FLORENCE, ITALY––It’s rare to find the restaurant lacking a long line. Inside the paninoteca, tiny caprese panini, others with panchetta or soprapressa, top the counter, stacked, tempting hungry locals and travelers alike as they wait impatiently to order. “Oh, Wow!” An American girl exclaims when she looks at the enormous pork loaf, as Manuale behind the counter cuts into it with his chef knife. Others watch, mesmerized. Out of curiosity, I ask Manuale how many sandwiches he makes a day.
“I don’t want to know,” he says. “Definitely more than one hundred. Two hundred. Really a lot.”
By noon, many of those little panini will be gone. Yet this is nothing unusual for the Antico Vinaio, one of the most lively sandwich shops in Florence.
Danielle Mazzanti, the owner of the Antico Vinaio, says that one of the main ingredients in the shop’s success can be chopped down to one word: Tradition. It’s a quality that covers every aspect of the business, from the grapefruit-sized mozzarella carried over from across the street, to the consistency of the black truffle spread across the daily-baked foccacia.
“And we live by tradition,” his colleague Eugenio adds, “The Tuscan tradition. It’s the only one that we stick to.”
Traditional Tuscan street food can be seen itself as a religion, with the prophets being the porchetta vendors pushing their carts around the streets of Livorno or La Spezia. Every speciality the Antico Vinaio sells — the fennel salami, artichoke spread, gorgonzola (one the most “important” sandwiches at the shop, according to Eugenio) — has roots far beyond the storefront on Via di Neri.
Eugenio Mazzanti, 28, who’s been working at the Antico Vinaio since he was 19, says that this is the key to making a sandwich par excellence. He can’t think of the restaurant’s success any other way. Any deviation from tradition, Eugenio said, and he frets.
“We have rules here,” he said. “If you mix the wrong types of meats or cheeses — like turkey and prosciutto, then you are wasting flavor.”
Eugenio, who spoke of his work like a Florentine artist, expressed his honest remorse when someone “breaks the rules.” The shop’s success may be attributed to its a la carte ingredient approach, but, as Eugenio said, this may also allow for some poor choices — often fixed by a Tuscan education.
“Sometimes I have to restrain myself,” he said laughing. “But people order what they want.”
It’s the choice of all the ingredients that seems to give the Antico Vinaio is good name and reputation. And such comes from their nearly two-decade history in Florence.
In 1992, the Antico Vinaio opened up its doors on the northern side of Via di Neri, already a prime location due to the foot traffic from the nearby Piazza della Signoria. The previous owners ran the location as a rosticceria, selling roasted chicken by the whole, not panini. Danielle first ran food like any other Florentine delicatessen, but after a few years he found the restaurant’s Tuscan niche. And this meant expansion.
“There was not enough room so we bought the [wine] bar across the street,” Eugenio said, which was where they got the name "Antico Vinaio" (“old wine bar”). It was when they began their five-euro, “street food” approach — not “fast food,” as Danielle told me — that they still run today, which was began because, as Eugenio said, “We just wanted to see how people would react.”
And people surely did react. The dozens that line up for the famous Mazzanti panini compare to the tourists snaked in front of the Uffizzi Gallery. This is no coincidence, Danielle reminded me.
“It’s like the lines in front of the Mona Lisa,” he said.
And then there’s the Internet buzz. TripAdvisor currently lists the Antico Vinaio number one out of 1,860 restaurants in Florence. According to Danielle, it has maintained this title for more than three years running. International tourism and social media popularized the shop outside the Tuscan borders, turning it into a major tourist destination in Florence, right alongside the nearby David. And in 2001, gastronomic magazine Saveur ranked the Antico Vinaio one of the top three sandwich shops in the world.
The shop’s popularity doesn’t seem to phase it’s owner. In fact, Danielle reassured me that the online reviewers tell nothing less than the truth. He said it has to do with his restaurant’s originality, taking Tuscan street food to its highest potential, slightly off the streets.
“We are [not only] the first in Florence,” Danielle said after taking a drag of his cigarette, “but also the first in Italy — and maybe even the first in Europe.”
And from all over Europe, and the US, travelers come to taste the crunch of the Antico’s foccacia bread and help themselves to a glass of vino rosso.
Dan P, a university student studying in Spain, said that nothing quite compares to the Antico Vinaio anywhere else in Italy. The same goes for his home base Madrid.
“In Spain,” he said, “there are restaurants sort of like [the Antico Vinaio] but they’re not the same. Here in Italy it’s just different. Especially in Florence.”
Marina Ionova, a traveler from Moscow, said that the Antico Vinaio’s panini make up for her country’s lack of “good Italian food.”
“My husband and I have been all over Italy,” she said, “Bologna, Venice, Florence, Rome — and we have not found a better place to eat. It’s the best, I think.” She then held up her prosciutto sandwich for me as if to verify this.
Western tourists may also like the restaurant because of its intuitive way of serving its customers.
“It’s almost like Subway, how they do it here,” Dan said, smiling as his looked down at a half-gone salami sandwich.
But no restaurant in Florence can knock the Antico Vinaio from its number one spot. This includes its down-the-street competitor, La Prosciutteria, who ranks second on TripAdvisor. Both shops develop a similar Tuscan-street-food style to sandwich crafting, yet La Prosciutteria is a newcomer on Via di Neri, with only two years in business.
Danielle reassured me again the reason why his paninoteca reigns Via di Neri.
“Without history,” he said, “there is no business.”
And the history, the Tuscan tradition, is what seems to live on, out of the arid streets and into the pocket-sized hub on Via di Neri. At the Antico Vinaio, rules have grounding in sense, and meats and cheeses are paired together like colors on a canvas.
Eugenio agrees. “This is what makes the job an art,” he said.