The qualifier “Tuscan” lends an undeniable cachet to everything from interior design to chicken sandwiches in the US, but you may be surprised to know that it doesn’t carry the same prestigious tone in Italy. Sure, Florence is the cradle of the Renaissance, but most of the region is deeply and historically rural. Though tourism and entrepreneurial spirit has brought relative prosperity to these rolling hills dotted with pretty family-run wineries and tiny villages today, for much of history, the majority of Tuscans were modest farmers and tradespeople barely scraping by as emperors and Medicis came and went in far-off capital cities.
One vestige of these millennia of subsistence is authentic Tuscan cuisine, also known as “la cucina povera”, or peasant cooking. As the name suggests, these centuries-old dishes are rooted in frugality: making the most of the seasonal harvest, not wasting a single animal scrap from snout to tail, and building today’s meals off of yesterday’s leftovers. Foreigners may swoon over Tuscan cooking, but most Italians (outside of Tuscany, of course) shrug their shoulders and purse their lips dismissively when pondering classics like ribollita and panzanella. In Italy, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont, and Campania are the regions known for outstanding cuisine. Tuscany…not so much.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Tuscan cuisine isn’t fabulous. Based on excellent local ingredients and straightforward recipes, it often elevates the modest to divine. But Italians are used to that kind of “down-home” cooking and don’t need to travel farther than nonna’s house on Sunday to enjoy it. Americans, on the other hand, need to book an overseas flight.
We are huge fans of la cucina povera, which is also the culinary style in the region of Umbria which neighbors Tuscany and is our home for a portion of each year. The seasonality of it, the inherent respect for quality local ingredients, and the deceiving simplicity of many recipes that are based on intuition and experience more than classic training is both rooted in the past yet represents what should be the future of our food philosophy. When we travel through central Italy, we feast on cucina povera classics from legume soups to offal sandwiches, knowing that we won’t be able to capture these same flavors at home.
We also love the occasional fine-dining extravaganza, and Tuscany’s main city of Florence is ideal for multi-course meals that highlight Tuscan ingredients in more intricate, curated dishes. “We’ve gone all-in on fine dining in Florence,” says Brian. “Dinner with a group of close friends from the states at Enoteca Pinchiorri stands out as one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Although we were sheepishly asked to keep our voices down by the sommelier after he received an unwarranted complaint from a grumpy Belgian patriarch at a nearby table. Perhaps it was an anti-American bias? Who knows, but after a quick conversation in Italian to the Maitre d’ by Maria, a bottle of Conterno Barolo from the 1980s arrived at the table as form of an apology. We also felt vindicated when owner Anna Féolde showed up with her puppy, who did his fair share of barking.”
In the Tuscan episode of “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”, segments were dedicated to both culinary extremes: simple cucina povera fare and the heady gourmet masterpieces. Here are some of our picks from both categories:
Though Florence’s nobles were dining on gourmet dishes (many influenced by imported French chefs), the city’s working class and surrounding countryside dined on simple, rustic dishes that became known as “la cucina povera” and are today considered “true” Tuscan cuisine. Old-school trattorias in Florence specialize in this fare, or you can wander through the Mercato Centrale to sample a few staples or pick up ingredients to prepare them on your own. “The Mercato Centrale has changed considerably in the last few years,” say Brian. “The addition of the dining concourse on the upper level has given it more of a Chelsea Market vibe but it still hasn’t lost too much of its authenticity on the lower level.”
Ribollita – An ode to the pantry-stretching skills of centuries of Tuscan farmwives, ribollita (which literally means “reboiled”) is a hearty, rib-sticking potage made by boiling leftover minestrone with stale bread. Traditionally a winter dish, the ingredients reflect the season’s bounty with Tuscany’s famed black cabbage, Swiss chard, cannellini beans, and root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and onions. Brian and Maria Gabriela’s favorite version is served at Trattoria Mario. “You’d better pretend to support the Fiorentina football club and order the ribollita (it’s the real deal and always available),” warns Brian.
Pappa al pomodoro – Another penny-pinching yet filling classic, this thick “soup”(more like a paste) is made with stale Tuscan bread, cooked tomatoes, olive oil, basil, and garlic. Pappa al pomodoro can be served served hot in the winter (made with the canned tomatoes from the previous summer) or cold in the summer to use up any bursting ripe tomatoes from the garden. A traditional trattoria staple, the success of this dish sits firmly on the quality of its five ingredients.
Panzanella – Summer on a plate, panzanella is another creative dish invented primarily to help Tuscan families use every last bit of stale bread. The simplest versions toss cubes of day-old bread—soaked in a water and vinegar solution and then squeezed dry to soften them up—with fresh chopped tomatoes, olive oil, and a bit of red onion. From there, everyone from home cooks to Michelin-starred chefs have their own personalized version and can include chopped lettuce, sliced cucumber and celery, olives and/ capers, sweet pepper, diced mozzarella, or even anchovies or tuna.
Lampredotto – Tip to tail is how Italians consumed their meat for millennia, and there is a movement back to embracing traditional offal dishes. In Florence, the most beloved street food is lampredotto, or tripe from the fourth stomach of the cow, stewed in an aromatic tomato sauce and served topped with “salsa verde” on a chewy roll. There are lampredotto carts parked across downtown Florence with lines of customers waiting for their tripe sandwich dripping in broth.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina – “Tuscans love their beef and we’ve been hosting a night out for bistecca alla Fiorentina with our Florence guides for years,” says Brian. “In addition to getting to eat a fabulous grass fed steak, we’re able to stay up to date on our offerings in Florence. Our last steak dinner with the guides was at Osteria dell’Enoteca, and I also recommend Parione and Trattoria Sostanza (Via del Porcellana, 25/R).”
There are a number of country restaurants and resorts serving gourmet fare in Tuscany today, but until recently Florence was virtually the only place you could indulge in a formal meal in the region. There are a few fine-dining landmarks in the city, if you want to sample the more refined side of Tuscan cuisine.
In addition to Enoteca Pinchiorri mentioned above, Cibrèo—helmed by chef Fabio Picchi since 1979—is considered one of the finest “casual fine-dining” restaurants in the city. Another fave for lunch is Cantinetta Antinori. “In addition to their super famous and delicious wines, the Antinoris run a quiet, clubby restaurant right in the heart of the center,” says Brian. “They serve refined takes on all the Florentine classics, but you can’t go wrong ordering the Insalata di Pollo alla Senape e Sedano…yes, chicken salad. It’s a great lunch with a glass of Cervaro della Sala, their Chardonnay with a splash of Grechetto blend.”
One of the most unforgettable meals Brian and Maria Gabriella remember from Florence wasn’t even one they participated in themselves! “We arranged an unforgettable dinner at Leggenda dei Frati for clients on the night of June 24, when Florence celebrates the city’s patron saint, complete with a private table and and uninterrupted view of the fireworks.”