I discovered Florence 30 years ago. I lived, studied, worked, loved and married there over a seven-year stretch. The city, first introduced to me by the slides and stories I heard in art history classes at Northwestern, transformed my life and my sensibilities.
Since the '70s I have returned to Florence a number of times. Usually with wife, kids and the experiential baggage we all collect as we grow older. But this last trip was different: I was on my own after a business meeting in Liguria and decided to meet up with an old friend, Max.
Max is Massimo Melani, a true Florentine, opinionated, smart and possessed of an earthy sense of humor. We worked together in the early '70s, selling leather goods at the Scuola del Cuoio, the Leather School, in the monastery of Santa Croce in Florence.
We caught up quickly. Max, now retired, still drinks and smokes too much, but he is more alive than ever. He and his wife, Sandra, raised two sons, and Max predicts that he will become a grandfather before me. Over the three-day stay we saw old friends, revisited old haunts and told stories and jokes so old that they were new again.
Now, on a muggy Saturday morning, my last full day in the city, Max and I went to the bustling San Lorenzo central food market. It was his usual Saturday market run. From the outside, the venerable building looked the same as when I shopped there. But I was amazed when Max drove down a narrow street, grabbed a ticket from an electronic gate gadget and entered a 400-car garage built under the market. Attendants directed us to an open spot in the already crowded garage. "Wow, that's progress," I said.
Halfway up the stairs my nose twitched expectantly at the intoxicating blend of market aromas that overtook me. The scent of rich café espresso blended with sharp pecorino and nutty parmigiano reggiano. The penetrating spice from barrels of peppercorns married with the bouquet of fish stalls which smell nothing like fish but rather like the promise of a clean ocean breeze. The stands that sell hot meat snacks of trippa (tripe), stracotto (Tuscan pot roast) and porchetta (rosemary seasoned pork) signaled their wares on a wafting current complemented by the robust nose of the local red wine.
When we got to the main floor, the audible buzz of customers bantering and laughing and vendors calling out supplemented the market aromas. Visually the space seemed both familiar and different. There was sharper marketing going on: The stands now had names, and the signage was vivid and appealing. There was still the remarkable array of meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, herbs and other Tuscan produce.
But what was that overhead? Were those really escalators carrying people up there? Yes, indeed. The canny Florentines had nearly doubled the vendor space of the market by building a mezzanine high into the generous dimensions of the old building. Yet even with the inclusion of a mezzanine level, the market was brighter, airier and roomier than I recalled.
At a vegetable stand I recognized a woman from the old days. Her sons now ran the stand, but she helped on busy Fridays and Saturdays. Max selected a basketful of vegetables and chose some carciofi artichokes and put them in a bag. When it was time to pay, the old woman asked Max how many carciofi were in the bag. He claimed five. She motioned for the bag and counted six. Their eyes met. She laughed, he laughed. She chided Max, "I know you're up to your old tricks!" but charged him for five anyway.
Then we went downstairs for a tripe sandwich and a glass of wine. Max waved to the "mayor" of the market, a jolly retired professor who hung out there every day. He waved back, gulped a splash of red wine and moved on.
Max and I stood at the counter, rich sauce dripping down our chins as we ate and laughed. Two old friends, graying and paunchy on the outside but filled with fresh perspectives and life on the inside. At that moment we were one with the old Mercato Centrale.
Walter Sanders (WCAS71) is vice president, corporate affairs, for Citicorp Diners Club. His photography and a number of his essays are included in Cooking Up an Italian Life: Simple Pleasures of Italy in Recipes and Stories (PergolaWest, 2001), a cookbook by his wife, Sharon Sanders.