American Pie the Italian Way

Tova Piha
September 22, 2005

Catering to those tourists, students, and expatriates craving an American fix, a ‘culinary’ comfort from home, purveyors of distinctly American food have found a niche in Florence. Although New York style Chinese takeout has yet to hit the scene, imported peanut butter, fresh blueberry muffins, Campbell’s soup, real milkshakes, bagels with lox and cream cheese, A&W Root Beer, carrot cake, pumpkin pie, Chips Ahoy, and proper cheeseburgers are all available for purchase and consumption in the Renaissance City.

 

What’s most striking and charming about these establishments, however, is that, true to their geographic location, they maintain a certain “Italianess” in their approach to business. Despite the ‘Americana’ conveyed by their traditional seasonal recipes, their true blue American products, and their decor, they are reminiscent not of the mass-produced, revolving-door, incorporated America of today, but rather of an older, friendlier, family-run America -- the sort of independent business that is, ironically, a dying breed in the States. But not so in Italy, where loyalty to the corner store is still valued, where genuine (not saccharine and rote) customer service is still practiced, where the buyer-seller relationship is still personal and meaningful.

 

Opening the beginning of October, sure to be a hit amongst the college student crowd, is Sam’s Market (Via Ghibellina 117r), a specialty grocery store whose bright yellow walls reflect the warmth of co-owner DJ Fernandez’s wide smile. Sam’s stocks over 250 products imported from the US, including Skippy peanut butter, Oreos, Pop Secret popcorn, Heinz baked beans (for the Brits!), Kraft macaroni & cheese, Mountain Dew, and Pop Tarts. DJ, in Florence with his wife and two children (aged 4 and 6) for a year now, approaches his new project with easy-going enthusiasm. “I want the shop to be fun. I’m excited about it; the kids are excited about it. I’d like them to come down and see what’s going on, give them little jobs to do, really get them involved.” Sam’s plans to open a hot dog stand as well, and if you’re missing something particular that’s not already on the shelves, let DJ know, and he’ll do what he can to get it in the store for you.

 

Just around the corner, tucked away on Via Giraldi 4a is Ari’s Diner, open, as diners should be, until 3am, and serving traditional breakfast fare as well as burgers, fries, onion rings, and divine milkshakes. A perfect place to just hang out, the diner has a relaxed atmosphere; friendly, bilingual staff; a classic, retro look; as well as good portions and quality food. Ari; modest, soft-spoken, hands-on, and only twenty-three; lives far from friends and family in DC, but his friends came out to help him when he and his partner opened, on February 5th of this year, and many of the recipes used in the kitchen are his mom’s.

 

At Sugar & Spice (Via Fabroni 18r; Via dei Servi 43r), a family business that knows how to satisfy an American sweet tooth, Saskia Innocenti and her American mother alternate days in the business’s two locations. Don’t be fooled by the American pastry shop’s simple interior and elementary brochure graphics. The Innocentis, baking everything from scratch, make a moist, deliciously spiced carrot cake and are well-known for their traditionally rich American cheesecake, made with Philadelphia cream cheese, not yogurt or ricotta.

 

Meanwhile, across the river, Gianmarco, or Jimmy, as he was known as a kid, is busy hand-making bagels, muffins, cakes, and cookies for Mr. Jimmy’s, located in Piazza Pitti 6r and Via San Niccolò 47. His mother, Silvia, laughingly admits that she is the typical Italian mother, having left her own career to help her son develop his. Gianmarco learned his craft from a Californian pastry chef, which perhaps explains why his bagels are on the bready side, but his sugar cookies are moist and buttery, his brownies rich and chewy, and his muffins light and not too sweet.

 

It’s all a little like having a home away from home, with a personable, Italian twist. In the States, finding the owner of a food shop operation behind the counter, sleeves rolled up, taking visible ownership and pride in his business is unusual, a thing of the past. Not so for the American-food establishments in Florence. And so, they do more than just satisfy a craving for staple American foods and treats. They hit the spot when you’re nostalgic not only for the food but for all it represents: home-cooking, family togetherness, holiday traditions, and good times spent with good friends.

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