The Ferragamos' Florence
Published: June 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
The city's first family of fashion lead the way to their favorite hotels, restaurants, shops, sights—and the best white-truffle panini in town
One of the most famous photographs in 20th-century fashion depicts Salvatore Ferragamo surrounded by a sea of shoe lasts in a workroom of his Florentine palazzo, the 13th-century Spini Feroni. Written in heavy black ink on the wooden forms are the names of their owners: Greta Garbo, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall.
Dubbed Shoemaker to the Stars, Ferragamo shod Hollywood royalty on and off the screen, pushing the creative envelope with sandals and stilettos, pumps and platforms, in such innovative materials as woven cellophane and raffia, "invisible" nylon thread, hemp, bark, hummingbird feathers, and exotic skins of toad, water snake, and kangaroo. Born outside Naples and headquartered in the heart of historic Florence from 1927 until his death in 1960, Ferragamo was a charismatic and persuasive (not to mention dashing) ambassador of Tuscan style.
This legacy is a lot to live up to, but his wife, Wanda, five children—Ferruccio, Fulvia, Massimo, Leonardo, and Giovanna—and grandson James fill the role as comfortably as they do their Ferragamos. Asked to name and describe their favorite hotels, restaurants, shops, and sights in Florence, they approached the task as if they were designing a new collection: with almost feral concentration, respect for tradition, and disregard for the obvious.
As the Ferragamo company has grown—embracing complete lines of men's and women's classic ready-to-wear, along with jewelry, leather bags and belts, silk scarves and ties—so too has the responsibility of belonging to what even the corner tripe vendor calls the First Family of Florentine Fashion. Like the two-inch-thick grilled bistecca for which the city is famous, Ferragamo and Florence are inseparable. Brunelleschi's mythic dome for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) is a must-see, but so is the Ferragamo flagship boutique in Palazzo Spini Feroni, which, with its lofty frescoed ceilings, is nothing if not grand.
The Ferragamos draw such a sharp line between their fashion and Florentine hotel empires that it's possible to spend a week at the Lungarno, Gallery, or (less perfect) Continental and never know that the family owns them. Following a strict "church and state" policy, nothing at the Hotel Lungarno (14 Borgo San Jacopo; 39-055/27261, fax 39-055/268-437; doubles from $310, including tax and breakfast), not a matchbook nor telephone pad, says "Ferragamo." But the synergy is no less powerful for being unspoken. The giveaway that CEO Ferruccio Ferragamo and company are behind the hotel, which they acquired in 1995, is the high, high style quotient.
The Lungarno stands on the Arno's south bank, steps from the Ponte Vecchio. Its rather anonymous modern building is linked to a 12th-century tower, which houses the most romantic guest rooms. "Other hotels can claim to be on the river," notes Ferruccio, "but ours is the only one that doesn't have a street separating it from the water. Drop a penny from your window and it falls straight into the Arno." Massimo, head of Ferragamo's North American operations, says, "I would stay at the Lungarno even if it were owned by my worst enemy."
The Ferragamos' careful renovation of this much-loved classic yielded 57 rooms and 12 suites, crisply decorated in blue and white with cushioned headboards, avian prints, and pedimented mirrors (not, alas, full-length). Bathrooms are lavishly done in beige Botticino marble. Only the plastic tumblers glare—was glass really a corner worth cutting?Marshaled atop the mini-bars are bottles of Chianti, grappa, and vin santo, and a package of the mother of all biscotti, made by the Matteis in nearby Prato since 1858.
Set just above the river, the restaurant puts diners nearly at eye level with passing boats and, at breakfast time, locals bicycling unhurriedly to work on the opposite quay. Photographs of personalities who have left their mark on the city adorn the walls: Eleonora Duse, Harold Acton, Aldo Gucci, and, of course, Salvatore Ferragamo. The lobby, with its white-slipcovered upholstery and oxblood ginger-jar lamps, is a good place for ordering a morning latte and spreading out a map to plan your day. Service is respectable, though the concierges can seem less than thrilled to be doing their job.
In May the Ferragamos shook up Florence with something it had never known before: a resolutely contemporary boutique hotel. Within whistling distance of the Ponte Vecchio, on the north flank of the Arno, the Gallery Hotel Art (5A Vicolo dell'Oro; 39-055/27263, fax 39-055/268-557; doubles from $280) romances young and worldly customers with an art theme that reaches from the warm taupe-and-gray public spaces (showing Alberto Reggianini's insect watercolors) to the 56 pin-striped guest rooms and nine suites, hung with moody black-and-white studies of Florentine monuments. Rectilinear armchairs are in pigskin and wenge, the furniture wood of the moment. Books in the library, including first editions of English literature classics, were handpicked, title by title.
The Helvetia & Bristol (2 Via dei Pescioni; 39-055/287-814, fax 39-055/288-353; doubles from $403) retains the thick, tufted atmosphere of the 19th-century private palace it was before morphing into a hotel in 1894. In the years after, it became a magnet for composers, artists, and writers such as Stravinsky, Pirandello, and De Chirico, as well as English nobility. Travelers with a taste for the rich textures, dark woods, and murky colors of the fin de siècle will not check out feeling underfed. Most of the H&B's 29 guest rooms and 20 suites have extravagantly high ceilings, Venetian glass chandeliers dripping rosettes, and slipper chairs whose frilly skirts make them look like demoiselles waiting for their dance cards to be filled in. The hotel's dining room is one of the most formal in Florence. As for location, the H&B is perfect for those for whom no walk—even in Europe's most walkable city—is too short: the hotel is just off Florence's main square, Piazza della Repubblica.
Despite the scale of the Torre di Bellosguardo (2 Via Roti Michelozzi; 39-055/229-8145, fax 39-055/229-008; doubles from $244)—the sprawling lobby was once a ballroom—the 16th-century villa turned hotel feels intimate, not intimidating. The 16 guest rooms, with their heavily carved wardrobes and, in some cases, canopy beds, are almost painfully nostalgic, a sentiment underscored by the views. As Massimo says, "There is no better vantage point for surveying Florence than the Bellosguardo." Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo, the Palazzo Vecchio, Santo Spirito, the Pitti Palace—all are at your feet. Tucked in the hills just outside the city's periphery, the hotel is a five-minute taxi ride or a beautiful 15-minute walk from town (time spent peeking over garden walls and inhaling the jasmine not included).
A former monastery across the city from the Bellosguardo, the Villa San Michele (4 Via Doccia, Fiesole; 800/237-1236 or 39-055/59451, fax 39-055/567-8250; doubles from $706, including breakfast and one additional meal for two) dates to the same era and has a similar setting, though the resemblance ends there. With a façade attributed to Michelangelo, a chapel (complete with altar) for a lobby, and a spectacular living and dining loggia pitched above a verdant ravine, the San Michele is one of the world's most celebrated hotels. Unfortunately, attitude problems among the staff have also made it notorious, though Maurizio Ammazzini gets gold stars for finding me what no other concierge in Florence could: a tailor to replace the shredded lining of a treasured sports coat. The 38-room, four-suite hotel has the chic to leave its public spaces empty, or nearly so. On the other hand, accommodations in the main building are so tight they could ruin your stay; cut your losses and book into the slicker, costlier annex. "The San Michele," says Giovanna, "is for people who want a very special holiday—and don't mind paying for it."
"Florentine food is Tuscan food is simple food," says Ferruccio. "It's healthful, wastes nothing, and makes a direct appeal to the palate. It's the very best Italian cooking."
Though the Venetians and Neapolitans might disagree, and though eating in Florence is not quite as austere as Ferruccio says, it is nevertheless an earthy adventure. Beans, unsalted bread, and olive oil are ingredients that turn up again and again. Wide pasta, grilled meats, and game—wild boar, rabbit, pheasant—crowd the menus. Fresh and aged pecorino, Tuscany's great contribution to the national cheese platter, makes an appearance between the secondo and dolce.
Folded into a 13th-century palazzo with lacy wrought-iron chandeliers, Osteria del Caffè Italiano (11-13R Via Isola delle Stinche; 39-055/289-368; dinner for two $65) has a young vibe unmatched by any restaurant in town. Ferruccio's weakness is for the soups: porcini; potato and artichoke; and ribollita—a bread-thickened bean dish anointed at the table with olive oil to taste. Caffè Italiano also has one of the most extensive and carefully composed wine lists in Florence. Order that super-Tuscan you can never find at home.
The list at Cantinetta Antinori (3R Piazza degli Antinori; 39-055/292-234; dinner for two $80) is made up exclusively of bottles from the Tuscan estates where the Antinoris have been making wine since the 14th century. Even the rarest, most expensive vintages are available by the glass. Of special interest is the Tenuta Belvedere from the new Bolgheri appellation, a red made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, and Merlot grapes. "The Cantinetta is a bit more refined than most Florentine restaurants, but not overwhelmingly so," says Leonardo, director of Ferragamo's European and Asian arms, who always has the pappa al pomodoro, another bread-and-olive-oil-bolstered soup, this one with a tomato base. Like the wines, the oil is the Antinoris' own, as are the pecorino and caprino cheeses.
To escape one's fellow tourists (there are easier things to do in Florence), slip into Giacosa (83R Via Tornabuoni; 39-055/239-6226; lunch for two $27), a genteel café-cum-tearoom jammed with well-born locals digging into midday plates of ziti and risotto. "This is where I go on Saturdays when I'm out doing errands with my granddaughters and I want something good but quick," says Giovanna, who oversees women's ready-to-wear. "My little girls love it." Habitués order at the counter and eat standing up, elbow to elbow, after sipping a Negroni, the legendary gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth cocktail that was invented at Giacosa. Vitrines magnificently arranged with fruit tarts, candied chestnuts, and bottles of lemon liqueur are as much of a draw as the crustless sandwiches. Giacosa's sister institution is the Rivoire (5R Piazza della Signoria; 39-055/211-302), where, tomorrow if not today, everyone who is anyone in Florence (including lots of Ferragamos) stops by for an aperitivo or a pudding-rich hot chocolate.
When you just can't face another bowl of pasta, Procacci (64R Via Tornabuoni; 39-055/211-656; lunch for two $25), a wonderfully old-fashioned specialty foods shop and bar with a small menu, is a good, light alternative. No point in starting with anything less than three panini tartufati, the house sandwich, a dainty glazed roll the size and shape of an egg, filled with white-truffle paste. Nurse a spumante while deciding whether to take home a bottle of the best-quality balsamic vinegar or a jar of Sicilian marmalade. With sheaves of lilies scenting the shop, a mosaic floor, and marble tables, Procacci has set the standard for civility in Florence since 1885. Even the paper napkins are luxurious.
Coco Lezzone (26R Via del Parioncino; 39-055/287-178; dinner for two $75) isn't concerned with niceties. If it were not for the tempting bowl of sliced peaches in white wine sitting in the entrance, the scowls of the three hostesses would be enough to send you running. And yet, and yet. "Coco Lezzone has the best bistecca alla fiorentina in the city," says Ferruccio. "And its yellow and white wall tiles make you feel as if you're eating in a kitchen." Everyone from Prince Charles to Pavarotti sits on hard wooden benches at communal tables for the privilege of paying 35,000 lire ($19) for truffles shaved over buttered bow-tie pasta. The thing is, it is a privilege, even as a sign admonishes customers to silence their cell phones. Seems the ringing disturbs the simmering ribollita. (They ring anyway.)
Le Cave di Maiano (16 Via delle Cave, Fiesole; 39-055/59133; lunch for two $65) restores your faith in the guileless, open-armed trattoria—the kind that puts bones aside for your dog, which is what this restaurant does for Ferruccio's Labrador. Fifteen minutes from town among hills swathed in parasol pines and olive trees, Le Cave goes beyond familiar Florentine fare to offer roast pork alla casentino (with fennel, rosemary, and garlic), "chimney-sweep" risotto (with black cabbage and beans), and pollastro al mattone (a small herb-stuffed chicken, grilled under a brick). In warm weather, linden trees form a canopy over tables on a terrace with humbling vistas of Florence.
Planning Your Attack The well-organized, energy-conscious shopper in Florence plans his attack by neighborhood, says Giovanna, allotting time for each of the key areas: the Centro Storico, Via Tornabuoni, Centro, and Oltrarno.
Centro Storico The city's ground zero takes in the Duomo, Uffizi Galleries, and Piazzas della Signoria and della Repubblica. Via Calimala and Via Calzaiuoli, the quarter's major shopping streets, are the setting for Florence's most popular passeggiata, the evening stroll that is a defining ritual of daily life.
The Shabby Shop (12RVia del Parione; 39-055/294-826) is where Leonardo finds presents for his wife, Beatrice. Calling the shop "shabby" is the owner's idea of a joke—antique carafes, saltcellars, and champagne buckets do not get any more splendid than this. Ferruccio, who says his wife, Amanda, is "extremely difficult to buy for," swears by the jewelry boutique Ugo Piccini (9-11R Via Por Santa Maria; 39-055/214-511), which has the city's largest selection of classic gold jewelry (bamboo hoop earrings and rope-twist bracelets are staples). Amanda and Ferruccio's twin boys are now 27 years old, but that doesn't stop her from stocking their wardrobes. When her sons need socks, she heads for Principe (21-29R Via Strozzi; 39-055/292-764), a sort of mini-Brooks Brothers. Amanda also recommends BM Bookshop (4R Borgo Ognissanti; 39-055/294-575): "It's the city's best English-language bookstore." American travelers race here when they realize they forgot to pack Faith Heller Willinger's Eating in Italy, the shopping bible Made in Italy by Annie Brody and Patricia Schultz, or Burton Anderson's Pocket Guide to Italian Wines.
Luigi Mazzoni is the second generation of his family to serve Wanda Ferragamo, the company's chairman, at the Mazzoni luxury linens boutique (14R Via Orsanmichele; 39-055/215-153). This is the matriarch's secret source for fine percale sheets, embellished with pinhead stars or snowflakes. Tea towels with jacquard images of the Palazzo Vecchio and Michelangelo's David make amusing souvenirs. Wanda also relies on Mazzoni for the extra-extra-wide—but seamless—damask tablecloths she needs when setting a holiday table for her brood. And it wouldn't be an Italian table of taste without Richard Ginori porcelain (17R Via Rondinelli; 39-055/210-041), prized for its opacity and brilliance.
Via Tornabuoni Bordering the west side of the Centro Storico, Via Tornabuoni is to Florence what Via Montenapoleone is to Milan: the city's most glittering shopping artery. Every Ferragamo woman has in her trousseau a slithery Harlowesque peignoir from Loretta Caponi (4R Piazza Antinori; 39-055/213-668), purveyors of what must be the world's most sumptuous lingerie and linens. Silk crepe de chine bedsheets, anyone?Loretta Caponi also sells classic children's wear, as does Baroni (9R Via Tornabuoni; 39-055/210-562), where Wanda finds Shetland shorts and smocked velvet dresses for her 21 grandchildren.
Other essential stops: Archimede Seguso (65R Via Tornabuoni; 39-055/283-467), a leading name in Venetian glass, makes muscular bowls and vases. Pineider (76R Via Tornabuoni; 39-055/211-605), across the street, is the place for status stationery—straight- or deckle-edged, satin or textured finish. Most imposing of all the street's boutiques is Ferragamo (16R Via Tornabuoni; 39-055/292-123). A Florentine's first purchase here is a rite of passage.
Centro Fanning out around the Centro Storico in a wedge from the Arno to Via dei Servi, the Centro is home to Ceramiche Ricceri (14R Via dei Conti; 39-055/291-296), a dusky store devoted to terra-cotta tableware made in Impruneta, six miles south of the city. The town's smooth gray clay has a high iron and aluminum content that results in unusually strong platters and pitchers.
While every stratum of Florentine society lays its tables with faïence, the cosmically priced brocades and chiseled velvets from Lisio Tessuti d'Arte (45R Via dei Fossi; 39-055/212-430) are the reserve of families like the Ferragamos. It takes three months to program the perforated cards that set Lisio's handlooms in motion, and eight hours to turn out a 3-by-23-inch morsel of jacquard.
In the same careful, labor-intensive tradition, L'Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (16 Via della Scala; 39-055/216-276) is a perfume, beauty, and herbalist's shop housed in the former (but still hushed) chapel of a Renaissance monastery. Intriguing tonics, unguents, digestives, and creams (one with snail oil to fight dry skin) are sold beneath a lofty vault depicting the four corners of the earth. More expected but no less sublime are the eaux de toilette, shampoos, soaps, and famous potpourri. It smells like nothing so much as an Italian church.
Oltrarno Stretched along the south side of the Arno and reaching back to Via della Chiesa, the Oltrarno has Florence's highest concentration of crafts and antiques shops. "A lot of people stay at the Lungarno because of the shopping that's just outside the door," says Leonardo. "Turn right down Borgo San Jacopo and you're in the thick of it."
Every member of the Ferragamo family raves about Paolo Pagliai (41R Borgo San Jacopo; 39-055/282-840), a silver shop in a carriage house. Pagliai's reproductions of 18th-century Florentine trays are cast using molds handmade from octopus cartilage.
Lo Spillo (72R Borgo San Jacopo; 39-055/293-126)—"the pin"—refers both to the size and contents of one of Giovanna's haunts. "The shop is devoted to vintage stickpins, lapel pins, hatpins, and brooches," she says. "The Oltrarno is full of high-end antiques dealers, but this is one spot where you don't have to wring your hands over the prices."
After it crosses Piazza Frescobaldi, Borgo San Jacopo becomes Via di Santo Spirito, where the woodcarvers at Castorina (13-15R; 39-055/212-885) meticulously restore and replicate Palazzo Spini Feroni's pelmets and pedestals. More realistically scaled for the rest of us are Baroque picture frames, marquetry boxes, and faux malachite obelisks.
Reverence for the original article also sets apart the painted furniture made by Ponziani (27 Via Santo Spirito; 39-055/287-958). The search stops here for a copy of the Duchess of Windsor's japanned Queen Anne bureau bookcase or a facsimile of a 17th-century pharmacist's cupboard, perfect for storing pasta.
Launched in 1995 by Ferruccio and his siblings in homage to their father, the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo (Palazzo Spini Feroni, 2 Via Tornabuoni; 39-055/360-456; by appointment) holds twice-yearly exhibitions that are drawn from an archive of more than 10,000 Ferragamo shoes. The earliest models date to the twenties, when Salvatore first worked in Hollywood and, in pursuit of functional perfection, studied anatomy at UCLA. A benchmark sandal from 1956 has straps of twisted rope in 18-karat gold and a metallic heel engraved with a dragon motif. Beginning in 1960, Ferragamo footwear was designed by Fiamma, the daughter Salvatore designated to succeed him, who died last year. (Today the shoe lines are created by a team under the family's direction.) Fiamma was in futuristic mode in 1968 when she introduced a style with an upper band of crocheted raffia and a strap that threads through a trapezoidal heel to grip the instep.
Commissioned by a Medici wannabe, Luca Pitti, the fortresslike Palazzo Pitti (Piazza dei Pitti; 39-055/294-883) displays a collection of Florentine Renaissance paintings second only to that of the Uffizi (6 Piazzale degli Uffizi; 39-055/294-883). But it is the Galleria del Costume within the Pitti that speaks most directly to the Ferragamos. Thirteen salons host changing exhibitions of dress from the 18th century to 1925. Bags, shawls, fans, gloves, and walking sticks paint a fully accessorized picture of what it meant to get dressed (whew!) in the salad days of the Medici court.
Though in the center of Florence, Piazza Santo Spirito has the slow-motion feel of a provincial square. At the north end sits the Basilica di Santo Spirito (39-055/211-716), "the most overlooked church in Florence and one of the loveliest," says Massimo. Augustinian monks gave up a meal every day for 50 years to help fund Brunelleschi's last—and some say best—work. Many of the 38 chapels retain their original altarpieces and frontals.
Santo Spirito was completed in the 1490's, the same decade a friar named Savonarola lit his famous "bonfire of the vanities" in the Piazza della Signoria, torching furniture, books, and "erotic" paintings in a blazing act of damnation. A porphyry plaque on the square marks the spot. "On a sunny day in November, the Piazza della Signoria is the most enchanting place in Florence," says Ferruccio. "Sitting at a café you see the Duomo cupola on one side, and on the other, the Loggia dei Lanzi, with its parade of Roman statues, including Cellini's Perseus. In front of you is a copy of David right where Michelangelo placed him, before the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall. Just pray for no traffic."
Leonardo loves Florence's city-country duality. "The proximity of countryside—real countryside—always astonishes me," he says. "Walk five minutes west from Piazza Torquato Tasso, and you find yourself in the kind of cypress-scattered landscape that so pleased Henry James."
One of Florence's great unknown jewels, according to Giovanna, is the Museo Marino Marini (Piazza San Pancrazio; 39-055/219-432), occupying the deconsecrated medieval church of San Pancrazio. "Marini is one of the most important sculptors of this century," she says, "and yet he remains in the shadows." The artist's dominant theme was the horse and rider, a topic he treated in bronze and invested with tender but doomed symbolism. "My father chose Florence because of its charm and tradition of craftsmanship—and also because of museums like this," she continues. "Of course, there's a catch to this city: no matter how many times you visit, you are never satisfied-which explains the large expat community. Everyone leaves longing to return."
. . . worn out your shoe leather at the Mercato delle Cascine (Cascine Park; Tues., 9 a.m.-1 p.m.), the bargain-filled outdoor market that hugs the Arno for a seemingly endless mile. There's a bit of everything for sale, from kitchen utensils to the designer fakes for which Florence is famous (and infamous). But if all you buy is a porchetta sandwich, the morning will not have been lost .
. . . sifted the wheat (marbleized paper items) from the chaff (tourist junk) at the open-air Mercato di San Lorenzo (Piazza San Lorenzo, Tues. - Sat., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.)
. . . lost yourself among the olive oil, sacks of farro, baskets, and food safes at Morganti (3R Piazza Santo Spirito; 39-055/289-230), a grassroots shop blessedly free of tourists .
. . . indulged in a top-of-the-line stainless-steel pasta pot or a pair of cruets standing in a basketwork holder at La Porcellana Bianca (53R Via dei Bardi; 39-055/211-893), a boutique for the knowing cook.
. . . checked out the cutting-edge housewares at Dino Bartolini (30R Via dei Servi; 39-055/211-895), such as pans of semiramis, a stone from northern Italy.
. . . ordered a numbered brass door plaque at Ditta Cosimo Tassinari (2R Piazza Santa Maria Novella; 39-055/287-869), an engraving shop that time forgot.
. . . marveled at the scagliola tables and boxes at Le Scagliole di Bianco Bianchi e Figli (117 Viale Europa; 39-055/686-118)—scagliola is the 16th-century Italian art of using a marblelike mixture of ground gypsum, pigment, and glue as filler for designs incised in slate or marble.
. . . toured the 1874 glass-and-cast-iron stalls of the Mercato Centrale food market (Piazza del Mercato Centrale), the biggest in Florence. After eyeing the Chianini beef and wild salad greens, stop for a bouillon-moistened boiled-beef sandwich at the Nerbone stand (39-055/219-949). Even more Florentine is the warm tripe sold as street food opposite the market's main entrance on Via Sant'Antonino.
. . . grabbed a stool at Enoteca Alessi (27R Via delle Oche; 39-055/214-966), a stately wine bar and shop selling grappa in bottles with flame-shaped stoppers.
. . . savored the chicken-liver crostini at Trattoria Pandemonio (50R Via del Leone; 39-055/224-002), and the lesser-known crostini di milza, with spleen.
. . . experienced the schiacciata con l'uva, a flat dessert bread baked with fall grapes, at Forno Sartoni (34R Via dei Cerchi; 39-055/212-570).
. . . sampled the gelato, sorbetto, and authentic Sicilian granita at Gelateria Carabè (60R Via Ricasoli; 39-055/289-476).