Eat Your Heart Out, Tuscany!

How do you like our wild pig?

– A cook in Tuscany’s Maremma region pauses to ask us one of life’s burning questions.

When we think of Italy, we think of vineyard orchards populated by wild boars, happy cows and people who talk with their hands and sound like they’re yelling at each other all the time even though they are really just talking about how great the tagliatelle is.

Pici with Wild Boar Bolognese Sauce - Pienza, Italy
Pici with Wild Boar Bolognese Sauce – Pienza, Italy

Tuscany is no exception for the exceptional. History is rich and geography has smiled on this region. The land rolls, one minute great for growing wheat, the next minute just about perfect for a Sangiovese grape.

For meat appreciators and vegetarians alike, Italy is a land of eating. Where else do roadside gas stations pride themselves on espresso cremas and rustichella piadina sandwiches made of soft ricotta and rucola.

Audrey Helps Sell Some Porcini Mushrooms - Montepulciano, Tuscany
Porcini mushroom season at the Multepulciano market.

By no means is this an exhaustive treatment of Tuscan cuisine. The region is large, the table is deep. In honor of the beautiful, the simple, the edible, the memorable, here are a few culinary memories.

Favorite Meals in Tuscany (and Where to Eat Them)

1.  Ravioli alla Crema Tartufo Bianco

Our first meal. And what an opener. Large, homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach dished in a creamy white truffle sauce. The sauce was especially terrific for the fact that it didn’t strike you over the head with the taste of truffle, but was deliciously subtle. This is the beauty of the white truffle.

Where to eat it: 13 Gobbi (Via Lando di Duccio 5, just inside the gate for
Montefollonico’s old town). Note:  Like all good salesman, the waiter can be prone to pushing the spendy bottles of wine on the men. If you aren’t in the upmarket for wine, don’t sweat it. In other words, if you aren’t ordering grilled meat, which would go nicely with a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, go instead for a Rosso di Montepulciano or a 1/4, 1/2 or full liter of red table wine (vino rosso di tavola).

2.  Cinghiale alla Mancianese

When we asked our waitress, Irina, about local specialties in the Manciano area in Maremma (a Tuscan sub-region in the south of the province, closer to Rome), she didn’t skip a beat in recommending the local wild boar. “We have lots of wild forest here. The boar is excellent,” she added, as if we needed any more encouragement.

When the dish arrived, it didn’t look like much. Looks can be deceiving. It was huge in the flavor department. Cooked in a redux of tomatoes, rosemary, bay leaf, sage, garlic and black olives, this wild boar was tender, juicy — as if pulled — and not gamy at all.

Where to eat it: Il Poderino Locanda, just outside Manciano on the road to Grossetto. This roadside restaurant was rather empty when we visited as it was late for lunch, but that didn’t stop them from taking great care with everything they served. Their own olive oil is also incredible.

3.  Picnic alla Toscana

In Italy, you can’t do much better than going straight to the source for ingredients that form the basis of so many great Italian dishes. We popped into the weekly market (Thursdays) in Montepulciano and stocked up a bit on smoked meats, cheeses, sundried tomatoes and tiny zucchini that grill perfectly with a splash of the local olive oil.

Tuscan Picnic - Montepulciano, Italy
A Tuscan picnic platter, fresh from the market.

Our picnic platter included: proscuitto parma (larger, more sweet), proscuitto toscana (smaller, more savory), aged pecorino (hard sheep cheese), fresh asiago (soft and flavorful cow cheese), fresh pecorino with pepperoncino, wild boar (cinghiale) salami, rucola and unbelievable larger-than-a-grape tomatoes. Even though our visit was past the prime for vegetables, the rucola was spicy and light and the tomatoes were so tasty and sweet it was like someone injected them with 100% addiction.

Perfect grazing, perfect appreciation of why Tuscan food is so tasty.

Where to find it: Almost every town features a weekly market, usually until around 1 PM. Trucks pull in selling cheese, meats, porchetta (cooked pork), vegetables, fruit and more. Montepulciano’s market is on Thursday, Pienza and Torrita di Siena host markets on Friday and Cortona has a small market on Saturday mornings.

4. Tortelli di Zucca

We always try and order something off the daily or weekly menu, as the offer usually corresponds to what’s coming fresh out of the garden. In Tuscany, in early October, this includes pumpkin. Large pillows of pasta stuffed with ground pumpkin and ricotta covered in a light cream sauce, topped with grated pecorino. Audrey, one of the world’s most notorious appreciators of stuffed pasta, was in heaven.

Tortelli di Zucca - Pitigliano, Italy
Tortelli stuffed with pumpkin – Pitigliano, Italy

Where to eat it: Trattoria La Pappal Pomodoro (Via Roma 92, Pitigliano). This small little trattoria was full of local construction workers and travelers the day we stopped by. Reasonably priced, friendly and high quality food.

5. Pici all’aglione

No, I don’t think you want to put cheese on that. Just try it without,” the owner scolded Dan after he asked for grated cheese to go with his pici (homemade, thick pasta common in the Montepulciano area) in garlic tomato sauce. Dan followed his advice and held off on the cheese. The “spice” in the sauce comes from the freshness of onion, garlic and tomato and in this sauce, it really deserved to be eaten without the incursion of a hard grated cheese.

Where to eat it: Trattoria La Pappal Pomodoro (Via Roma 92, Pitigliano).

6. Tagliolini cinghiale e porcini

Another special, but it was only served at night, so we skipped out on lunch and returned specifically for dinner. Freshly made flat pasta (similar to tagliatelle) tossed with fresh porcini mushrooms and chunks of wild boar meat.

Cosy Eating in Montefollonico - Tuscany, Italy
Tagliolini cinghiale e porcini in Montefollonico, Tuscany.

Where to eat it: La Botte Piena (Piazza d. Cinughi 12, Montefollonico). A cute little restaurant enoteca whose owner is exceptionally friendly and wine-obsessed. He visits a huge wine event every year in northern Italy to taste and procure wine for the coming year. The wine list is encyclopedic, featuring bottles to suit all palates and budgets.

7. Pici alla panna salsccia

Pure Italian comfort food – thick, homemade noodles with ground sausage and cream. Not for those who are watching their waistlines, but a great dish for a rainy autumn day.

Where to eat it: il Botteghino (outskirts of Montefollonico). This road side restaurant may not look like much, but it was filled with locals stopping by on their lunch break before heading home for siesta. Reasonably priced and friendly.

8.  Tagliatelle alla pecorino e pepe bianco

Made-that-day tagliatelle (flat pasta) in a light cream sauce and, with a dramatic flourish, tossed in a large, hollow round of pecorino (local sheep cheese) so that cheese fragments coat the pasta. The finishing touch: freshly ground white pepper. Exquisitely simple, balanced and delicious.

Tossing Pasta in a Pecorino Wheel - Montefollonico, Tuscany
Tagliatelle Tossed in a Pecorino Wheel

Where to eat it: 13 Gobbi (Via Lando di Duccio 5, just inside the gate for
Montefollonico’s old town
).

9.  Ravioli al Tartufo

Small, ricotta-filled ravioli tossed in an olive oil-based truffle sauce (contrast to the cream-based sauce as in #1 above). Although the truffle flavor is strong, it’s not overwhelming and is balanced nicely with the filling.

Ravioli in Truffle Sauce - Cortona, Italy
Ravioli in Truffle Sauce, Cortona

Where to eat it: Trattoria Dardano (Via Dardano 24, Cortona). This family restaurant attracts large groups of locals (love the “men only” tables) and travelers. Very reasonably priced.

10.  Caffe alla gas station

In Italy, even the roadside gas stations feature espresso machines and professional barristas. Coffee in Italy is exceptional, in general the best in the world. And the cups dosed up in gas stations cause coffee swoon: dark, creamy, rich, dessert-like. It is most often drunk standing up at the bar. If you happen to be roadtripping through Italy, be sure to check out the gas station stops for cheap and delicious espresso.

Roadside Coffee in Italy=Amazing
Coffe in Italy, a true art.

Where to eat it: Everyone probably knows about the coffee on the autostrada. Good stuff. But in the weeist, least impressive looking convenience store on the highway about one hour north of Rome, an outstanding espresso can be had for 0.70 Euro.

—–

And what about Tuscan wine to drink with all of these dishes?

Enjoying Some Montepulciano Wine - Montefollonico, Tuscany
Audrey Enjoys a Rosso di Montepulciano

House Wine (vino rosso di tavola or vino sfuso)

Most restaurants offer inexpensive house wine that you can order by the liter, half-liter (mezzo) or quarter liter (quarto). Although these are not often top-of-the-line wines, they usually open up after a few minutes and work well with pasta dishes. The cost is usually 4-7 Euros/liter.

After a few bottles here and there at restaurants, we found ourselves going for carafes of table wine. They are usually local wines and decent quality. This low-end selection also takes away the pressure and expense of choosing from a large, intimidating wine lists.

Montepulciano Wines

Rosso di Montepulciano: Although the rosso offers some structure, it’s the lighter of the two Montepulciano wines. It goes well with pasta and lightly grilled steak.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: This famous red wine of the region needs to age several years and decant for a while in order to appreciate its full flavor. It really goes best with heartier grilled meats, such as wild boar or pork.

Montalcino Wines

Rosso di Montalcino: Like it’s Montepulciano counterpart, this is a full wine but is not aged as long in barrels and uses lower-quality grapes than in its big brother, Brunello di Montalcino. Pair this with light, grilled meats and pasta.

Brunello di Montalcino: Probably the most famous wine in this region, Brunello is aged for a minimum of two years in Slavonian oak barrels and is often kept in the bottle for a few more years before being sold. This is a big wine (and usually features a big matching price tag). You may find yourself overpowering your pasta with it. Find a Florentine steak or other piece of grilled meat.

Maremma Wines

The wines in the Maremma region of Tuscany are less well-known than their northern counterparts. But we were fortunate to stay in the Manciano area and did some wine tasting at wineries and restaurants. We really enjoyed these wines for meals and drinking. They were less temperamental and easier to drink straight from the bottle.

White wine lovers, keep an eye out for white wine under the classification of bianco di Pitigliano. This wine can also be light and tasty, as we discovered during a tasting at Montauto winery.

More information coming soon on wine tasting and visiting wineries in this region.

Tucking into Tuscan Food

If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions, you can view our Tuscan food photo essay.

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Comments

  1. says

    Mmm, sounds delicious! I love that although Italians don’t understand vegetarianism there are so many delicious dishes without meat. Puglia is a fantastic foodie destination too – the antipasti are huge plates with tons of veggies and cheese.

  2. says

    @Erin: Very well said – Italians don’t “get” choosing not to eat meat, but their cuisine offers so many wonderful vegetarian alternatives. Now, if you were vegan that might be a bit tough with all the cheese and cream dishes.

    @Lola: And those porcini mushrooms weren’t even the biggest ones we saw! Yes,it is hard to beat Italy for food.

    @Laura: The roadside cafes or gas stations were great for cheap & good espressos but even most restaurants served espresso for about 1 Euro. They are small in quantity, but so rich that it’s like dessert.

  3. Chris Taylor says

    Hello Dan & Audrey,

    this post brought back to Susan and I wonderful memories of our first trip to Tuscany in 1993. We stayed in a converted cow byre below a typical Tuscan farmhouse. The guest book comments all recommended a meal at Da Toto’s ( i think it was called) in Rigomagno near Singalunga. we arrived at 12.30 for Sunday lunch….two carafes of local red and whte plonked in front of us…….no menu, bur dish upon dish of wonderful, seasonal and local produce.

    At the end of the meal. kilner jars of flavoured grappa are place on the table with the encouragement to try….wonderful fruit infused spirit I particularly remember. One group of fellow group of diner was a large extended family of locals. Everyone in the room was lively and found a way to communicate with us and our limited Italian. We were the only non locals. at one point i was encouraged to join the Italians and encouraged to drink a grappa which I was told would be very soft….quickly downed to the delight of the Tuscans as the mad Englishman drank the chilli flavoured drink! wonderful memories and as left we were given a bottle of the most amazing drink!
    Thanks for triggering the memory.Best wishes,
    Chris

  4. says

    Italy wasn’t at the top of my current travel list, since I’ve already made it there a few times, but these food pictures and descriptions are making me seriously consider moving it up a few spots. I’m drooling!

  5. says

    When I was in Italy I also had a couple of places ask me to hold off on the request for cheese – and though I really do love my pasta smothered in Parmesan, one of the best things about Italian food is the subtle flavors, so they’re right, sometimes it just tastes better without it! You have my mouth watering with all of these food descriptions, Italy is one of those places I don’t think you can ever visit too many times :)

  6. says

    @Chris: Thanks for sharing your memory – I can imagine the scene of tables of Italians gesticulating and cheering you on with the grappa. How wonderful.

    I love how many Italian restaurants ask you when you sit down, “Sparkling or flat water? Red or white wine?” So simple and so easy. That’s the great thing about Italian food – a focus on quality and simplicity.

    @Theresa: It had been about five years since our last visit to Italy and we probably would have put it off a few more years, but when the anniversary opportunity came up we decided to go. We were pleasantly surprised at how the region didn’t disappoint.

    @Shannon: The scolding from the restaurant owner in Pitigliano was a reminder to try everything before putting cheese, salt, pepper, etc. on it. The freshness of the ingredients almost jump out at you and sometimes the cheese compliments that and other times it covers it up.

    @Margo: It’s hard not to want to jump on a plane when reading about Italian food! Fortunately, we can find more ingredients in the States these days at Italian delis…but it still isn’t exactly the same.

  7. says

    The pictures made me so hungry! I totally love Italian food, even though I’m 0% Italian. I really want to try the pumpkin ravioli. The wine pictures make me sad I can’t have wine anymore, since I’m allergic to the preservatives.

  8. says

    @Jennifer: I don’t have any Italian blood in me (almost all German/Swiss) either and I’m also a fanatic for its food! Pumpkin-stuffed ravioli is really special – the pumpkin is slightly sweet, so it goes so well with a creamy/butter sauce. So delicious.

    I’m so sorry to hear that you can’t drink wines anymore because of your allergy. Perhaps enjoy a good cocktail before dinner instead :)

  9. says

    There’s nothing like a 3 hour meal while sitting on the balcony of a restaurant in a place like Montefollonico, looking out over the hills with wine glass in hand.

    Tuscany seems to have perfected not only the cuisine itself but even more so, the overall eating experience. It’s quite different than in some other countries where people are often rushed out of a restaurant and end up paying their bill while still chewing their last bite of food!

  10. says

    @Earl: It’s funny, I like quick food, as in street food and doner places that are simple, fresh and usually you eat standing up or at a type of picnic table. Or, I like the Italian style of sitting down for a long meal without looking at your watch and just enjoying another glass of wine or coffee for as long as you’d like. The in-between – sit down meal that is rushed because tables need to turn – really doesn’t do it for me anymore. It feels stressful.

  11. says

    Hi, I found you through the Daily Brainstorm. I’m originally from Tuscany (Grosseto) and all the wonderful pictures of food made me hungry…I love tartufo, and wild boar, too! I must start posting recipes of traditional Tuscan food…

  12. says

    @Cristina: Thanks for clicking over from the Daily Brainstorm and stopping by! I’m glad that our photos and descriptions made an Italian homesick – that’s a nice compliment for us! And, if you do decide to post traditional Tuscan recipes, please let us know. We’d love to learn how to cook some of these dishes ourselves (although it’s hard to get the same quality of ingredients).

  13. says

    @Spencer: The “best food in Italy” question is a toughie. Certainly, Tuscany is up there. Genoa/Liguria is good, too. In our experience, Bologna might possibly be the best on the mainland, and Sicily for drawing on the North Africa influence.

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