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Raw desire

By: Reading Time: 3 Minutes

A health food deli is shaking things up on the Florentine culinary scene. #RAW, in the up-and-coming Santo Spirito district, breathes new life into traditional Italian fare.

Florence is a garden of delights, a city known for great art and magnificent architecture: the Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Pitti, the Ponte Vecchio. As many visitors discover, Florentine cuisine is no less swoon-worthy. Countless trattorias, osterias, and bottegas ply mouthwatering wares in the winding alleys of the old Medici metropolis, celebrating Tuscany’s rich culinary traditions. Meat lovers will appreciate bistecca alla fiorentina, a two-and-a-half-inch steak usually served very rare. In the mood for comfort food? Try the ribollita, a hearty stew of vegetables and bread.

But for all its love of tradition, Florence wouldn’t be Florence without new ideas alongside the old favorites. This WAS the birthplace of the Renaissance, after all. So it’s little surprise that Florentine diners are enthusiastically embracing the trend toward vegetarian and vegan fare that’s gradually catching on throughout Europe.

#RAW is among the city’s fiercest proponents of the food philosophy. Manfredi Magris – Italian-Austrian, dark-haired, athletic – mans the counter at this diminutive deli-restaurant at Via Sant’Agostino 11/R. Outside, taxis and mopeds rattle noisily up the single-lane road towards the hipster Santo Spirito neighborhood. In here, though, there’s a sense of blissful calm. Magris opened #RAW in 2016, together with his then-partner Caroline Lundgren, a trained architect who personally transformed this tiny Oltramo-district location on the left bank of the Arno River into a bright oasis. Pale hardwood tables – some square, others round – are flanked by delicate matching barstools; the lamps suspended overhead look like old beehives. Across from the deli counter, a pair of birch trees grow right into the ceiling.

#RAW Florence Interior

#RAW Interior / Image: Thekla Ehling

108 degrees is the place to be

“We came up with the idea while in Bali,” says Magris when the smoothie machine lapses into momentary silence. “We decided to open a raw-food bar that maintained high culinary standards while serving uncompromisingly healthy food. We wanted to appeal to people who were familiar with raw vegan food as well as people interested in making healthy lifestyle changes,” he continues. The smoothie blender doesn’t interrupt, which is rare at this hour – it’s usually in constant operation around lunchtime. The glass vitrines behind the counter are stuffed with fresh fruits and vegetables: oranges, pineapple, avocados, apples, carrots. The cornerstones of the #RAW menu. “We never heat any of our ingredients past 108 degrees,” Magris explains. “And we usually only go that high when dehydrating.” Fruit juices and nut milks are all cold-pressed to preserve precious vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Raw fruits and vegetables require the least amount of energy to digest, the 43-year-old explains. Since converting to a raw vegan diet, he adds, he’s been full of energy – like a teenager again.

Sounds healthy enough, all right – but how does it taste? Magris is fully aware that not everyone is immediately receptive to the idea. Raw pizza? Uncooked lentil burgers? Zucchini spaghetti? To help make the new cuisine less intimidating, #RAW’s menu includes healthy versions of several quick-dining “classics”. There’s no cause for skepticism, though: the restaurant’s lactose- and gluten-free wraps, salads, burgers, soups, sweets, cakes, and ice creams are 100% delicious, across the board. Accordingly, the place is packed for lunch.

“Our signature dish is a wrap made of dehydrated carrots, psyllium husk, and herbs, filled with avocado, cabbage, sprouts, and red and green lettuce, along with a cashew sauce. We also have a burger made of mixed dehydrated vegetables, served with green lettuce, tomato, and vegan cashew “cheese” on bread made of flaxseed – that’s very popular as well.” Smoothies are another perennial favorite – the blender roars to life again as though on cue. #RAW’s banana-based concoctions include vitamin-rich superfoods like acai berries, spirulina, hemp seeds, cacao, maca, aloe, and turmeric, blended with all sorts of fruit and sweetened with organic dates or raw coconut palm sugar.

rawfood food service

Image: Thekla Ehling

Practice makes perfect

The lunch crowd at #RAW skews younger and female, which is likely thanks, at least in part, to the Instagram-worthy presentation of the food. This guy clearly has an eye for design. “Our ingredients are like an infinite palette of colors and flavors, yielding an endless array of possible compositions,” says Magris, stepping out onto the little terrace in front of the restaurant. Which would make the food, arranged beautifully on wooden boards and slabs of slate, his paintings. They refine and improve their recipes practically every day, Magris adds. How does he feel about the fact that #RAW’s core clientèle is female? Magris smiles and shrugs. Probably because he knows that wherever there are large groups of young women, young men likely aren’t far behind.

“When we opened in 2016, we were the first raw-foods restaurant in all of Italy,” the onetime economics student reveals. At the time, a mere three percent of Italians identified as vegetarian or vegan; these days, it’s up to ten percent. “Five new vegan restaurants opened in town in 2019 alone,” Magris says, sounding genuinely delighted with the development. Which makes sense, because it shows that he’s been on the right track all along.

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