Thoughts of Tuscany's sun-washed vistas and verdant hillsides also bring to mind culinary indulgences washed down with sips of Chianti and Brunello. After having recently returned from a sojourn in the region, I can admit that it lives up to the hype.
But for food lovers raised on a steady diet of "Under the Tuscan Sun," Eataly and Williams-Sonoma catalogs, there is a little-known secret to keep in mind while perusing Airbnb for that perfect villa: Tuscan cuisine is, in its essence, simple, peasant-inspired fare.
That's not at all to say it's not delicious, because it is. But -- Italians would tend to agree with me on this -- its dishes don't garner the same gastronomic reputation as those from, say, Emilia-Romagna do.
What Tuscan cuisine does have is an approachability and an ease about it that lends itself to enjoying it in a convivial, relaxed setting. After all, the Slow Food movement got its start up the coast a few hundred miles in Piemonte. Beppe d'Andrea, who serves as global brand ambassador for Ruffino Winery, is also a leader of the Slow Food movement for the Chianti Classico region. Slow Food advocated eating locally and naturally long before "farm-to-table" was a buzzwordy phrase--and this movement also entails enjoying, protecting and celebrating local specialties.
"One of the most evocative culinary trends happening now in Tuscany is the culture of 'sharing' -- sharing experiences, moments, food," d'Andrea says. "This implies good food, friends, spending a long time at [the] table, and trading the formality of the food movement in favor of easiness and being more casual."
A spot that truly embodies the easy-breezy, communal food philosophy, says d'Andrea, is Il Mercato Centrale in Florence, launched in 2014. Think of it as the best food court you've ever been to--a treasure trove replete with 500 seats, 12 purveyors, a restaurant, pizzeria, beer house, coffee shop, cooking school, wine academy, bookshop and more, all housed in a 19th-century market building with contemporary designs and rotating art installments.
We toured the bustling market before sitting down to sample some of its offerings, from pizzas topped with olives and capers to lampredotto (sandwiches stuffed with the cow's fourth stomach that's been simmered with tomato, onion and celery). Lampredotto is a peasant food that dates back to the 15th century, and the purveyor at Il Mercato Centrale stayed busy doling out rolls full of the simmering meat and brodo, which has attained almost hipster status in the area.
Indeed, the most memorable meals during my trip to Tuscany were, gastronomically speaking, the most basic: fried sage leaves, tomato bruschetta, cured meats and ribollita (a "reboiled" soup made with leftover bread, cannellini and vegetables including carrot, cabbage and onion that has its origins in feudal days when servants would reboil the scraps leftover from banquets); bistecca alla Fiorentina, a T-bone steak grilled rare over wood or charcoal, seasoned with salt, black pepper and local olive oil and served with unsalted bread and olive oil-topped cannellini beans.
What all of these repas had in common is the carefree, communal nature they all took on, with a focus on ingredients and a total lack of pretension even in more formal settings. This aptly describes the culinary approach of so many regional chefs, including Stefano Frassineti, chef at Toscani da Sempre in Florence.
"I like to say the mine is a cuisine 'di affetti, non di effetti', that means emotional, sincere and not based on special effects," he explains. He goes on to add that while Tuscany--blessed with an abundance of great ingredients and traditional recipes--isn't quick to jump on the bandwagon of the latest trends, he has noticed more willingness lately for diners to linger over dishes both classic and contemporary.
Of course, there are Tuscan restaurants mashing up the traditional with the modern, like Da Pescatore in Florence, where dinner began with rice noodle-crusted shrimp lollipops on wooden skewers and then continued on with seared scallops and bacalla-stuffed cannelloni. Or La Leggenda dei Frati, the restaurant located in the Villa Bardini museum that dates back to 1641, with stellar views of Florence and the Arno River. Chef Filippo Saporito gave us a tour of the gardens--originally planted in the 13th century--before heading back to the kitchen to prepare a multi-course dinner of bucatini with asparagus purée and quail three ways.