My first plan was to write about something completely different this week. But after last week's article on Bar Termini in London, I feel like it would be appropriate to continue on that subject. Quite excited I chose to describe this London hit as the "quintessential embodiment" of the traditional Italian bar and as a dreamy portrayal of something "that may not even exist in real life Italy".
Well, they do exist and they do so in thousands. These social institutions can be seen in every village, neighbourhood and street corner in Italy and even though they may not share the sublime standard as their Soho-incarnation they are as full of ambience, purpose and charm. So here is Snack Bar Anna, a bar that probably never will be named under a list of the world's best bars ever again. This is first of all because of the "expert industry's" inability to see beyond last week's opening of chemical labs, but mainly because Snack Bar Anna is not very special at all. At least not in the first glance. As a part of the giant armada of espresso and sandwich-pushers that is to be found all over Italy, this Florentine bar is no way unique when it comes to style or product. Just as its many fellow bars around the country this is, to put it simple, an Italian crowd pleaser. You go here for the caffè con cornetto in the morning, a quick panino for lunch or for a relaxing aperitivo before dinner. This is the place where you read your newspaper, meet your grandmother or just get into the neighbourhood gossip. Pretty much the social centre of your everyday life, very much like the French café or the British pub. It is a simple but successful concept because all of these aspects are very dear to the Italians.
This type of bar is so treasured by these people that it would be almost unforgivable to fuck it up with any crazy innovations or weird novelties. This is not the place where you suddenly decide for a Banh Mi-menu or where you start pouring green kale shots over the counter. That would stand as a sacrilegio in Italian, a grave insult to the foundations of the Republic. This is Italy, a defining high culture where the know-how of a decent and enjoyable life has always been the top priority. And you can't really questioned these guys either. In these fields they deserve the throne. They got the best recipes, the right approach and definitely the best produce. Only a fool, a Frenchy or a Spaniard would argue with this.
But what I find fascinating about the Italian bar culture (and much of Italian life in general) is the homogenous nature of it, considering that Italy has a very diverse heritage and that it not so long ago was a peninsula full of many different kingdoms and small states. But the Pan-Italian feel is clear and evident and my understanding is that this can be seen as a consequence of those dynamic and booming years between the beginning of the fifties until the mid-seventies. I touched upon this matter in the Bar Termini article and I feel that there is more to say about this. The economic miracle that saw its light after World War II changed the Italian society in an immense way. To hear out one of the authorities on the subject, historian Paul Ginsborg notes that "the years of the "miracle" was the key period in an extraordinary process of transformation that was taking place in the everyday life of Italians - in their culture, family life, leisure-time activities, consumption habits, even the language they spoke and their sexual mores." A new Italy was on the rise and the inter-regional migration, the massive growth of big cities and the new quest for consumption were all key elements in this development. That the characteristics of this period would become defining to this day is in this context not a bold statement. The typical aesthetics, the social patterns and the worship of lifestyles. These are all aspects of this legacy. And needless to say, this does not have to be perceived as a success story, where the Italian society went from poverty and backwardness to a progressive and prosperous state of clarity. No, even back in that time there was a critique towards the massive changes of Italian life. Most notably can this maybe be seen in many of the great film makers of the time like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dino Risi and Ettore Scola who in their films depicted a shallow and materialistic society caving in to a craze of consumption.
So, where was I? Yes, bars. That is at least what I should be writing about. No, but there is a deep connection between the Italy that evolved from all of this and the culture of mass society. And in the way I see it, the following of the mass culture is something that I relate very strongly to Italy. If you ever been to an Autogrill rest stop in the morning at one of the bigger autostradas, you would know what I mean. Bar counters long as twenty meters are packed by families, truck drivers and random commuters, elbowing each other to get their hands on one of the thousand cups of espresso that gets thrown out by the efficient staff. It is quite a scene actually. And as the crowd keeps moving on just to be replaced by a new one, it is easy to get carried away by this slight hint of mass psychosis. To say the least, it is a powerful demonstration of this cultural whale of 60 million people, and I can get the same sensation when stepping foot at a small place like Snack Bar Anna. When coming here to indulge on an aperitivo while waiting for a table at the touristy but brilliant Trattoria Da Mario around the corner, the thought of how this ritual is being done all over the country makes me somewhat dazzled. The feeling of taking part of something that's bigger than the physical situation you are in is a strong and exciting one. The small space where you belong alters into an abstract and collective room, linked together by its common expressions. These are visible in both practice and in the material things. The obsession of how to drink your coffee in the correct way, the regulars sacred loyalty to their neighbourhood bar, the collective content the day after the local team has won a football game. But also the lovely overuse of steel, the frustratingly hard napkins and the tacky candy rack placed in the middle of the bar counter. All great features of what makes an Italian bar to what it is but also distinct elements of the modern Italian society. And I got to say, Snack Bar Anna is all of this.
Snack Bar Anna. Just the name indicates that no nervous, concept-seeking bar consultant is behind this joint. Her name is Anna, makes great snacks and runs a bar. It's simple and confident like that. With her friendly husband Stefano she makes these five square meters to a peaceful refuge from the tormenting tourist hordes around the San Lorenzo area. Yes, they do offer a charming table area in the back but for me there is nothing else than those meters around the beautiful and wavy retro bar counter. It is intimate and personal and standing up makes me look thinner. Yes, I said it. I rather stand up and look sharp than to rest my legs and think about my abdominal fat. It is probably one of the reasons that I enjoy hanging in bars in the first way. Besides the drinking, laughing, socialising, debating, more of the drinking and then the drinking part all over again. Of course.
They are great hosts, Anna and Stefano. You can see that this bar is very important to them and the impression is that they almost look after it like a family member. A great thing by the way, to visit a bar or a restaurant where there is not a new waitress every week or some arrogant prick taking your order while he is mentally picturing your girlfriend with no clothes. No, these people are here for the long run because for them this is personal and as everything around this company centres around themselves they will make damn sure to provide a warm and positive welcome for everyone coming here. This is hand-to-hand business with no middlemen in the way, most often a good sign of quality.
Drinks? Espresso, Peroni, spritz, amaro. You come here for the Italian classics, all depending on your state of mind and the time of the day. But for me, a glass of house white wine in one of those humble old-school wine glasses creates the perfect vibe. Tasty as well for the reasonable price of 2,5 € a glass.
Munch? Top quality panini which they make according to your preferences. Also, they are famous for their homemade bagels, a surprising feature in this setting. But when I come to think about it, is this the ideal hybrid sandwich, the jewish deli bread that is being crossed with the superior produce of Tuscany?
Where? Snack Bar Anna, Via de' Ginori, 26/red, 50129 Firenze, Italy.
I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!