Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Caffe’ Mingo: A Slice of Life in Florence

It’s July in Florence and it’s hotter than Dante’s Inferno. Tourists are everywhere. They queue outside the narrow courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery an hour before the museum opens. They swarm all of the well-known landmarks of this city. They crowd the shops.

But even in the most touristed areas of the city there is another Florence. A place where people work and live; where they meet in the evenings to discuss the day’s events; and where they share the secrets of this great city. It’s not so much knowing that this other place exists. Of course it does. It’s that it exists right under our noses, yet it’s easy to miss.

Maria and I were fortunate to be staying at a bed and breakfast in the Piazza San Martino. The plaza is about the size of a postage stamp, yet life flows around it like the river of tourists that are led by their guides below my window to where it is believed that Dante once lived. While many of the tourist haunts are minutes away by foot in all directions—including the Uffizi, the adjacent Piazza della Signoria, and Dante di casa—San Martino is bustling in other ways. There’s a very active courthouse that’s open six days per week, one of the city’s oldest restaurants, and of course, the requisite historical sites (including the Torre Della Castagna, an ancient tower built in the 10th Century, and the tiny chapel of the Compagnia dei Buonomini, where Dante may have been married and which also served as a refuge for once wealthy households who lost everything because of political alliances).

The centerpiece of this activity was the Caffe’ Mingo. In the morning it serves espressos and pastries to the attorneys, judges and other court officials before they go to work. In the afternoon it serves hungry tourists. In the evening it becomes a place for locals to have drinks and talk. It’s also the time for the staff and a few neighbors to have their evening meal, which they do in style. The café has a tiny inside space but the main activity is outside in the center of the square. Three people operate the space, Nino, the owner, Daniela, who looks like a body builder, and Amanda. Maria and I spent our time there in the mornings and evenings during our five-day stay in Florence and left them alone during their busy lunch times.

Tourists having lunch at Caffe' Mingo. Daniela, standing, is taking their orders.

While Nino may be the boss and Daniela may be built like an Ox, it’s Amanda, a Filipino native, who runs the place. Petite, wiry, fast and loud, she seems to know everyone who passes on the piazza, from the sanitation workers and delivery men to the owners of the local businesses. She calls them all by name loudly, standing on her toes as she waves with a smile a mile wide.

Another view of the lunchtime crowd.

The first evening I sat there drinking wine and enjoying a meal and taking some notes, Amanda treated me to a glass of limoncello and she discounted the meal a bit. Between the three of them I never ended up paying full-price for anything. Amanda only said she could tell I was a good person.

The next evening when Maria arrived from visiting her family in Amsterdam, she was obviously tired from her trip. We were going to split a bowl of pasta with pesto and a salad. She looked at my wife, shook her head as if something wasn’t right, and said that she was going to make Maria pasta with ragu and that it was on the house. Again we finished our meal with a complementary limoncello. Maria attacked it as if she hadn’t been fed all day. Amanda absolutely refused all tips.

On our final night, we had dinner at the restaurant in the piazza, Trattoria del Pennello, one of Florence's oldest restaurants, and finished our night with Proseco at the cafe while the staff and neighbors were having their meal. Nino, a gelato addict, had bought some for dessert for the staff. He gave us some to have with our drinks. We chatted through the night in broken English and awful Italian.

They didn’t treat us as customers. They treated us like friends and for that we’ll never forget them.

Historically, the Piazza San Martino was a place that served the poor. On Sunday mornings this tradition continues as poor residents of the city come for free meals. The food is handed out from this white car and devoured quickly before the cafe opens, which on Sunday is later than other days. Nino cleans the remains before opening, which makes him unhappy. There's nothing like listening to someone curse out loud to no one in Italian.

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