Tuscan cuisine is all about simplicity; there’s no need for elaborate dishes when the raw ingredients are so good to start with. A classic way to begin a meal in Tuscany couldn’t be any simpler: bruschetta [bruˈsketta - the 'ch' makes a 'k' sound] , fragrant, unsalted Tuscan bread drizzled with delicious Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, some of the best in Italy, which has been produced here for centuries; or the variety of fett’unta, grilled bread seasoned with olive oil and salt and rubbed with fresh garlic.
Another Tuscan classic starter is with a variety of tasty crostini; including those topped with fagioli al fiasco, an ancient way of cooking beans derived from the peasant tradition. It consists of putting the beans, previously soaked for 8-10 hours, into a flask, adding aromatic herbs (usually sage leaves), a little water, pepper, garlic, and then sealing the flask. The flask is then inserted into an ash and embers pile next to the fire all night long. The flavors from the garlic and sage stay inside the flask making the beans particularly tasty, even if you use simple cannellini beans. In the morning, the beans are ready; all they need is a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, another example of the simplicity and tastiness of Tuscan cuisine. For meat lovers, crostini are also flavored with more robust toppings, for example liver or wild game sauce.
Bread is revered in Tuscany, and it has long been tradition not to waste any of it; thus, the locals have implemented ways to enhance it even when stale, as shown in many traditional recipes: panzanella (made with stale bread, red onion, basil, seasoned with oil, vinegar and salt); ribollita (the typical dish of peasant tradition, whose basic ingredients are beans and black cabbage, and whose name derives from the practice of re-heating it several times - our villa chef, Mauro, will be preparing this dish as part of the dinner menu on your arrival at the villa); pappa al pomodoro (homemade, unsalted Tuscan bread, tomatoes, garlic cloves, basil, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper).
Other products regularly found on the tables of the Toscani are cheeses, chief among them pecorino, also known as 'cacio', made with sheep’s milk and served after at least eight months of aging (among the most famous are pecorino di Pienza and pecorino maremmano - we will be visiting sheep and goat cheese farms to see the process and taste their fresh and aged cheeses during a farm-to-table lunch prepared by the family).
Prosciutto crudo is also widely used, as well as finocchiona, a type of salame seasoned with wild fennel seeds (we will be visiting several farms to see the process, taste their salumi and partake in wonderful farm-to-table lunches prepared for us by the owners families). Tuscan cuisine also makes large use of white meat and game. Animals like chickens, turkeys, geese, pharaohs and pigeons, rabbits, and wild game such as hare and wild boar, have been a staple of festive occasions for a centuries. Pork is also widely used. Of course the most famous meat dish of all is bistecca alla fiorentina, or simply ‘la fiorentina’: traditionally sourced from either the Chianina or Maremmana breeds of cattle, it is thickly cut including the bone, very large, and it is grilled or broiled, preferably rare, seasoned with salt, sometimes with black pepper, and olive oil, applied immediately after the meat is removed from the heat.
Among Tuscan 'primi' (first courses) dishes, pappardelle al sugo di lepre (broad and flat pasta similar to fettuccine seasoned with hare sauce) need a mention; pici cacio e pepe are another classic, quick and easy to make, using, as the name suggests, black pepper, medium aged pecorino and salt.
Among 'secondi', besides the fiorentina, there is trippa alla Toscana (not for everyone because of its strong flavor): tripe, which is made with offal, has been popular in Tuscany, and especially Florence, since ancient times, and is still much appreciated today. Fritti are also popular among secondi: fried foods such as lamb, chicken, eel. From the coast, seafood-based dishes have spread to the rest of the region, especially the cheaper varieties, which often serve as a base for tasty soups, such as the popular cacciucco alla livornese, a popular traditional fish soup or fish stew with a history that stretches back at least five hundred years. This fish stew was first made in Livorno around the year 1500.
Tuscan desserts and sweets don’t disappoint either; from the simple cantucci, dry cookies flavored with almonds, dipped into Vin Santo, to castagnaccio, made with chestnut flour, to the panforte di Siena, a recipe that has been passed down since the 13th century. Other favorites include the sweet ricciarelli, another typical treat from Siena made with almond, sugar, and egg white, and now traditionally enjoyed at Christmas time.
Buccellatto, which originates in Lucca, is very simple, and, again, makes good use of bread; it has a soft interior filled with gooseberry and anise.
We’re just back from a whirlwind trip to Italy to prepare for our Villas of Italy: Tuscan Adventure in September, jamming in visits to favorite Tuscan winemakers, sheep farmers, goat farmers; percorino cheese, pig farmers, prosciutto, coppa, and traveling around Toscana, Chianti and Val d’ Orcia.
Since my Italian-American childhood, I have always been interested in everything Italian—history, culture, art, architecture, fashion, and especially Italian food. Whenever possible, we find ourselves on a plane headed to Italy for pleasure and sometimes work. One of the biggest lessons we've learned traveling abroad is that we can only make a general plan of where to go, stay and eat. Rather than rigidly holding on to our expectations, once we arrive, we find it best to be adventurous, to see and taste everything as new and go where our instincts and hearts take us. Like childhood, every day is a new experience.
After a mostly-sleepless 14-hour plane ride, my wife and I arrived at Americo Vespuci Airport in Firenze. Our Villas of Italy tours director Giacomo picked us up at the airport to take us to Hotel Certaldo.
The next 6 days would prove to be very busy, but very enjoyable. First, Podere Le Fornaci to meet owner Marco. It was raining pretty heavily as we drove up to his rustic farm where they produce Formaggio Caprino Da Agricoltura Biologica. Marco is a great guy, very friendly and laid back. He showed us his cheese production facility which was quiet as this is the season where his goats are delivering so no cheese production. We then donned our boots to slop up the hill in the mud to see his goats. We watched the newborns receive their 'ear tag' as these are a controlled breed and the lineage of each goat must be documented. A few goats were ready to give birth sometime that morning! We headed back down to the tasting room where we tried some aged cheese.
We headed into Greve in Chianti stopping for a cappuccino in the piazza. We walked the shops as we will in Sept. then a few doors down to Antica Macelleria Falorni, the oldest butcher shop in Italy (1806). Hundreds of all types of salumi are hung from the ceiling to dry. We hung around for awhile (pun intended) then on the road.
We drove further into Chianti to Renzo Marinai, an upscale winery that produces biological wines, where we met Catia. She walked us through their wine making process, cellars, etc. (they play classical music over speakers in their cellars, an experiment to see if it effects the wine. Mozart was playing). They have also erected art pieces in the vineyards, e.g., LOVE spelled out in big bold letters to see if it will effect the quality and amount of grapes. Their wines are excellent.
We drove about 100 yards down the road to a very small winery, again a biologico winery, on the same hill, Vallone di Cecione, to meet Francesco and his father, Giuliano. In contrast this winery is much smaller run by the father-son team. Francesco, probably about 35 and his father who looks to be in his early 80's. Very sweet, friendly and authentic people. They were eating lunch but stopped to clear the table so we could taste their wines. They make three wines and I wanted to taste their Canaiolo wine made from 100% Canaiolo grape. This is wine as made by the ancient Romans. Same grape, same process (aged in clay barrels), so I would assume same taste, complexity, etc. When else could you taste a wine as probably drunk by an ancient civilization . . . Antonius Maximus is my new name! Oh yeah it was very good! As a small yield vineyard their wines sell for $12-15 per bottle!? Deal! Francesco's mother, Anna, will serve our group a lunch of her homemade pasta and sauce and her specialty roasted rabbit while seated in the lowest level of what was once an Etruscan tower dated thousands of years old! While it looks it, it is very cool!
We stopped by Ristoro l’ Antica located at the foot of an old monastery to say Ciao. Their pizza is probably the best in the valley. We will have a dinner here with the group.
We drove to Castellina in Chianti, a picture-perfect ancient town in the Chianti hills. Many wonderful sights; the imposing 14th Century Rocca (Fortress), offering spectacular views of the town and surrounding countryside, the 16th Century San Salvatore Church and the Via delle Volte medieval arched passageway. Just outside of town the pre-Roman Etruscan burial tombs of Monte Calvario and the Necropolis of Poggino.
We visited Raymond and his wife Anarita at Casamonti. This is no ordinary farm, it is a combination of scientific marvel and culinary delight. Their place is also thousands of years old. It use to be a refuge for pilgramages, people would stop to refresh themselves on their journey to Rome. They raise a special breed of Tuscan pig called Cinta Senese that they make salumi from . . . their capocollo and salami is wonderful, but unfortunately their prosciutto is cured offsite so we could not taste today. . . but what we did taste was phenomenal. Anarita is an excellent chef and will make us a farm-to-table lunch for our tours paired with their wines . . . oh yes, which we tasted, and are wonderful. They also produce olive oil from the property, yes we tasted it as well . . . and yes it was also fantastic. We sat and talked with Raymond and Anarita for a long time. They are quite the characters in a lovely way.
Over the next few days we stopped at a cheese producer where we will buy our cheeses for our villa, literally hundreds of cheeses, many we knew, many we didn't, all delicious. A little further down the road we stopped at Famiglia Gambassi Terra di Siena Salumi. Their family has a long history (1800's) of butchery and we tasted their capocollo, prociutto, guanciale . . . all delicious, so we will buy our meats for the villa from them.
We traveled to meet Helena at Colombaia. Colombaia is a biologico family-owned farm, its name comes from the ancient holding where very good “Chianti” wine, olive oil, “vin santo” and “grappa” have been produced since the distant past.The farm is located in a typically Tuscan natural environment, among gentle hills, medieval villages, olive grooves and vineyards, in an area which is particularly interesting from an historical, artistic and cultural point of view. Helena gave us a nice walking tour around her property after which we tasted her wines in her cellar. All very good! Here I began to learn the difference between 'organic' and 'biologico' farming with Giacomo's help. Thinking they were the same, they are not, I became intrigued with how these biologico farmers create their products.
We left Helena's Colombaia, with a bottle of her wine as a gift to us and Giovanni and Giovanna to enjoy with them for our lunch. We stepped out of the car at their farm, Azienda Agricola Podere Paugnano, and looked across the valley at the hilltown Radicondoli, a beautiful vista. Giovanni was already outside waiting for us and we proceeded inside to see his wife Giovanna who was making ravioli with daughter Natalie . . . all from scratch, dough, filling . . . we went back outside to walk the property with Giovanni to see the cheese production room, meet the sheep, many kids just born 8-10 days ago, and over to meet the pigs. In the production of cheese whey is essentially the water being removed from the curds in order to make the cheese. On this small farm they would have to pay to have the whey hauled away so instead they keep pigs in order to feed them the whey. Then they eat, sell, or trade it for other needs. Nothing is wasted.
We went back to the kitchen to find Giovanna finishing her ravioli. We sat at a big farm style table to an appetizer of four sheep cheeses from soft to hard to be enjoyed with their homemade chestnut honey, pear jam, and fresh sliced pears. The fresh ravioli soon arrived with homemade tomato sauce . . . fantastico! Originally from Sardinia Giovanna brought over a platter of wild artichokes, carciofi, coated and fried . . . absolutely wonderful. In a matter of seconds a platter of fried pork and lamb with crispy skin was passed with a bowl of salad fresh from the garden. An amazing meal . . . all farm to table. For dessert, vin santo was served to dip a platter of cantucci (biscotti) into, followed by cups of fresh sheep yogurt . . . Natalie told us her recipe was 1 part whipped cream, 3 parts fresh sheep yogurt mixed with fresh blackberries . . . it was heavenly. I never thought I would enjoy anything better than fresh gelato, but this was as close as you can get . . . SO good, smooth and oh so creamy. A beautiful lunch prepared and served by beautiful people! Il mio stomaco e il cuore era pieno!
We said our goodbye's and headed across the valley to walk through Radicondoli, a lovely medieval town on top of a hill where in the distance you can see the towers of San Gimignano and a short distance south the village of Volterra. A stunning view across the Toscana landscape. We also made it to Montalcino and Montepulciano where we tasted at several vineyards we will visit on tour. Keeping them as a secret, special treat for September. We walked the streets totally void of tourists, only locals here, we stopped into a local bar for a macchiato to finish another wonderful day in the heart of Toscana.
Over the next few days we spent a day with Francesca, our guide in Florence, to finalize what we’ll see on our day there in September. It will be a beautiful day. We selected the ristorante we will take the group for lunch, had a gelato at one of the oldest, and best, gelateria’s in Florence. And, we had a cappuccino with Costanza, our guide in Siena, Volterra, and San Gimignano to talk about our itinerary and timing.
Back at the villa we met with our villa chef Mauro to go over menus. Mauro will be adjusting the lightness or the heaviness of our dinners depending on what we’ve had for lunch while on tour. His recipes are not only authentically Toscana, they are medieval recipes that have endured over the many centuries (some with slight modifications by Mauro). He will also bake fresh bread daily, as well as fresh pasta, and all ingredients will be local and organic. We spent that evening up in Certaldo Alto having a beautiful dinner with Giacomo, his wife Anna, daughter Mirta (son Manu was with Nonna e Nonna) at a lovely ristorante overlooking the valley below.
Each day was truly an adventure in the Italian lifestyle. Days that began with cappuccino with our friends at Jam Café and a fresh pasticceria, followed by visits to surrounding villages, wineries, farms, local bars for caffe and usually a farm-to-table lunch prepared for us by one of our owner friends.
It is easy to see why Tuscany is one of Italy’s best-loved regions. Tuscany has two very diverse faces - the art cities; Florence, Siena, Lucca and Pisa on one hand, and the countryside on the other. It combines a beauty reminiscent of the landscapes of Renaissance masterpieces, a rich artistic heritage including exquisite art and architecture, a glorious history, excellent wines and delicious food all set between the blue-green Apennines and the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea, Tuscany is the joyful heart and soul, the essence of the Italian culture which lives on in every city, town and village.
Ciao . . . a presto . . . until Settembre!
Over 46 million tourists visit Italy each year from all over the world, and many return again and again for the magic that only Italy can deliver. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see.”
Italians are a very kind, and gracious people. Their country is home to some of history’s most magnificent treasures, and they are used to sharing them. However, there are a few things Italians want Americans to know before you arrive in their country:
1. Dinner: It’s between 7:30-9:00 p.m. Pressing your hungry face against the restaurant’s window at 6:00 p.m. will not change that. Calling for a reservation, and dressing up a bit for dinner, however, will be appreciated.
2. Skin: Not shown so much in Italy. Short skirts and halter tops do not epitomize the classical fashion taste of Italians. So cover up, unless, of course, you are at the beach.
3. Bread: It won’t be served with oil and balsamic vinegar (unless the restaurant caters to Americans), so resist asking the server to provide them. Also, bread is not to be eaten with pasta. It’s used to “fare la scarpetta” or “make a little shoe”, to clean the plate of sauce. To do so in a restaurant is a debatable point, so you make that decision! Basically, bread is provided to accompany an appetizer.
4. Simplify Your Schedule: Leave time to wander the crooked, ancient streets on your own. Often, just a few blocks from the main attractions, day-to-day life is unfolding. Leave the crowds. Pause to listen to Italians converse at a coffee house. Plan some time to get off the tourist path for a gelato, espresso, or traditional meal with the locals.
5. Afternoon Closings: This still surprises and perplexes Americans. Many shops will close down for the afternoon from 1:00-4:00 p.m., especially outside the city center. Italians go home to enjoy lunch as a family and relax. Try it!
6. Taxis: You need to call for a taxi, or go to an actual taxi stand. You cannot hail a cab on a street in Italy, although Italian's get amused at watching tourists try!
7. Italian: It’s what is spoken! Learning a few words and common phrases will make a big difference in your experience. Rather than launching immediately in English, and assuming you will be understood (and talking slower and louder doesn't help), it’s polite to ask, “Parla l’Inglese?” At the villa we will be having short conversational Italian lessons in the mornings to help you.
8. Coperto: The amount charged, per person, to sit down at a table. It’s not a ploy to take advantage of you because you are a tourist. A 'coperto' is not the same thing as a tip, it means cover charge. It all started in the Middle Ages. At that time many people used to stop at inns, but, in order to save money, they only ate food brought from home. The innkeepers, unable to sell them their food, started to charge their customers for the place they occupied (posto coperto) and for the use of cutlery and plates. About tipping, it is not necessary, but if you wish never more than 5-10 percent.
9. Ask for the Check: It won’t be automatically delivered to your table after a meal in a restaurant. That doesn’t mean you are being ignored. Food and conversations are to be enjoyed, not rushed. When you are ready to leave, ask for the bill, “il conto per favore.”
10. Slow Down: You can’t see it all. Trust me on this one. The reason 46 million tourists descend on Italy each year is because there is so much beauty to see and experience. A excess of culture, art, vineyards, food, and museums — a lifetime is not enough. So, slow down, savor and appreciate what you do see.
11. Smile: You’ve made it to a country that has inspired visitors for centuries. Melt into its beauty and lifestyle, its art, music, cuisine and traditions. Exchange smiles with Italians and take home memories of a truly magnificent country, unlike any other in the world.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.