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SS Annunziata: Gran Caffe San Marco

Piazza San Marco

Closing day: Sunday

Reviewed by: gardenlady from USA, review #1766

When: 2005

A cafe for a home away from home.

Coffee, pastry, and sandwiches are available all over Florence, but they are never as good, or as convenient, or as beautifully served as at the Gran Caffe San Marco. This is a cafe truly worth developing as one’s home away from home in Florence.

The Gran Caffe San Marco is located on the Piazza San Marco, directly across the square from the Dominican Church and Convent of San Marco. This piazza is exceptionally lively. First, it is a secondary bus hub for many lines serving Florence, Fiesole, and Settignano, as well as the home port for the electric bus “C.” Secondly, the University of Florence, the Academy of Art, the Accademia, the Opificio Delle Pietra Dure, the Giardino dei Semplici, and the Giardino della Gherardesca are all around the corner or down the street.

Unlike smaller establishments, the Gran Caffe is a bar (in the Italian sense of the word), a pasticceria, and a café all rolled into one and has such a demand for its services that it stays open all day and into the night continuously. The clientele is a mix of college students, tourists, solid Florentine matrons, and businessmen. They come for the exceptional bomboloni caldi (hot filled doughnuts), available all the time (except when they are sold out), the coffee, the hot chocolate, the panini, the aperitifs, and light meals served from 6 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday. Unfortunately, it is closed on Sundays.

Service is available outdoors at the phalanx of small, round tables clothed in pink tablecloths facing the square for the traditional extra “sit down” price. It is also available indoors at the banca, meaning standing up at the granite bar (for a lesser price), or at one of the small tables (again for the “sit down” price), or as take out from the banks of cases containing a delicious array of pastries and sandwiches. Be aware that a small hallway off to the side of the coffee banca holds additional tables that are very quiet and secluded.

I first went there as a language student. Ten years later I went back as one of the “matrons.” I was so pleased, but not surprised, to see the same manager behind the cash register. Continuity of management is one of the necessities of a well run business, and this is a well run business. The plate glass doors with brass trim are gleaming. The mirrors behind the bar shine. There is always a huge glass vase of fresh flowers on top of the glass case containing pastries. The linens are always fresh and pretty. The staff is always clad in black and white uniforms. The service is prompt and professional, and in English if required. The regulars are there as always; newcomers are welcome, as always.

My favorites include: the hot filled doughnuts (vanilla, chocolate, and raisin, which is traditional), which cost 1 euro; the panini, particularly the salame and the tuna with lettuce and tomato, which range in price from 1.50 euros up to almost 4 euros; and the hot chocolate, which is 2.50 euros standing at the bar. Light lunches run a bit more, as do elaborate pastries, such as whole cakes.

The ordering system is a bit bewildering for most Americans. First, examine the offerings in the cases and decide what you want. Then, go to the cash register, tell the cashier what you would like to buy and whether you want it for consumption at the bar, at the table, or for take away, and place your money in the small brass till on the counter. The cashier will ring up your order, hand you a receipt, and place your change in the brass till for you to pick up. Then go back to the counter, hand your slip to the waitress (who takes it as proof of payment), and point to your choices. Panini may be had at room temperature, slightly warmed in the microwave, or very hot in the microwave, which is known as “caldo, caldo.” The salame panini are especially delicious.

Less well known than the Gran Caffe proper is its sister institution just a few doors down the Via Cavour towards the center of town. This has the rather unpromising name of “Snacks Pizzeria” in bright orange letters. Inside is a small cafeteria line displaying a variety of pizzas, available by the slice, several main dishes of roasted meat and chicken, a variety of vegetables, a variety of pasta dishes, rolls, drinks, etc. These may be ordered for take-out or eaten there. There is an especially lovely interior courtyard covered by a grape arbor at the very rear of the hallway beyond the counter where one may linger as long desired. English is spoken.

This review is the opinion of a Slow Travel member and not of slowtrav.com.

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