensconced in Italy; she’s married to an Italian – and her Italian business partner is based in Florence.
Linda is a qualified sommelier and learned a couple of extra language in order to qualify to become a tour operator and set up her own business, Italy Customised. She and her partner handle every aspect of their clients’ trip: accommodation, transport, historical and cultural tours, and trips to authentic restaurants and noteworthy sites.
“We tailor memorable Italian experiences for upwards of 200 Euros a day,” she says.
“It can mean escorting small groups to vineyards, olive farms, art galleries and secret hideaway spots most tourists would never hear about.”
While some of her clients are on a budget, others couldn’t care less about the cost.
“I was once asked to arrange a tour for a Middle Eastern princess. I picked her up, with her son and bodyguard, from her penthouse suite at the Four Seasons. Clearly money wasn’t a problem, but she just wanted me to take her to the Sant Ambrogio markets – she wanted an authentic local experience!” Linda recalls.
She loved the markets so much, she started buying loads of tins of sardines and other market goodies. The store holders were getting very excited. I said, ‘hold on, they may not let you carry all this on the plane,” She replied, ‘it will be fine, I have my own plane!’! I should have guessed!”
Linda has plenty of colourful tales and info to relay about food, wine and places in Italy. Her busy life got even busier when several years ago, international tour group Urban Adventures asked her if she was interested in running their Florence tours; more recently she said yes to the Rome office too and she’s excitedly planning tours.
“I like to show people a city’s secrets, as well as its major attractions,” she nods. “Though there are plenty of good tours in Rome focusing on the major attractions, I have lots of ideas – I also want to show visitors places the locals love but nobody else knows about.”
“So of course my diary has never been busier!” sighs this dynamic mother of two over coffee at Cottesloe’s John St café, talking to us while at the same time managing to chat in Italian to the cafe’s owner.
“I have to say, much as I love Italy, it’s always a joy to be back here,” Linda waves an arm towards the Indian Ocean.
” I’m lucky to have both places in my life.”