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.
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.
How do you like our wild pig?
— A cook in Tuscany's Maremma region pauses to ask us one of life's burning questions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.