Livorno is a gritty city with a long and interesting history. In the early Middle Ages it alternately belonged to Pisa and Genoa. In 1421 Florence, seeking access to the sea, bought it. Cosimo I (1519–74) started construction of the harbor in 1571, putting Livorno on the map. After Ferdinando I de' Medici (1549–1609) proclaimed Livorno a free city, it became a haven for people suffering from religious persecution; Roman Catholics from England and Jews and Moors from Spain and Portugal, among others, settled here. The Quattro Mori (Four Moors), also known as the Monument to Ferdinando I, commemorates this. (The statue of Ferdinando I dates from 1595, the bronze Moors by Pietro Tacca from the 1620s). In the following centuries, and particularly in the 18th, Livorno boomed as a port. In the 19th century the town drew a host of famous Britons passing through on their grand tours. Its prominence continued up to World War II, when it was heavily bombed. Much of the town's architecture, therefore, postdates the war, and it's somewhat difficult to imagine what it might have looked like before. Livorno has recovered from the war, however, as it's become a huge point of departure for container ships, as well as the only spot in Tuscany for cruise ships to dock for the day. Most of Livorno's artistic treasures date from the 17th century and aren't all that interesting unless you dote on obscure baroque artists. Livorno's most famous native artist, Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920), was of much more recent vintage. Sadly, there's no notable work by him in his hometown. There may not be much in the way of art, but it's still worth strolling around the city. The Mercato Nuovo, which has been around since 1894, sells all sorts of fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, and fish. Outdoor markets nearby are also chock-full of local color. The presence of Camp Darby, an American military base just outside town, accounts for the availability of many American products. If you have time, Livorno is worth a stop for lunch or dinner at the very least.
It's only open for lunch, and it's well off the beaten path (even if it is in the center of Livorno's shopping district). But getting here is worth the trouble: this tiny place, lined with bottles of wine, has a small menu that changes daily, a superb wine list, and gregarious staff. Their baccalà alla livornese (deep-fried salt cod served with chickpeas) is succulently crisp; soups, such as ribollita, are very soothing.
Osteria del Mare
Husband and wife Claudio and Marila run this fish restaurant across the (busy) street from the docks. The decor's nothing to write home about (paneled walls with framed prints and navigational coats of arms), but it doesn't much matter once you get into the essentials of tucking into the food. Order the fish of the day, and the waiter will bring the fish to the table for approval; then order it cooked all'isolana (baked whole with tomatoes and potatoes). Marila has created a one-of-a-kind dessert, a cross between a cheesecake and a semifreddo. It's heavenly, especially when sauced with either a chocolate, caramel, or strawberry concoction. Polite service and an affable wine list make eating here a pleasure.
Locals crowd into this tiny place with a lovely view at lunch and dinner to feast on treats from the sea. The place is lively and full of folks enjoying the terrific food on offer here. Antipasti such as raw oysters, code di manzancolle (deep fried shrimp), or the antipasti misti (a marvelous assemblage with fried baccalà and a lima beans and shrimp salad, among other things) provide the perfect kick-off to what follows. It's hard to decide between the succulent mixed fry, the perfectly mixed grill (including scampi, shrimp, and squid), or any of the pasta dishes. Finish your meal with sgroppino (lemon sorbet pureed with vodka) to help cleanse the palate.