Retired in Rome Journal: Florence is an Italian theme park but you can get a good steak

Florence's famed Duomo and one of the massive lines to get in.
Florence’s famed Duomo and one of the massive lines to get in.
The famed Florentine steak from Latini.
The famed Florentine steak from Latini.
Trash cans read, "If you love Florence, keep it clean."
Trash cans read, “If you love Florence, keep it clean.”

I’ve always resented Florence because I love Rome and my new city gets a bad rap when the two cities are compared. If they were sisters, Florence would be the cute, charming, beautiful little sister full of life and love, the kind who embraces you so tenderly you never want to leave. Rome is the old, sweaty, dirty divorcee who’s half crazy and makes you want to run screaming into the night as soon as you see her best features.

But once you get know her, the older sister has a lot more charm. She’s sexier, lustier. You know she’s going to be better in bed. Hey, something can be said for 3,000 years of experience.

I’ve been to Florence numerous times. In my continuing tour of Italian tourist spots before the mobs arrive, I came to Tuscany for three days. To go through Tuscany, one must go through Florence. It’s inevitable. I’d like to avoid it, like a high school reunion you must attend before branching off with old buddies to a dive bar. But here I am back in Florence, along with about 500,000 of my closest fellow tourists.

The problem with Florence is it has all the trappings of an Italian Disneyland. All the good things about Italy can be found in one five-minute walk from Piazza Duomo. You have the amazing architecture of Brunelleschi’s dome on the cathedral. You have the world’s most famous statue in David up the street. You have the windy, narrow streets snaking out from the piazza. You have the great food everywhere you look. Venture south a few blocks and you have the Uffizi, one of the top 10 art museums in the world. It’s right next to Ponte Vecchio, the most photographed bridge in the world for reasons that are totally beyond my comprehension.

Why doesn’t Florence seem real? It’s too clean. It’s too touristy. It really is like a theme part. It’s spotless. It doesn’t look like it’s in Italy. It looks like it’s in Switzerland. In Rome it’s hard to find a wall without graffiti; in Florence it’s hard to find a wall with it. You could eat a Florentine steak off the street. I’m not talking about the Piazza Duomo, Florence’s nerve center. Even Rome’s Piazza Navona is clean. But Florence’s side streets cut off to traffic are so clean you wonder if anyone lives in the neighborhood. The trash cans say, in English, “If you love Florence, keep it clean.” It makes Florence worthy of its status as one of the most beautiful cities in the Europe and probably Italy’s most popular city, in pure aesthetic appeal if not numbers.

But holy mother of God is it touristy. I always have a bad taste in my mouth when I leave Florence. One day walking around the Duomo feels like a week on one of those American Express If-It’s-Tuesday-This-Must-Be-Belgium bus tours. It doesn’t get the tourist numbers Rome has but Rome is 10 times the size. In Rome, I can walk 10 minutes from a major piazza and sit in a quiet cafe or on a park bench looking at a 1,500-year-old fountain. Florence is too small to get away from crowds. It has 370,000 people, a pizza cook or two more than Bakersfield.

It’s a week before May and Piazza Duomo is already bursting at the cobblestones. Two lines spit out of the Duomo cathedral and down the road seemingly halfway to the train station a half mile away. It looks like a line for the Matterhorn in Disneyland. So many flags wave in the air from tourist guides, it looks like the front of the U.N. I hear as much English as Italian. I ask a question in Italian and every time I hear an answer in perfect English. Trying to learn English here would be like trying to learn Swedish in Oklahoma City.

It’s my fault, really. I must take time and explore Florence’s other neighborhoods. I’m sure there’s some off-the-beaten-path ‘hood like my cherished Testaccio where you don’t see David paperweights in every store window. When I first visited as a 22-year-old backpacker, I remember escaping the crowds with a picnic lunch to the tiny hilltop suburb of Fiesole. Sitting on the top step of its 1st century B.C. amphitheater and eating a Tuscan ham sandwich remains one of my favorite memories of Tuscany.

This time I have only one day in Florence. I’ve been to the Uffizi twice and you only visit a museum you need four hours to see once. After an adequate lasagna at one of the few reasonably priced cafes near my Hotel Benivieni, I took in the most manageable museum with the most amazing piece of artwork on earth. The Galleria Academia houses the David and it’s one line that’s worth it. In late afternoon there was still a line half a block long. Souvenir stands sell boxer shoes emblazoned with David’s pecker.

A bearded Tuscan with a floppy hat came to the back of the line and said, “Who speaks English here? Take my tour and you go in right now. You pay 30 euros. Half goes to the museum, half goes to my ex-wife.”

After I laughed, he said, “Or you can wait here for 2 ½ hours.”

That’s when he lost me. It was 4:15. The museum closes at 6:20. He lied.

The hour wait is worth it. The 11 euros was worth it. David is worth it. It’s not just the statue, which was the greatest sculpture ever created when Michelangelo completed it in 1503 and has withstood every challenge since. It’s the setting. The Galleria gives him his own room. It’s a salon with a domed ceiling where light from above highlights every vein in his arms and legs. His head glows.

It’s truly a magnificent creation. It stands 17 feet tall but Michelangelo put detail into every corner of his body. You can see his quad muscles bulging, the veins in the back of his hands, even his elbows have that indentation when you straighten them.

Michelangelo, who took three years to make it, created him in the image that he had just slain Goliath, as his legend says. David’s expression is one of modest confidence. His eyes are looking toward Rome. His sling is barely visible over his shoulder. Michelangelo wanted to emphasize his cunning and bravery rather than his weapon. Florence used this statue as a status of the Florentine people and a symbol of man’s free will. It was first displayed in Piazza della Signora, the seat of civic government near the Uffizi, in 1504. It later became the symbol of the powerful Florentine Republic’s defense of civil liberties. It moved to the Galleria in 1823. The David you see in the piazza today is a replica.

What’s more interesting than seeing David is the crowd’s reaction. They come in waves every 15 minutes and you see groups of people with their mouths agape, like they’re witnessing an asteroid destroying a small planet. Then the women slowly move to the back and just stare at his ass. Watch for a few minutes and they start whispering to each other, then the giggles break out. They could be 15 years old or 50 or 80. When in David’s presence, women all seem to giggle.

I will say this about Florence. It is one place in Italy to get a good steak. Rome doesn’t do steak. There are no cattle ranches around Lazio. The steak was introduced to Florence in the early 19th century when English settlers arrived. They introduced different cuts of the steak, particularly the T-bone. It has become a Florentine staple for nearly 200 years.

I remember one visit 12 years ago when I went to an open field, like a picnic area. It was July and a steaming Tuscan day was sliding into an evening as fresh as a Chianti grape. About two dozen giant barbecues were spread out, all sizzling with the sounds of grilled steaks. They were thick and juicy and cooked to a crisp on the outside but lean and bloody on the inside. Slicing through a four-inch-thick steak on a paper plate with a bunch of travelers I never knew before, for once, beat a plate of fresh pasta anything.

The place to go in Florence to relieve the 200-year-old tradition is Latini, a sprawling steakhouse on a side street west of the Duomo. It’s casual yet elegant. You can wear a suit to impress a date or one of the tacky Universita di Firenze hoodies. A long table of tourists spoke a half dozen languages next to my table in the back room.

The young waiter proudly explained their famed steak as if it was part of his own family recipe. The meat must be Tuscan. The cattle here are called Chianina or Maremma and they must be between 12-18 months old. The butchered meat (you vegetarians can now close this page) must be hung for five days and kept at room temperature for 10 hours before grilling. The cooking is the fastest part. It takes five minutes per side and no seasonings necessary. Ask for steak sauce in Latini and they’ll throw you out on your linguini.

The steak came out in absolute perfect condition. I prefer my steaks black and blue. Black, almost charbroiled on the inside, and rare on the inside. It’s difficult to do. Most steakhouses in the U.S. swing and miss. This is how all Florentine steaks must be cooked.

The four-inch-thick steak’s juices lathered my mouth for bites on end. It was more than a pound of steak and I did everything but pick up the T-bone and chew on the flesh like a gladiator.

OK, so the young, cute sister isn’t such bad company. She’s great for dinner.