Tuscany: A Visual and Culinary Feast
Located on Italy’s west coast, touring Tuscany is a top choice in a country that is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. This region’s tiled roofs, timeless earth toned buildings, medieval hill top towns, rolling farmland, and perfectly tended vineyards would be reason enough to visit. Yet, Tuscany is also home to some of the world’s finest “art cities” of Florence, Lucca, Siena, and Pisa—each a cultural and visual jewel box. And if the scenery, architecture, and breathtaking art weren’t enough to feed the soul, the cuisine and wines are just as visit-worthy, making Tuscany a trifecta of destinations.
In great part due to Italy’s late unification as a country, Italians have a much stronger sense of loyalty and identity to the city or town where their family is from, rather than a region or the country as a whole. So even though Lucca and Pisa are just 20 minutes apart, someone from Lucca would consider themselves first a “Lucchesi” or Pisa a “Pisano,” not an Italian. They’d both declare this heritage quite loudly, as well, often after vigorously (and humorously) denigrating the other’s hometown. This identity peculiarity may play a role in explaining why the food and drink in Italy differs dramatically from region-to-region and even city-to-city. This reality makes up for the fact that, unlike anywhere we’ve visited, it’s almost impossible to find non-Italian cuisine in this country. Even the Scottish pub we stumbled upon served traditional local dishes with fish, chips, and beer tacked onto the menu.
While not particularly unified in national identity, Italians are united in the importance of quality food, wine, and the use of locally sourced and fresh ingredients. No imported spices or jars of tomato sauce here! Small produce markets, meat and cheese vendors, shops with bread baked daily, and wine from local vineyards are in abundance in both the largest cities and the most rural villages. Proper etiquette when entering an eatery or takeaway window is to greet the proprietor or clerk with a “buongiorno,” add “per favore” when ordering, and a “grazie” and “arrivederci” when leaving. Handily, buonasera works as both “hello” and “good evening” after 4 p.m.
Renowned for their ice cream, expect to find gelaterias on every corner. Akin to ice cream, gelato has less butterfat and is served a bit warmer to intensify the flavor and give it a more velvety texture. Proper etiquette is to first decide on size (even a small will be two or three scoops) and pay at the register where you receive a receipt. Holding your receipt up to the server behind the case as proof of payment, the process of tasting a few samples before ordering one or more flavors begins. The final decision will be choosing either a cono (cone) or coppa (cup); the latter is the wiser choice if eating while walking, due to gelato’s higher drip factor!
Visitors will also notice an inordinately large number of bars, so much so that they might think Italians are constantly drinking! A ‘bar’ in Italy is a type of cafe where patrons infrequently sit down. In fact, if there are tables and you do sit down, it signals for table service, thereby doubling or tripling the price of your order. That’s why most Italians stand next to the counter to drink a cup of coffee. While on the subject of coffee, be forewarned that requesting coffee or ‘caffè’ will deliver an espresso, not drip or filtered coffee. Even an order of caffè Americano may sometimes generate a shot of espresso in hot water. A cappuccino will be espresso with foamy milk, caffè macchiato will be espresso with just a touch of milk, and caffè latte will be a cup of milk with just a bit of espresso. Once again, you pay first at the register, then go to the counter to get the server’s attention. It is customary to leave a small coin on the counter with your cup when you finish, adding a goodbye or thank you as you leave.
Pizzerias are the third ubiquitous establishment and often have takeaway windows. Despite a long list of possible toppings, your options will be limited to what is in the display case. Crusts may be a thick Neapolitan style (more common in the south) or a thin Roman style. Unlike the bar-cafés and gelaterias, you order first from the server since cost is determined by slice size. The server normally points his knife at a possible cutting spot and customers motion and say piccolo (smaller) or grande (larger). Patrons then pay the server directly or receive a receipt for register payment. If there are stools, you may sit at no extra cost.
Before traveling to Italy, it’s helpful to know which Italian-American foods will be absent or decidedly different. My husband can attest to this after his repeated attempts to obtain crushed red pepper flakes were met with confused looks and the arrival of cayenne powder, paprika, or sliced red peppers. Marinara or any true tomato sauce or “gravy” doesn’t exist in Italy either, just peeled, crushed tomatoes. In fact, if you ask for marinara, you may be served pasta “mariner style” with shellfish and olives! There’s an abundance of bread, but no butter or traditional garlic bread. And in Tuscany, the bread is salt-free (with a salt shaker sometimes nearby). Dressing for salads, as we know it, doesn’t exist; salads are dressed with oil and vinegar or just oil. Parmigiana is a cooking style reserved for eggplant, not any other vegetable, meat, or poultry. And if you are hankering for lasagna, it will have a concentrated, dry red meat sauce with moisture coming from a béchamel sauce and cheese. As far as tiramisu, it will be a no-bake parfait with alternating layers of sweetened mascarpone, and is less popular than biscotti, cakes with nuts and fruit (especially in Siena), and chocolate sponge cake with liquor (in Florence). Finally, spaghetti with meatballs is non-existent. Meatballs are served alone, often as an appetizer—but you will find gluten-free pasta!
Now confident in etiquette and what food items you won’t find, what will be on your plate in Tuscany? As the ancestral home of the wealthy and influential Medici family, this region has always produced the finest olive oils, sheep’s milk cheeses, and meats—all in elegantly simple recipes with the aroma of rosemary, sage, and locally grown saffron. Fiorentina T-bone steaks are exclusive to Tuscany and come two to three inches thick in two to three pound slabs. Needless to say, they are meant to be shared and too thick for anything but a rare center! Although porchetta (roasted pig) originated in Umbria further south, it is commonly found on the menu here. And if you get to the city of Campi just outside Florence, be sure to try their famous braised goat. Farro, rice, and polenta (the latter more corn mush than solid) are more common side dishes than spaghetti, ravioli, or wide flat pappardelle noodles when paired with meat dishes. And when it comes to meat and poultry, don’t be shocked when various “parts” are considered delicacies. When in doubt, “Google” before ordering rooster’s comb or stewed brain. Remember to ask locals where to find carbonara served as a specialty of the house. This absolute standout spaghetti with pecorino cheese uses guanciale (lean cured pork cheeks) instead of bacon. Giant loaves of bread direct from wood-fired stoves (pane toscano) are served with meals or added to salads and soups, including ribollita (thick vegetable soup) and panzanella (a salad of crumbled bread, tomatoes, onions, and basil). Famous for porcini mushrooms and luxurious white tartufi (truffles), the pungent earthy, garlic and musk-like flavor of the latter is a taste I haven’t acquired. Finally, expect numerous varieties of vegetables or beans baked in terra-cotta casseroles and the world’s most flavorful tomatoes.
With all that food, you must have wine, especially in Tuscany. Birthplace of Chianti, the finest brands have a black rooster symbol on the label. Chianti’s base ingredient, the Sangiovese grape, also produces two excellent reds—Brunelli di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (or less costly Rosso di Montalcino and Rosso di Montepulciano). When phylloxera ravaged vineyards in the late 1800s, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon vines were imported. Used alone or as mixing grapes, these vines produce the “Super Tuscans,” which are red wines from Tuscany using non-indigenous grapes. The white Trebbiano grape produces much of the region’s light, crisp white wines as well as balsamic vinegar. Vermentino vines produce a wine akin to Sauvignon Blanc with the finest example found in Tuscany’s medieval town of San Gimignano. In a land renowned for reds, Vernaccia di San Gimignano was awarded the country’s first white wine appellation or DOC status for quality and authenticity. And if you like dessert wines, try Vin Santo.
Travel is always a learning experience and one commonly found through food tours or cooking classes in Tuscany. Be prepared to be welcomed here by a people with open arms and hearts—and an irresistible sense of humor. Don’t leave your smile or appetite at home.