Are you planning a trip to Tuscany, or maybe just dreaming about one? Any trip to Italy is defined by the food you eat while there. Food (along with wine) is at the heart of Italian culture. Italian life and history all begins at the dinner table, so to understand this magnificent country you need to understand the cuisine.
First it is important to understand that food here is entirely regional. It is not like “Italian Food” in America, which is typically made up of heavy pasta dishes drowned in cheese and sugary tomato sauce, and doesn’t vary much no matter where you are.
One thing I have learned from years of private tour guiding is that many travelers expect to find lasagna, fettucine alfredo, baked ziti and foods like that everywhere we go. Fettucine alfredo is American, not Italian. Lasagna, although readily available at tourist restaurants is not a national food, and I have never seen baked ziti anywhere in Italy!
My book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy: Secrets To Glamorous Travel (On A Not So Glamorous Budget) has an entire section on foods and wines by region, and tells you what to order, where. The food is vastly different in Florence and Rome for example, and you don’t want to miss out on an incredible local dish because no one told you! My new book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome tells you all about what to order in the Eternal City, and goes into much more depth.
If you are heading to Tuscany (ever) you need to know about the cuisine and what you absolutely must try while you are there. Tuscan cuisine is one of my personal favorites. Known as cucina povera, (poor people’s food), Tuscan food is locally sourced (nostrale or ours) tends to be quite simple with few ingredients. It started as a cuisine forced by economy or poverty but has remained that way by choice.
The Top 14 Tuscan Foods You Need To Know
I spend a great deal of time in Tuscany and just love the food there! You see provincial differences as you travel across the region but the following foods tend to be available in most areas and are definitely worth seeking out. Lets start with cheeses:
Every local market will have vendors selling slices of pecorino from giant wheels. It is fantastic on its own or drizzled with a little local honey. I also love the piquant pecorino with peppers or chilis, and the pecorino tartufo flavored with local truffles.
One of my friends serves this every time I come for dinner. Don’t confuse Tuscan ricotta with the stuff you buy here at the supermarket – that’s like comparing a beat up ’81 Fiat Panda with a tricked out brand new Ferrari. The 2 ricottas share a name only.
You can find fresh Tuscan ricotta at local markets as well as on the menu in many restaurants. Ideally you want fresh ricotta from the farm. It almost looks like a cake or a jello mold, and you slice it and drizzle fresh local honey over it. Sometimes it is sprinkled with nuts. You will be hooked at first bite – it is unbelievably good!
One of the reasons I just love being in Tuscany in the winter or early spring/late fall is because of their hearty soups. Even in the summer if we get an overcast or rainy day I always find my way to a bowl of Tuscan soup. Both the soups below are very traditional and in my opinion can also be filed under Tuscan comfort foods.
3. Pappa al Pomodoro
You can’t get more cucina povera than this soup! Yesterday’s leftover oven baked bread, olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes. Sometimes it has more of a mush than soup consistency, but however it comes it is incredible.
This is another peasant soup that will fill you up and warm your soul. This time yesterday’s leftover oven baked Tuscan bread is mixed with cannellini beans and vegetables.
5. Fagioli con Salsiccia
This is a soup made of beans and sausage, normally a local spicy sausage.
Every area within Tuscany has its own breads, and really, you should try as many as you can! Before you panic about gluten and swelling up from eating carbs – don’t worry it’s all good! Unlike here in the U.S. wheat in Italy is uncompromised. They don’t have Monsanto filling the wheat with pesticides and they don’t have GMO’s, so even the most sensitive digestive systems seem to do just fine. Personally, I can’t eat bread in the USA, I swell up, get an upset tummy and feel like hell. In Italy I can eat it every day with no problems.
I love buying breads at local markets to take home to my apartment, but if you’re not doing the vacation rental thing at least make sure you always at least try the bread in restaurants.
Before we leave breads behind you need to know about this bread salad. Once again it uses yesterday’s bread, this time soaked in olive oil, mixed with fresh tomatoes and basil and dressed in olive oil with maybe a little vinegar. I’ve had it with olives in there too – I think it varies depending on where you go. Sometimes when lunching at friends’ homes they have served up variations on the traditional panzanella with sliced red onion, cucumber and lettuce. However it is served, it’s fantastic!
Each area of Italy has its own types of pasta. The size and shape of any given pasta is based on the type of sauce it is served with. One traditionally Tuscan pasta that you will find on almost every restaurant menu is pappardelle. This is a wide, ribbon type pasta, served with heavier meat sauces.
Tagliatelle is another local pasta seen on menus everywhere. Also found all over neighboring Emilia-Romagna, tagliatelle is a narrower ribbon than pappardelle.
8. Pappardelle con Cinghiale
This is the king of pastas in Tuscany! Cinghiale is wild boar, the taxidermied versions of which you see everywhere. Don’t panic – it doesn’t taste gamey, it’s just incredibly hearty. Every restaurant has its own recipe and way of preparing its cinghiale, so you can have it every day (as my son has done) and never have it quite the same way twice. This is really, really good, and if I were to recommend only one traditional Tuscan food for you to try, Cinghiale would be it.
9. Tagliatelle con Tartufo
Tuscany is truffle country, so when truffles are in season you will find this dish everywhere. Again, each restaurant seems to have their own recipe, so you can eat it everywhere you go and it will always be different, but also will always be super good.
About pastas: I’ve seen cinghiale served with either pappardelle or tagliatelle, so it may also be a restaurant’s personal preference.
Italians typically eat multiple courses, way more than I can handle. If I am ordering pasta I normally don’t order anything else. That bowl alone will fill you. Also, if planning on ordering pasta I exercise extreme caution with the antipasti when it comes out – it is so easy to fill up snacking on meats and cheeses and olives!
10. Bistecca Fiorentina
You will see giant steaks in restaurant windows all over Florence and nearby town. These are the famous steaks from the Chiana Valley. Each one is 3 to 4 lbs on its own – they really are enormous! So big in fact that they not only cook them front and back but also on the sides. If you are a meat eater this is a must try food.
This is a Tuscan fish stew, and you are more likely to find it closer to the coast, especially around Livorno. Traditionally it has 5 different types of seafood, from fish to shellfish, one for each C in the name. Fishermen would clean out their boat at the end of market day, and whatever was left in the bottom would be thrown into Cacciucco. The stew would have broth, garlic, pepper flakes and red wine vinegar and would be served over toasted bread.
To this day it is served the same way, the bread soaking up the broth. If you love seafood, this one is amazing.
12. Tuscan Pizza
Pizza is different everywhere you go in Italy, from the chewy base in Napoli to Rome’s super thin crust to Tuscany’s not-quite-as-thin crust. Always cooked in a wood burning oven, you have to try pizza in Tuscany at least once. This could not be more different to typical American pizza. Not drowned in sugary tomato sauces, and not weighed down by heavy melted cheese, Tuscan pizzas tend to be fresh and light.
Don’t expect American pepperoni – pepperoni in Italian means giant bell peppers. Don’t be surprised to see raw rocket (arugula) scattered across the top of a pizza. It tastes so amazing!
Most of the time you won’t find pizza served at lunchtime. Pizza is prepared in wood burning domed ovens that take hours to heat up to the correct temperature of 485 Celcius/905 Fahrenheit. When thinking about having pizza plan it for no earlier than 8:30 at night, and ideally at a restaurant with an outdoor patio.
My favorite evenings in San Gimignano are spent on the terrace at Il Trovatore around a large table with my Glam Italia Tour ladies or local friends, eating their insanely good pizza, drinking jugs of wine, and talking all night long.
I have 2 favorite sweet foods in Tuscany, one is a day time food and one happens at the end of a long, satisfying Tuscan dinner.
This is not a strong bread (pan-forte), it is a spicy cake. Its origins date back to 1205 when servants had to take it as gifts to the nuns of Montecelso Abbey in Siena. Overtime it became a Christmas gift to the nuns and a treat aristocrats would enjoy on special occasions. Made from sugar and honey and nuts and dried fruits with pepper and spices (cloves, ginger, cinnamon) panforte is typically cooked in a shallow pan, dusted with powdered sugar, and served in narrow slices with coffee.
This is a Sienese specialty, and in my humble opinion it is a crime to go to Siena (or Florence) and not at least try it. Panforte is my favorite thing – I love it with coffee in the morning. Despite the sugar and honey it is a guilt free food because you walk so much over there you burn it off before lunch!
Note: you can actually eat it all day and night. The morning thing is just my favorite. If I allow myself one sweet thing, in a toss-up between having a gelato at some point in the day or a slice of panforte, the panforte will always win.
At the end of a long Tuscan dinner you may be served with a couple of cantucci and a short glass of dense dessert wine called vin santo.
Cantucci are small crunchy almond cookies that look like mini biscotti. (The word for cookie in Italian is biscotti, so if you want to get technical, they are biscotti). You dip the cantucci (or cantuccio?) into the vin santo ad then take in your final calorie hit of the day, as if your tummy wasn’t already about to explode.
I have learned over the years that I cannot eat like an Italian. As in I can’t do all the courses they do. I’m good with just antipasti! Truth be told, on most nights out in Tuscany I don’t have room for cantucci unless I have planned it in advance. If you, like me, feel like you cannot possibly ingest even one more mouthful, then I am sorry my friend because at least once while you are there you’re going to have to take one for the team and at least try cantucci and vin santo
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