One of the biggest struggles I am encountering since I’ve moved to Tuscany is trying not to over eat. It’s proving to be a mission impossible since food is literally everywhere at anytime and it doesn’t matter if it’s 37 degrees and eating a plate of pappardelle with wild boar ragu’ sounds like suicide…
If you are a fan of fresh and tasty local produce, lovely al fresco restaurants with great views both in the city and in the countryside…well, Tuscany is the place to be!
If you are visiting for the first time, there is some food that – in my opinion – should be tried at least once before going back home, wherever your home is. As in any region, Tuscan food varies a lot depending on the areas you visit and on the season but in general the following recommendations can be found almost all year round.
Here is my top list:
Pappardelle con ragu’ di cinghiale (pappardelle with wild boar ragu’): if the pappardelle are home made and the wild boar ragu’ is fresh, it can truly be a star dish. I can’t count how many times I have eaten it throughout my visits to Tuscany but the rule number one – as with any local produce – is always to eat the product in season. Wild boar (normally hunted in Autumn/Winter) is currently such a big issue for Tuscany (their ever growing numbers have a major impact on the environment and agriculture) that a law has recently been approved to allow wild boar hunting all year round, in an effort to contain their numbers, so you may well be able to find it fresh throughout the year. If in doubt whether it’s fresh or frozen, ask your waiter!
Stracciatella: it’s both a cheese and an ice-cream flavor but in this case I would focus only on the cheese, a creamy and stringy artisanal full-fat delicacy. Though I know that the true stracciatella comes from Puglia region, to be fair I had some of my best here in Tuscany (more than once, just to make sure it was not an exception!) so I feel like recommending it, particularly because you will find it hard to buy this cheese outside of Italy so it’s worth indulging. The safest place to get it? Unless you can find a proper and well stocked cheese shop, go to any big chain supermarket, straight to the deli cheese counter and order a bit to take away (it’s sold by weight and they will serve it in a disposable box, ready to dip in). Then enjoy it with a couple of cherry tomatoes, a few basil leaves, some Tuscan bread and a glass of red wine….aperitivo, done! 🙂
Lardo di Colonnata: it’s the mix of two great Tuscan products: white marble and pig (make sure you don’t eat the former!) :-). Colonnata is the town in Tuscany where it comes from and where it is still produced following the old tradition: layers of lard seasoned with rosemary, sea salt, pepper and garlic are cured in local marble for at least 6 to 10 months giving it an unique flavor. Then it’s thinly sliced and ready to eat. It is a true delicacy – and terribly fattening as the word itself reminds you. Once again, if you can’t wait to be in a restaurant to order it, go to a local butcher or to the supermarket deli counter and ask for a few thin slices, slice up some Tuscan bread, get another glass of wine and again your aperitivo is done! 🙂 It’s sublime if you warm the bread beforehand since the lard will literally melt over it…While searching for some more information on Lardo di Colonnata, I stumbled across the wonderful blog of Emiko Davies, with mouthwatering recipes (and pics!) and a great post about Lardo di Colonnata, in case you want to find out more about it!
Pecorino: by saying Pecorino, you are opening in front of you an incredible variety of tasty and delicious of cheeses (made from sheep milk, “pecora”). Hopefully you are a cheese lover, in which case you are in the right region. Head to Pienza, in Val d’Orcia and just have a stroll downtown to get infused by the most amazing cheese smells. Since there are plenty of free tastings around, make sure to try some of the different flavors of Pecorino, including those cured in walnut leaves, in hay or infused with truffle. Not a cheese lover just yet..? I am pretty sure a trip to Pienza will quickly convert you!
Tartufo (truffle): the season is crucial but the good thing is that there is at least a variety of truffle for every season so, regardless when you visit, you can always taste some fresh one (if you pick the right restaurant). I still can’t decide between the white truffle or the black truffle but I definitely had one of my best truffle based meal in Radda in Chianti (La Terrazza), on a warm and sunny evening in November. Truffle was excellent (and in good quantity) in both the antipasti and primi and definitely recommended. Plus, they have got a lovely terrace, perfect to enjoy a warm autumn evening eating al fresco. If you are a fan of truffle and you are self catering and feel like using some of it while in Tuscany, read my full post on the little town of San Giovanni d’Asso, one of the best places to go in Tuscany to get some amazing fresh truffle.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (T-Bone Steak): I still have not developed an unconditional love for bistecca alla fiorentina simply because I can’t eat huge quantity of steak: no matter how delicious and buttery the meat is, I get “bored” easily (I suppose it’s due to the fact that generally after a steak I struggle to eat anything else :-). Having said this, if you are a meat lover, this should absolutely be on your list. The general rule is that the steak should come from a particularly cow (Chianina), bred in Valdichiana. Normally cooked on a wooden grill, it comes out rare (don’t even think of asking “well done” cause the waiter will frown at you) and, though prices for this cut varies depending on the restaurant (and its location!), generally a fair price would be around Eur 4 for 100 grams; the average portion is 1 kg so expect to pay around Eur 40. It comes without saying that it is highly recommended to share it – unless you are prepared to eat 1 Kg of almost VERY rare meat. It’s a pretty manly dish but I have seen women doing very well too (including me)! I haven’t had many fiorentina steaks but a very good one was at Trattoria Marione in Florence, just off Santa Maria Novella Square and a great one in a picture-perfect Tuscan Osteria called La Sosta di Pio VII, in Barberino Val d’Elsa (FI), definitely worth the drive in the Florentine countryside: amazing Tuscan food, lovely atmosphere, great service and an incredibly mouth watering Fiorentina (if you manage a dessert, try their mascarpone and Nutella one!). It’s open all year round and in summer time they have a gorgeous outdoor pergola….you will see, it doesn’t get any more Tuscan than this – booking is recommended!
Tagliata ai funghi porcini: less manly and definitely my favourite meat dish in Tuscany since it allows me to leave a bit of room for an antipasti and potentially dessert! Literally “tagliata” means “sliced” and that’s what it is: a sliced medium-rare beef that if cooked properly is absolutely buttery and delicious. Put it on a couple of layers of porcini mushrooms and it’s absolute heaven! You can be sure that (if not always with porcini) it’s always present on any Tuscan menu – I haven’t found one that didn’t advertise it. Worth trying 🙂 As for the Fiorentina, I would definitely recommend the Osteria La Sosta di Pio VII: tagliata is beautifully cooked and it literally melts in your mouth! If you are in Siena, try Boccon del Prete, a great restaurant not far from Duomo: great primi and a very good tagliata (booking recommended!).
As far as Tuscan food, there is plenty more to taste and experience, particularly as far as salumi (cold meats) and cheeses. If you are self catering and want to try several of them without getting ripped off, just keep in mind some easy rules:
- Avoid the “deli” shops located in the most touristy towns (particularly San Gimignano); Italians generally don’t buy in them for being overpriced and catering mainly to tourists.
- Check if in or near the town you are staying there is a weekly market. Apart from the fact that it’s an experience on itself, it’s worth going in the morning and wandering around the food stalls and get something to eat on the spot or take away. It’s cheap, it’s yummy and above all it’s truly Italian with plenty of grandmas chatting and local vendors shouting their best deals!
- If you are tight with time and can’t visit a local market, head to one of the big supermarket chains (COOP and PAM, for example). Since markets are generally held during the week days, the great majority of people do their shopping at the supermarket. No doubt it hasn’t got the same market atmosphere but it’s definitely a great opportunity to buy some local produce. Salumi prices shown at the deli counter are always per 100 grams but if you are not sure how much you want, you can just ask for slices.
Not self-catering? Then just order a tagliere di salumi e formaggi (literally a board for cold meats and cheeses) and you can’t go wrong.
Getting hungry already….? 🙂 I am!