Livorno, a seaside town and the main port of the Tuscany region, is quite often described as a ‘diamond in the rough’ and is so very different to any other major town in Tuscany. As a port town, it has its own pace and character which in every way reflects its seafaring history and strong connection to the sea, however more than that, it is a town that has been open armed for centuries to a vast array of cultures and people of varying religious and cultural traditions, making it very diverse. Some would call it a ‘melting pot’ and with its history at the crossroads of Mediterranean trade, it is no wonder that the lifestyle and local cuisine is influenced by the diverse range of cultures who have visited and settled here. This small city, founded by the Medici family in 1606, definitely has its own unique character and traditions, making it a very interesting and easy place to enjoy.
For tourists, Livorno is either little known or only makes the travel itinerary because it is the launchpad for catching the ferry to Sardinia or Corsica, or possibly even further afield to Barcelona. It’s not often seen as a destination or a place to spend a night, but after our recent visit to Livorno, with its bridges and canals making it feel like ‘little Venice on the Mediterranean’, together with its stunning sea frontage and delicious cuisine, we highly recommend it as a destination or at the very least, for a 24 hour stopover – particularly if you’re a foodie and love seafood.
1:00pm. Arrive and check in
We stayed at the very comfortable and incredibly spacious Agave in Citta. Well located on a picturesque canal in the La Venezia neighbourhood and within walking distance to many great restaurants and bars, the hotel provides the perfect resting place while in Livorno – whether that be after a long walk exploring the canals or waterfront, or after a long lunch when the indoor pool and relaxation area provides the perfect place for a rest. Staff were always friendly and helpful.
1:30pm. Welcome to Livorno. What’s on the menu?
There’s so many great places to eat within the La Venezia neighbourhood and for our ‘welcome to Livorno’ lunch, we chose the very authentic Osteria della Venezia. Situated on the canal and with a spacious dining area, both inside and out, the smell was tantalising as you walked in the door. After looking at the menu, it didn’t take long for Damian to choose his ‘go to’ seafood dish of a Frittura Mista (mixed fried prawns, calamari and octopus) and for Nancy to choose the Gnocchi con pesto e vongole (gnocchi with pesto and clams). Both dishes were absolutely sensational and when paired with a glass of local white wine and an espresso to cap it off, we were well fuelled for a relaxed afternoon adventure.
3:00pm. Wander & Explore. Sunset at Terrazza Mascagni
Whenever we arrive at a new place, the first thing we do is wander and explore – mainly to orientate and get a feel for the town, and also often with a destination in mind. As we absorbed life on the canals and ventured through the heart of the town centre towards the seafront, we knew the destination of our afternoon walk was to be Terrazza Mascagni, a grand checkered terrace overlooking the sea and probably the most iconic and beautiful place in the city. For locals, this architecturally designed terrace made up of over 34,000 black and white tiles and a balustrade of 4,000 columns, personifies their beloved life by the sea. As it was winter when we visited, the skies started to change colour from 4pm and by 5.30pm, we had enjoyed all that the locals get to enjoy each day – a passeggiata along the grand terrazza marvelling at the architecture and expanse of it all, time to absorb the beautiful blue sea and vistas across to neighboring islands, and a short chat with some locals, all as we watched the kaleidoscope of colour change before us.
6:30pm. Aperitivo Hour
While only a couple of small bars were open during the winter for aperitivo and our options were limited, we managed to find ourselves a cosy spot at Ponce Bar for a pre-dinner drink. While it was here that we first came to understand what’s in a Ponce Livornese – a special coffee drink from Livorno of one part rum, one part hot coffee, sugar and lemon peel – it wasn’t until later after dinner that we first tried this well known digestivo and taste sensation. ‘Ponce‘ is an icon of Livorno and a drink that plays a dominant role in the lives of the Livornese. It’s been referred to as ‘a pharmaceutical dose of optimism’ that expresses the passion, spirit and energy of the people and we certainly know why – this heart warming goodness sure warms the cockles of your heart..
8:00pm. Culinary Elaboration
While we had done our research on the best and most traditional places to eat Cacciuccio (the other icon of Livorno….more on that later….), when it came to selecting other places to dine, we decided to mix up our restaurant choices and go with a ‘modern take’ on Livorno cuisine at the highly rated Elaboratorio Culinaria….and we were not disappointed. Not only did this restaurant hold up to its name on the food and wine front, it had groovy, retro decor in a very cool old dining room, a wonderful ambience created by a talented musician who played different instruments and tunes all night, and fantastic staff and service. Our dinner saw us progress from a couple of tapas style antipasti or ‘zinzini‘ of tuna, prawns and calamari fritti to start, through to an amazing plate of ‘crudo‘ or raw seafood that really was the highlight of the meal. With three styles of tartare, and oysters, scampi and gamberi, this was a plate with an explosion of wonderfully created and diverse tastes. We both had locally caught, fresh fish for our secondi; Nancy’s as an oven baked Spigola fish with delicious seasonal vegetables and Damian’s as a linguine with a livornese style tomato sauce and the Palumbo fish throughout. We finished off the night with our first Ponce and what a way to finish. We just love this little heart warming digestivo and so it’s probably no surprise that we came away with our own bottle of this special rum to enjoy at home.
7:00am. Off to the market
If there’s something we both love to experience in Italy, it’s when a city or town has a food market. From Florence to Venice to Naples, and to smaller towns throughout the country, we always seek out the local food market. While we had heard a little about Livorno’s Mercato delle Vettovaglie before going there, we had no idea just how good it is and that it is one of the largest historical markets in Europe. Housed in a beautiful 19th century building, aisles of delis, butchers, bread stalls, legumes and nut shops, specific cheese merchants and specialty honey stores open through to halls of seafood and also fruit and vegetables. Then if you feel you haven’t been able to buy enough inside the market, the surrounding streets and main piazza are also lined with fresh produce stalls in a buzz of activity. We had a wonderful time buying our weekly produce, enjoying coffee as we soaked up the ambience of locals chatting with vendors and came away with a feeling of ‘what you would do if you had a market such as this one in your home town in Italy’! Just magic.
9:00am. Is it time for Frate?
Frati Livornesi is a registered “street food” of Italy and on hearing about these before heading to Livorno, we knew these were a ‘must eat’ on the program. After exploring the market and working up our appetite, we headed to the ‘main place in town’ for frati, Antica Friggitoria Il Frataio in Piazza Cavallotti. Located here since 1920, this shop makes one thing only and often has a queue of people lined up at its door for their freshly made (up to the minute!), lemon or orange scented bomboloni or donuts, which are either empty or filled with chocolate, crema or a delicious mix of fresh ricotta and cream. We decided to try the ‘vuoto‘ or empty version and the one filled with ricotta and cream, which turned out to be our personal favourite….but only just. As we stood in the piazza and enjoyed every mouthful of these warm, puffs of delicate lightly scented dough, we both looked at each other and knew what each was thinking….’we’ll be coming back for these’.
10:00am. Exploring and easing into Livorno’s pace of life
After dropping our shopping bags off to our apartment, we decided it was time to venture further and explore this city some more. On what was a perfect winter’s day of 8 degrees and full sunshine, we further explored the canals, stopped by for a chat with some fishermen who were offering boat trips, and taking in the sights, fortresses and architecture of this town and its largest square, Piazza della Reppublica. We meandered and took our time and felt like we had already absorbed the tempo of life in Livorno….molto tranquillo!
1:00pm. The famous Cacciucco
If there’s one last thing you must try while in Livorno, it’s what the town’s most famous for – Cacciucco alla Livornese – a tasty fish soup which stems from ‘poor origins’, originally made with leftovers of the fish of the day and the smaller less valuable fish that risked being wasted. Traditionally cooked for hours in an earthenware pot and made with several different types of Mediterranean fish and shellfish, this rich, hearty fish stew is served on slices of toasted homemade bread that soak up the goodness of the tomato based sauce. There are many different versions of Cacciuccio but we opted for the very traditional style, enjoying it at the iconic Trattoria da Galileo. Still family run since 1959, we loved the tradition and vibe of this very authentic Italian trattoria and thoroughly enjoyed this dish along with everyone else in the room. Adorned with our bibs, this soup is not just a dish, it is an experience, and while we enjoyed it for dinner on a cold winter’s night, the Livornese will tell you it is to be enjoyed for lunch or dinner, all year round. We’re not so sure. This is definitely not for the feint hearted when it comes to picking fish off bones, however we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and when accompanied by a delicious Vermentino from the hills in the north of Tuscany, bordering Liguria, and a ponce to help digest it all, it is the perfect way to cap off a culinary visit to Livorno.
Livorno is approx 100km from Florence and is easily accessible by car or train in 1-1.5 hours, making it a perfect pre or post tour location to visit when joining us on our Tour of Tuscany or L’Eroica & Tuscany Tour.