Meet Mario, a Florentine Institution

Please take a look at my business card, I find it the best way to meet ladies.” chuckles Mario as he cheekily slid a card across the table with the words ‘are you free’ and ‘I am single’ written among the typed details of his work. I had to give him a bit of credit, at 84 years old, this man still had jokes to tell and a valid drivers license. Meeting Mario was probably one of the best moments of my October, to which I have a fan of this blog to thank, and a now friend – Kim, for introducing me to this amazing person.


At La Spada, where Mario goes for dinner every single night

We went to a couple of dinners at La Spada which he frequented for a short ‘twenty’ years and I even saw his museum of a house in Campo di Marte. But what’s more important – was that small peek into the window that was this one man’s incredible life. From seeing Mussolini & Hitler ride down via calzaiuoli  – to being wounded by shrapnel by the Ponte Vecchio (where Germans planted mortars to deter locals from crossing the bridge) – as you can imagine, he was never short of stories.


Not your average business card

Umberto dei was first opened in 1910 on nearby via calzaiuoli by Umberto and his sister. Mario himself started working there in 1943 at the tender age of 14, he told me his family was poor and anti-fascist. He made a humble 135 lire a month, not even enough to buy a coffee in today’s times. He talked about a group of Carabinieri officers who hid in his house from the Germans during the war as they started their retreat. He recalled how hot it was sharing the bed all together and how that being from Sicily, they all proudly fought to pour Mario the most wine – Sicilian pride causing him to be tipsy every night. When speaking to Mario, he switched from Italian and near-perfect British English with an ease that would make any language-learner jealous.

Upon walking in the shop, he proudly showed me a photo of himself on his first day of work. His boyish innocense and floppy hair a window into a time when the term bamboccioni (Italian slang for adult babies} didn’t exist. He took over the shop in 1966, the same year the famous flood destroyed much of the city {and his store} and also the year when one of his kids was born. He loved talking about the shop, the people he met on a daily basis and perhaps most tenderly – his late wife Barbara, an english woman he met in 1951 when she walked in the store to develop some film. After a 7 year correspondence, they got married and started their life together.

Mario & Barbara

Mario & Barbara

I think what hit me the most when spending time with him, was hearing him talk about his late wife. “I always ask couples when I meet them if they are still in honeymoon” he says while pouring a liter of olive oil over his salad {he has strong feelings about the power of this green gold}. “People often laugh when I ask them this saying they have been married for 10 years and I shake my head, it only gets better the longer you stay together”.

His eyes get misty as he recalls what happens when Barbara was first diagnosed with cancer. You couldn’t help but tear up a bit yourself, which for this girl – is pretty rare. “Some men complain that marriage gets boring, bring with the same woman every night — but instead, all I could think was how lucky I was to be married to her and how excited I was for her to come to bed”.

Honestly, who wouldn’t want to hear something like that in a world where you can get divorced in a drive-thru in Reno, Nevada. Mario had two kids, one of which is based in Australia and the other in Pisa. But Mario is Florentine, and he claims he can’t be far from his friends Brunelleschi and Ghiberti.


We visited his house after dinner one night. Walking inside was like entering a museum – an empty 1950’s refrigerator sits in a lonely kitchen that never gets used. Historical books line the walls in his living room, many over a 100 years old – with me and Kim salivating over them. He shows us his children’s rooms (both lovingly maintained) and we discovered a stack of Vogue magazines from the 1950’s in English.

20131030_213233Looking at them was like watching an episode of Mad Men. I couldn’t believe he had something like this so casually on a shelf in a bedroom. Before dropping us off in the center, he gave me a bottle of olive oil that the shop owner of expensive textiles in front of his produces. I couldn’t thank him enough.

When he speaks about his shop, he gets sad. He has no desire to stop working at 84 year’s old and enjoys his daily routine that starts at 5am. Sadly, this Thursday the store will close due to high rent – for good. What will be in its place? That remains uncertain, the store was purchased by Max Mara – an all too common occurence in the Florentine center as we have seen with places like Edison, a famous bookshop that once resided in Piazza della Repubblica. 

He refused to let me help pay for the dinner either time so I walked into his shop yesterday and bought a pair of Giorgio Armani sunglasses for 50 euros, discounted from over 250 euros. When I put them on and ask him his opinion, he exclaims ‘ma che bella sei, these were made for you Georgette’. It’s the least I could do for a man who gave me what I can only describe as an education in the city I now call home. A real look into someone who is as Florentine as the baptistery or a Medici crest. Mario is Florence. 

If you want to meet this amazing man and maybe even buy one of his glasses, sunglasses or cameras at a 70% discount as the shop closes down on November 7th {this thursday} – please head on over! I am sure he will show you a photo and tell you a story.

Umberto Dei Ottica Fotografia
Via dei Pecori, 19r.

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