Tuscany's Top 40: The Ultimate Shoppers' Guide
Published: May 2009
By Valerie Waterhouse
T+L finds the best stops for everything from ceramics and silks to gloves and glassware in Italy's most stylish shopping region
It's hard to live in Italy for 15 years without fine-tuning your shopping antennae. And for true hunter-gatherers (like me), Tuscany is the country's most irresistible destination. Over the years, memorable purchases have included a loosely woven fishing basket, created by an old man who had collected the reeds that morning on the shore, and a hand-stitched leather clutch that was finished while I watched. There have also been disasters, like the to-die-for designer sandals sitting in my closet (even a glance gives me blisters) and the discounted, vintage leather Prada briefcase I didn't buy (I still harbor the deepest regrets). Whether your guiding light is gluttony or glamour, Tuscany is a happy hunting ground, where a plethora of craftspeople and food producers—and some of Italy's top fashion houses—are based. After years of extensive research (hitting every boutique and workshop, convincing my friends to spill their secrets), my little black book is brimming with addresses. Most of the essential stores are in the provinces of Firenze, Siena, and Arezzo, though other destinations (Lucca for antiques, Bolgheri for wine) are well worth a visit. Below, 40 of my favorite places to shop for everything from freshly pressed olive oil to "Where-did-you-get-that?" jewelry and hand-glazed ceramics.
The towns of Montelupo Fiorentino, Impruneta, and the industrial suburb of Sesto Fiorentino are the centers for Tuscany's several-thousand-year-old pottery trade. The undisputed master of Tuscan ceramics is Florence-based Bruno Gambone (9 Via Benedetto Marcello; 39-055/355-358; www.brunogambone.com; by appointment), whose stoneware artworks are displayed in museums around the world as well as in his overcrowded studio. Don't be put off by Gambone's lofty reputation: his signature flat bottles, plates, jugs, and vases with organic designs in beige, cream, gray, or aqua-green are within reach (from $20).
• Among the best of Tuscany's new-generation ceramists is Claudio Maccari (30 Via del Poggiarello, Monteroni d'Arbia; 39-0577/372-092; by appointment); his pine-clad workshop south of Siena is stacked with terra-cotta, porcelain, and ceramic vases and floral plates in tasteful, neutral tones.
• The main streets in the pottery town of Montelupo Fiorentino are lined with stores selling traditional ceramics. For a more varied selection, drive two miles north of town to Ceramica ND Dolfi (1 Via Romagnola N., Località Antinoro, Montelupo Fiorentino; 39-0571/51264). You'll find classic blue-and-white Zaffera vases with stylized floral designs and striped bowls and abstract plates created by owner Silvano Dolfi and his daughters, Natalia and Daria.
• For terra-cotta urns, stop by M.I.T.A.L. (31 Via di Cappello; 39-055/201-1414; www.mital.rtd.it), in the clay-rich town of Impruneta; it's the most charming of the numerous terra-cotta workshops in the hills south of Florence. Queen Beatrice of Holland bought vases for her Tuscan villa here.
The medieval town of Colle di Val d'Elsa has produced glassware since the 1300's; more than 90 percent of Italy's crystalware is still made here.
• Inside the crystal-blowing workshop at Vilca (53 Via Fratelli Bandiera, Località Gracciano, Colle di Val d'Elsa; 39-0577/929-188; www.vilca.it; weekday mornings only), teams of artisans gracefully transform glowing strands of crystal into twisted chalices, icy vases, and delicate animal figurines. The adjacent factory shop sells items ranging from tall, opaque-and-transparentvases by Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh to chunky-stemmed goblets, all at 50 percent below retail.
• The crystal boutiques in Colle's sandstone-and-cobbled Old Town might be picturesque, but Cristallerie Mezzetti (13 Via Oberdan, Colle di Val d'Elsa; 39-0577/920-395; www.cristalleriemezzetti.com), in the businesslike downtown area, is the only shop that stocks all the local producers, with affordable wine-tasting sets—a glass in a different shape for each type of wine—by Calp, handblown vases by Arnolfo di Cambio, and silk-screened glassware by Egizia.
• Not all of Tuscany's best crystalware comes from Colle. When Tuscan aristocrats break an antique carafe, they commission La Moleria Locchi (10 Via Burchiello, Florence; 39-055/229-8371; www.locchi.com) to make an exact duplicate in crystal or glass, often using machinery that dates back to the 1800's. Visitors to the century-old workshop can choose from a selection of ready-made objects: crystal candelabra; vases engraved with fruit, flowers, or fish.
In Siena's recently restored Fontebranda quarter, Emporio Toscano (65 Via Fontebranda; 39-0577/226-305) carries locally handmade ceramics with blissfully simple, contemporary lines. Deciding what to leave behind is a struggle. Will it be the pyramid-shaped milk jug by Francesca Ciani?The swirling, optical vases by design doyen Ettore Sottsass for Flavia?Or the giant Alice in Wonderland teacups by Ceramiche Toscane?
• Rusty tools, wicker strands, and heaps of just-finished baskets clutter the workroom at Leonardo Luzzi (50 Frazione Viaio, Anghiari; 39-0575/789-266), located in a rural schoolhouse. You'll find woven straw chairs and baskets for everything from mushrooms to dirty laundry. Prices are so low that shopping here should be a crime (from $30).
• A new addition to the Tuscan artisanal scene is Badamè (35 Via Boccaccio, Palazzo Giannozzi; 39-0571/662-440), a tiny store in the medieval village of Certaldo Alto. Young craftsmen from the area create one-of-a-kind wrought-iron lamps and mosaic vases.
Though it is owned by the Pucci family, the silk fabrics at Antico Setificio Fiorentino (4 Via Bartolini, Florence; 39-055/213-861; www.anticosetificiofiorentino.it; appointment preferred) couldn't be further from the wild, head-spinning patterns usually associated with the Florentine fashion dynasty. That's why European royals have been coming to the setificio (silk weavers) since 1786 to buy handwoven damasks and brocades for their drawing room curtains and antique chairs. The spice-and-beeswax-scented showroom is stacked with colorful bolts of fabric. Don't miss the Ermisino silk, in shimmering, shot colors like antique rose and gold—it scrunches into stiff peaks resembling whipped cream.
• As you wind through wooded hills to the ancient, walled town of Anghiari, it seems that nothing has changed there for hundreds of years. And the illusion persists in the vaulted 16th-century showrooms of Busatti (14 Via Mazzini, Anghiari; 39-0575/788-013; www.busatti.com), where linens are woven on 19th- and early-20th-century looms. Clients include Miuccia Prada and Valentino, who order made-to-measure table sets in linen and cotton. Among the most popular designs: fresh stripes or checks in pink, yellow, or azure on white.
Anyone ordering a bespoke men's or women's shirt from young shirtmaker Leonardo Bugelli (21R Via Frà Bartolomeo, Florence; 39-055/577-600) will have to be patient. Bugelli won't design a shirt without several fittings, and may take six months to deliver the garment. Clients agree that it's worth the wait: the shirts are made from the finest Italian cottons, linens, and silks, woven on antique looms; buttons are in Australian mother-of-pearl; buttonholes are hand-stitched.
• Though the shop just opened in May, Florentine fashion students are lining up for offbeat, made-to-measure clothing from Golubcik (27R Via de' Coverelli, Florence; 39-335/686-1494 or 39-339/825-8919), by young bespoke duo Federica Leonardi and Emiliano Gori. Among the hottest looks: raw linen jackets in grassy green or sunny yellow; dresses woven from crisscrossed fabric strips; pleated denim pants. The Mondrian-like interior is a happy accident: the store once belonged to a stucco decorator who painted patchwork rectangles on the walls to test the colors of his paints.
When the men and women of Tuscany's cocktail party crowd need the perfect ensemble, they go to Sugar (21/23 and 43/45 Corso Italia, Arezzo; 39-0575/354-631). Beppe Angiolini's fashion fiefdom extends across three modernized palazzi, where the latest looks from Gucci, Prada, and Marni sit side by side with niche labels such as Dosa and Haute by Vincenzo De Cotiis. Past clients include Sting and Trudie Styler. A Sugar "lifestyle" store incorporating housewares and furnishings is in the works for 2004.
• For clothes by emerging Italian designers, try Dolci Trame (4 Via del Moro, Siena; 39-0577/46168), a boutique piled high with hats, bags, scarves, and racks of apparel, overlooking the cloisters of the San Cristoforo church. Owners Elisabetta Teri and Federica Orazi mix international names (Martin Margiela, Anna Sui) with the work of local designers. Among the most coveted items are colorful silk and cashmere scarves by Tuscan Faliero Sarti and stilettos and slingbacks by Roman shoemaker Joseph De Bac.
When Catherine de' Medici married the future king Henri II of France in 1533, she introduced Florence's incomparable perfumes to the beau monde. Today, some of the world's best artisanal herbalists and perfumers are still headquartered in her home city.
• If there were a prize for Italy's most beautiful store, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (16 Via della Scala, Florence; 39-055/216-276; www.smnovella.com) would be a front-runner. Housed in the frescoed, 14th-century former chapel facing the cloisters of the Santa Maria Novella church, this herbalist and pharmacy has been producing pomades, tinctures, teas, infusions, and honeys since 1612. The wooden cupboards contain skin-whitening powders, Virgin's Milk skin cream, and even Seven Thieves Vinegar (for fainting fits). Forget the mile-long line at the Uffizi and book a tour of the pharmacy instead.
• On the days that the Santa Maria Novella is overflowing with tourists, Florence's cognoscenti buy remedies and gifts from Antico Officina del Farmacista Dr. Vranjes (44R Via Borgo La Croce; 39-055/241-748), whose new sage-green and white store in the up-and-coming Borgo La Croce district is filled with cork-stoppered bottles of herbal cosmetics, perfumes, and creams, all featuring handwritten labels. The rose-and-myrtle berry perfume is a favorite.
• Cherie Blair looked to perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi (14 Via de' Bardi, Florence; 39-055/234-1187; www.lorenzovilloresi.it; by appointment) for the perfect gift for Queen Elizabeth II: a red travertine marble dish of his spicy potpourri. But Villoresi is best known for his unique scents, individually blended in his antiques-filled apartment from more than a thousand essences—from honeysuckle to horse. Perfumes start at $695 for the first bottle; other (less-costly) options include classic fragrances (try the springy Yerbamate) or the 100-odd scents for the home. Among the most evocative: Trade Winds, Sweet Peas, and Tomato Leaves.
The quality of Tuscan leather has been renowned since medieval times (fashion houses Gucci, Prada, and Ferragamo all have their roots here). A clutch of artisans—both old and new—keep the handmade tradition alive. Note these names:
• The best assistant that bespoke shoemaker Stefano Bemer (143R Borgo San Frediano, Florence; 39-055/211-356; www.stefanobemer.com) ever had was actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who spent 10 months in this lilac-and-mahogany workshop learning the craft in 2001. Bemer makes men's and women's shoes out of 180 different leathers, including hippopotamus and sharkskin. His shoes are built to last 15 years, and every detail is a work of art: even the waxed, flat cotton laces are specially woven on an antique machine.
• Wooden footwear forms hang like bunches of grapes above the head of shoemaker Alessandro Stella at Arti Minori (53 Via Camollia; 39-0577/43861), a cluttered workshop in Siena's center. Made-to-measure men's oxfords, loafers, and derbies are his signature, but Stella also fashions women's handbags. In-demand designs include shoes made of reindeer skin salvaged from a ship that sank in 1786.
• Even Southern belles order their elbow-length, white debutante's gloves from Madova (1R Via Guicciardini, Florence; 39-055/239-6526; www.madova.com), one of only a few companies that keeps the dying art of glove-making afloat. The tiny store overflows with piles of silk- and cashmere-lined kidskin gloves in jewel-like colors. My favorites: black, silk-lined styles with cuffs in turquoise, burgundy, or brown; driving gloves with contrasting stitching and tiny buttons.
Most of the 230 tons of gold that passes though Arezzo each year is processed industrially, so handcrafted jewelry boutiques are surprisingly hard to find. Below, jewelers you shouldn't miss:
• Arezzo's newest jeweler, Eclét (19 Via Cavour; 39-0575/351-854), offers bold designs (big, uncut stone rings; updated medieval necklaces), many of which are commissioned from area designer-craftsmen. The clean-cut pieces by Arezzo-based jeweler Pitti & Sisi—especially their DNA double-helix earrings in white or yellow gold—are a hit with just about anyone who enters the store.
• If you've always suspected that diamonds could become your best friend, head to the Unoaerre Outlet (550 Via Fiorentina; 39-0575/9251), Arezzo's oldest industrial jeweler, for 18-karat-gold-set diamond pieces at more than 20 percent off retail prices. Also look for ice-blue tourmaline rings, smoked citrine and gold-bead necklaces, and diamond and gold-mesh bracelets. Book a tour of the adjoining jewelry museum and factory (by appointment only).
Even the most demanding gourmands can satisfy their cravings at these stores:
• Le Cantine di Greve in Chianti (2 Galleria delle Cantine, Greve in Chianti; 39-055/854-6404; www.lecantine.it) is the Virgin Megastore of Tuscan wine-tasting cellars. Buy a prepaid wine card, insert it into any of the seven wine-tasting "machines," and press one of 140 buttons for a thumb's-width swig of your chosen wine or olive oil. Linger in the cellars to find your preferred producers (the reds of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Montepulciano, and Sassicaia from Bolgheri are all good starting points); then set off on the Chianti trail.
• You're as likely to catch Dario Cecchini, the flamboyant owner of Antica Macelleria Cecchini (11 Via XX Luglio, Panzano in Chianti; 39-055/852-020)—more a theater than a butcher's shop—spouting Dante or humming along to an opera as sprinkling salt and herbs on a side of pork. But clients such as Prada's Patrizio Bertelli and Tod's Diego della Valle say his bistecca panzanese (cut from the thigh) is the best for miles around. Stock up on condiments, including spicy red-pepper jam and Tuscan herbs with salt.
• The Renaissance village of Pienza is the Tuscan capital of pecorino cheese (made from sheep's milk), honey, and red wine (Montepulciano and Montalcino are nearby). Among the best of the countless food stores is La Cornucopia (2 Piazza Martiri della Libertà; 39-0578/748-150; www.emporiofattorie.com), where you'll find everything from spicy stuffed peppers to Tuscan chocolates.
• Florence's food and fashion set swears by Olio & Convivium (4 Via Santo Spirito; 39-055/265-8198; www.conviviumfirenze.it), which recently opened in the frescoed Palazzo Capponi and offers 60 types of olive oil and 250 Tuscan wines. Stop in for lunch or an oil-tasting session (by appointment only).
• The best viands store in Siena is Gastronomia Morbidi (27 Banchi di Sotto; 39-0577/280-541). This small, quaint branch has everything you need for a picnic, from bottled eggplant to fig spread.
• One of the few bakeries that sells fresh panforte (the flat, spicy Sienese cake with candied fruits and honey) is Bini (91-93 Via Stalloreggi, Siena; 39-0577/280-207); the new glass-fronted shop lets customers watch the pastrycooks at work. Other Sienese treats for sale are cavallucci (cookies with walnuts, candied fruits, and aniseed) and ricciarelli (sugar-sprinkled oval biscuits with almonds and honey).
'I buy my watches and cuff links, and jewelry for my wife, at Vennari (65R Via della Vigna Nuova, Florence; 39-055/216-558; www.vennari.com). The classic pieces are made from unusual materials such as onyx, mother-of-pearl, and coral.'
ARCHITECT FOR FERRAGAMO HOTELS AND J.K. PLACE, FLORENCE
'If you're shopping for a house, Marco Iandelli (35R/A Via San Niccolò, Florence; 39-055/248-0041) is the real estate agent par excellence. My wife and I have just bought a villa above Greve from him; we're planning to turn it into a hotel.'
OWNER OF BECCOFINO, BALDOVINO, AND FINISTERRAE RESTAURANTS, FLORENCE
'Head up to Tessilnova (2-4 Via Sartori, Stia; 39-0575/582-685) in the Casentino Valley for a traditional double-breasted hunting jacket made out of bobbly locally made wool. Typically, they are green and orange, but I had mine dyed blue.'
OWNER OF SUGAR EMPORIUM, AREZZO
'The fabulous silversmiths at Brandimarte (18R Via Bartolini, Florence; 39-055/239-381; www.brandimarte.com) still do everything by hand, just as they did during the Renaissance. I have silver platters for my butcher shop made here.'
MASTER BUTCHER, PANZANO
AREZZO: Fiera Antiquaria (Old Town; 39-0575/377-777; first Sunday of each month and the preceding Saturday). Visitors huff and puff up the town's sloping streets to get the best deals from more than 500 ambulant dealers and 120 permanent antiques shops. Finds include vintage Tuscan ceramics; carriage clocks; Art Deco jewelry.
FLORENCE: Mercato di San Lorenzo (Piazza di San Lorenzo; 39-055/290-832; 9 a.m.-7:30p.m. daily). The quality might not be the best, but the prices at the leather goods stalls are unbeatable. Look out for antelope-skin shirts; suede clutch bags in shimmering stripes; classic leather holdalls for those souvenirs.
FLORENCE: International Antiques Biennale (11B Via del Parione; www.mostraantiquariato.it; this year, September 26 to October 5). The 23rd biennale is just one part of Florence's Antiques Month. More than 80 dealers from around the globe will be displaying objets—paintings, furniture, silver—at the Corsini Palace in the heart of the city.
LUCCA: Mercato dell'Antiquariato (Piazza San Martino and adjoining piazzas; 39-0583/91991; third Sunday of each month and the preceding Saturday). Missed the Arezzo market?Here's a second chance to hunt down those old-fashioned Tuscan candlesticks you've always wanted.
SAN CASCIANO IN VAL DI PESA: Giardini in Fiera (Villa Le Corti, 1 Via San Piero di Sotto; 39-055/820-123; this year, September 19-21). Held on the grounds of a 16th-century villa, this annual event attracts aristocratic palazzo owners, landscape architects, and designers looking to buy everything for the garden, from a faux bird's nest to terra-cotta pots.
Savvy shoppers snap up last season's lines at discounts of 35 to 70 percent off Italian retail prices (which can be 15 to 30 percent lower than U.S. prices). Non-European Union residents can also claim a tax refund on outlet purchases; ask at the checkout for details.
ONE-STOP SHOPPING: Those who have limited time should make it to The Mall (8 Via Europa, Leccio Reggello; 39-055/865-7775; call for details about the twice-daily shuttle bus from Florence), a low brick building divided into branded stores. In May, the first arcade (Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Sergio Rossi, and Loro Piana) was joined by a second strip (Ferragamo, Ungaro, Zegna, Bottega Veneta, Valentino, and Agnona). Heavily discounted Gucci bags and shoes, woven leather bags by Bottega Veneta, and Collezioni Armani suits (from $290, for a suit with slight imperfections) are among the main draws.
PRADA'S LITTLE SECRET: Ever wonder how ordinary Italians can afford to look so smart?Local label-lovers pack the aisles at I Pellettieri d'Italia (Località Levanella, SS69, Montevarchi; 39-055/91901) for 40 to 50 percent off last season's Prada collections. Avoid weekends, when you have to pick up a numbered ticket and stand in line for a couple of hours just to get inside.
LABELS FOR LESS: Despite their addresses, Fendi (66/33 Via Pian dell'Isola, Rignano sull'Arno; 39-055/834-981) and Dolce & Gabbana (49 Via S. Maria Maddalena, Località Pian dell'Isola, Incisa in Val d'Arno; 39-055/833-1300) are just around the corner from each other. Recently, Celine and Loewe—both, like Fendi, part of LVMH—have opened in the same hangar-like building as the Roman fashion houses. The best buys are bags at Fendi and shoes at Dolce & Gabbana, where discounts hover at about 50 percent.
BETTER THAN DUTY-FREE: On your way to the airport, stop by the Roberto Cavalli Outlet (3/3 Via Volturno, Osmannoro, Sesto Fiorentino; 39-055/317-754), in Florence's northern, industrial zone. A burly bodyguard is all that marks the second-floor entrance of the outlet, in a nondescript white building. Can't see yourself in a pair of zebra-printed, rhinestone-studded jeans?The simple suede jackets and well-cut white shirts will suit even the most moderate tastes.
1 FLORENCE AND IMPRUNETA
Three or four days; for all categories. Allow two or three days to explore Florence's shops, and an extra day or two to check out terra-cotta workshops in Impruneta, ceramics in Montelupo Fiorentino, outlets in Valdarno, and fabrics in Casentino. WHERE TO STAY Try this new design hotel: J.K. Place (7 Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Florence; 39-055/264-5181; www.jkplace.com; doubles from $364). Alternatively, opt for a B&B such as the affordable Castello di Cafaggio (58 Via del Ferrone, Impruneta; 39-055/201-2085; www.cafaggio.com; doubles from $92), which also sells wine and award-winning olive oil. WHERE TO EAT Go to Beccofino (1R Piazza degli Scarlatti, Florence; 39-055/290-076; dinner for two $95) for nouvelle Tuscan food and Conran-style furnishings. HINT Finding the outlets can be tricky, so it's best to hire a driver. Luca Grazi of Auto Centrale (39-055/973-8815; www.auto-centrale.it) organizes shopping tours.
2 THE AREZZO REGION
Three or four days; for jewelry, fashion and tailoring, fabrics and linens, housewares, antiques markets, and outlets. Schedule day trips to Arezzo (plan an extra two days if your vacation coincides with the antiques fair) and Anghiari. The designer outlets in Valdarno are also within easy reach (one day). WHERE TO STAY It's 20 miles from Arezzo, but the antiques-filled Castelletto di Montebenichi (Località Montebenichi, Bucine; 39-055/991-0110; www.castelletto.it; doubles from $260) is one of the province's best hotels.
3 CHIANTI AND SIENA
Four days; mostly for food, wine, and crystalware. Take the S222 Chianti wine route from Florence to Siena (43 miles), stopping at Greve and Panzano in Chianti. Make a detour to Radda in Chianti and take a day to explore Siena. Follow the wine route through Montalcino, Pienza, and Montepulciano. Head back to Florence via Colle di Val d'Elsa and Certaldo Alto. WHERE TO STAY The Grand Hotel Continental (85 Banchi di Sopra, Siena; 39-0577/44204; www.ghcs.it; doubles from $540), is in a frescoed palazzo. Or choose the Castelletto di Montebenichi (see Itinerary 2). The Chianti and Siena portions can also be easily done from Castello di Cafaggio (see Itinerary 1). WHERE TO EAT Arnolfo (50/52 Via XX Settembre, Colle di Val d'Elsa; 39-0577/920-549; dinner for two $185) combines refined food and service with fabulous views.
VALERIE WATERHOUSE is the Italy correspondent for Travel + Leisure.