It’s not that there aren’t places. The stereotype of endless pizza, pasta and meat is, thankfully, an outdated one. Today all the major cities offer international fare to varying standards.
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For whatever reason, though, Indian cuisine remains tricky. Most of the time it’s treated as fast food, the result all too often meaning tough meat served in oily, overly salty gravy, with stale spices and fatally, very little heat.
It might be surprising then that Florence – a city that is often held up as the epitome of Italy’s culinary insularity – is in fact home to some of the country’s best curry houses.
Pepper chicken masala, paneer butter masala and coconut rice at Indian Palace. Photo: Indian Palace/Facebook
As those familiar with the Renaissance capital will know, there has been some polemic in recent years about protectionism in the historic centre, with Mayor Dario Nardella pledging to clamp down on "low quality" shops and restaurants in the Unesco area by imposing the rule that all establishments must source 70 percent of their produce from within the surrounding region.
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In fact, as is so often the case in Italy, this has proved more smoke than fire. In matters of food and beyond, Florence remains a defiantly cosmopolitan city. And while its Indian restaurants are few and far between, they’re managed and frequented by a community of spice aficionados who really know their stuff.
Inside Royal India, one of Florence's best known Indian restaurants. Photo: Elena Dan/The Local
The first destination for Florentine Indian eateries is Via Guelfa, near the central market in San Lorenzo. If the traffic-choked road itself looks unpromising it is full of hidden treasures, and home to two of the city’s most well-known establishments.
Royal India, founded in 2011 by Rashid Khan, is one of them. The restaurant is focused on Mughlai cuisine from the north-west, home of the country’s most loved and exported dishes. Think madras, korma and butter chicken, with elaborate rice platters and biryani.
“Actually we specialize in tandoori,” says Khan. “It’s one of the tastiest, freshest and healthiest ways of cooking in India and we serve it with a salad and a refreshing mint sauce.”
Royal India specializes in traditional tandoori oven cooking. Photo: Elena Dan/The Local
A few doors down Khan manages a second, quite different restaurant. Opened in 2017, Indian Palace is the only place in Florence that serves recipes from the country’s southern regions, specifically Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The idea here was to showcase the diversity of Indian cooking,” says Khan. “People know Mughlai food and like it. Indian Palace serves curries with influences from further away, from places like Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore.”
Generally speaking the menu is lighter than Royal India, with an emphasis on vegetarian and seafood dishes. There are fish curries with tamarind, prawn and pickle curries, made with achari chilli. It’s also one of very few restaurants in Italy where you can find uttapam, “a kind of south Indian version of pizza made with lentil and rice batter,” Khan explains. “The Italians love it.”
Uttapam, the 'Indian pizza'. Photo: DepositPhotos
There are some other options in the city centre, of varying standards. The area south of the Santa Maria Novella station is home to a couple of passable places. Gandhi stands out from the rather generic crowd, though it can't rival the establishments on Via Guelfa in terms of authenticity.
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For a really exceptional experience, though, and a real jump in quality, the only option is to head beyond the old walls to Porta al Prato and specifically to Haveli, which over the past 19 years, has become a veritable Florentine institution. Today it is without doubt one of the city’s finest restaurants and a strong contender for the best Indian at a national level.
“We do curries and tandoori in a very classical northern way, like they do around Delhi,” the manager, Giotti Singh, tells me. “Some of our recipes are 5,000 years old and we don’t adapt anything for Italian tastes.”
In the kitchen at Haveli. Photo: Elena Dan/The Local
Saffron rice, grilled lamb chops, and a vinegary vindaloo are among the most loved dishes. What distinguishes Haveli from other options, though, is the spicing. The restaurant has a staff of 13 people, but Singh still likes to help grind the spices by hand.
“We get all of our cumin and cardamom and other things from India via speciality dealers in London and Milan, and it is as fresh as possible,” he tells me. “On top of this we change our spices to match the seasons so while some dishes remain the same, others are constantly adapted. You cannot overdo it, you need an equilibrium of flavour.”
Haveli reopened last month after an extensive refurbishment, and while the food remains affordable, the ambience is now that of a European fine dining establishment. It’s also home to a new wine cellar, “the first for any Indian restaurant in Italy”, claims Singh.
The restaurant's organic wine cellar. Photo: Elena Dan/The Local
“We want to present a really high-class experience. I’m a qualified sommelier so all our wines are organic and specially chosen for the food.”
At the end of the meal diners will now be invited to enjoy spiced chocolates and a range of spirits – including single malts and aged grappa – that have been selected to pair with the cuisine.
“The idea is to mix up a bit of India, Italy, and the UK,” says Singh. “We’re always trying to up our game and reinvent ourselves, and I’m very grateful to say, our customers recognize this.”
Haveli's new look. Photo: Elena Dan/The Local
What's your favourite curry house in Italy? And can you recommend other non-Italian restaurants? Send us an email and share your thoughts.