Gilli Cafe: A Florence Institution?

Opened by the Gilli family in 1733, the cafe had moved around the city square a few times before it settled in its current location in Piazza della Repubblica, surrounded by small, chichi restaurants and leather vendors.
04/13/2011 02:57pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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I'm still on my [now dubbed] Polysyllabic World Tour. The past few weeks I've been touring around Europe, sampling all of the wonderful gastronomic gems this country has to offer. Yesterday I left Rome to visit Florence, hoping to continue the foray into Italian culinary culture.

When I arrived in Florence, the first thing I did was find my hotel and scout out the area. I was excited to find that I was less than a block away from Gilli, a fairly famous Italian caffe. I was immediately drawn in by the shop's windows, which were richly decorated with Easter treats for the upcoming holiday; the parade of chocolate rabbits and gigantic sugar eggs, decorated to the culinary equivalent of cloisonné, had attracted quite a crowd of camera-toting tourists.

Before grabbing my seat on Gilli gilt terrace, I took a took a short tour of the shops interior. Classically decorated, the cafe boasted leaded glass accents and an impressively lavish coffee bar lined with a malachite green marble countertop. The espresso machine glittered temptingly behind a handful of dapper baristas, dressed to the nines and gliding effortlessly behind the counter.

Around the corner from the coffee bar, a mile-long glass case displayed some of the most beautiful pastries I've seen in quite a while: Sicilian cannolis, brightly colored berry tarts, and cream-filled profiteroles drizzled with satiny smooth chocolate ganache. Really, Gilli counter is a high-class bordello of pastry.

After swooning over the decor, I took my seat. I made eye contact with the elderly waiter, who proceeded to ignore me over the next ten minutes. I finally got up and asked him for a menu, and my request was met with a curt question - lunch or café? Just café, I replied, and possibly a cioccolata caldo (thickly brewed sipping chocolate). He tossed a menu over his shoulder and I waited patiently at my table for him to take my order.

As I sat and waited, I perused the menu's history page. Opened by the Gilli family in 1733, the cafe had moved around the city square a few times before it settled in its current location in Piazza della Repubblica, surrounded by small, chichi restaurants and leather vendors. Apparently the place has long been a hangout for Florence's creative glitterati and some of the USA's most beloved Hollywood stars, a fact that the menu mentions several times.

I look up from the menu and again make eye contact with the waiter. Glancing at my watch, I see I've been sitting for fifteen minutes. Five more minutes go by and I still attract no attention, so I head into the coffee bar to order for myself. The serene barista behind the counter informs me that no, I can't order at the bar if I'm sitting at a table, and would I please retake my seat and wait for the server? I tell him I've been waiting, for quite a while actually, to which he shrugs and slides cooly away to assist the throng of broad chested, near-suited Italian gentlemen who have sidled up to my right.

I go back outside to again make eye contact with the waiter, and start flipping a Lonely Planet travel guide that someone's left on a chair at the table. As luck would have it, they list Gilli as a must-see place to eat. "The city's grandest cafe," it states, Gilli has been serving excellent coffee and cakes since 1733." I again scan through the menu, making note of the prices, high for even Florence's standards. 4€ for a simple espresso, 5.50€ for a cappuccino, and 7€ for Gilli's infamous hot cocoa. While that's steep, I'm willing to pay for the experience and see what the fuss is all about.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to try their espresso, their hot cocoa, or one of the bellissimo pastries from the case because the server continued to pretend I wasn't there for more than half an hour. The cafe had cleared out from the lunch rush, and at one point he brought me silverware, like he was going to serve me, but he never reappeared next to my table. I'd occasionally see him glance at me sideways from the order computer, then go back to folding napkins.

I surveyed the situation: The restaurant had cleared out considerably since I sat down. I was dressed ok, in fact better than other patrons who were sitting near me. I was polite when I asked for the menu, and I smiled despite the server's dismissive attitude when he set my flatware. Unsure of what the deal was, I eventually left, put off by the attitude and how much I'd be paying for the discourtesy of being summarily ignored.

So, dear reader, I can't tell you if Gilli's fare lives up to its reputation, because the service was so terrible that I never got the chance to try it. Instead, I went around the corner to a smaller cafe called Caffé le Logge, who was not only cheaper, but the espresso was lovely and the cioccolata clad was lusciously smooth. And the servers were not only friendly, they went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable, bringing me a plate of meringues as a treat, totally gratis.

Sorry, Gilli, it didn't work out. Your fare might be delightful, but I'll never know because the pretentious attitude of your dining staff stinks.