Most people traveling to Italy already have a long list of Italian food and drinks they want to try—gelato, pasta, espresso, wine, and, of course, pizza. But while the image of Italian cuisine is pretty homogeneous overseas, the reality is anything but. For starters, there is no “Italian” cuisine—there are only local dishes mostly defined by the traditions of centuries of peasant cooking (cucina povera). Recipes will vary entirely from one small hilltop hamlet, like Vinci and Radda in Chianti, to the bustling medieval towns of Montepulciano and Siena. There is one commonality though: all share the basic concept of simple, inexpensive dishes that could be made in large amounts and that let nothing go to waste. Nowadays, you can find all regional specialties all over Italy, but it’s still worth experiencing the local dishes. Here are 7 of Tuscany’s most traditional recipes worth trying.
Panini, Panini, Panini
Sandwiches in Italy aren’t the elaborate affairs that most tourists think they are; never are cold-cuts combined, and rarely is more than one sauce added (if any sauce). You can be creative, but most people working behind the counter will point you towards ideal pairings of cold cuts, cheeses, sauces, and maybe greens. One of the more traditional sandwich pairings you’ll find in Florence is prosciutto and schiacciata (a flat, salted bread similar to a foccaccia), followed closely by finocchiona (salami with fennel seed) between sliced Tuscan bread. And arguably the homiest of them all is the lampredotto sandwich, which is made from the fourth and final lining of the stomach of a cow. If you can stomach it (pun intended!) offal or organ meat is a must-try delicacy. Lampredotto is the traditional Florentine variety, and it’s the Italian equivalent of a blue-collar worker’s sloppy joe, today served in small chip trucks with a flavorful rustic sauce called salsa verde.
Tuscany is home to an endless reservoir of salamis, which you can typically find in a cheese and cold-cut platter called a tagliere. Depending on which town you’re ordering from though, different local cheeses and salamis will be featured (typically on marble-grained olive wood cutting boards, which is where the slang term tagliere comes from). Some will be familiar, like the evergreen prosciutto. Others, like the wild-boar variety that you’ll find in and near Siena, might be new. And still more, like Florence’s fennel seed finocchiona, will offer a fresh twist on a classic. Almost all cheese and cold-cut platters will serve a side of honey and/or savory jams to spread on your pecorino and parmesan cheeses.
Made of bread, beans, and vegetables, Ribollita soup is another peasant dish that literally translates to “reboiled.” The dish dates back to the Middle Ages, and little has changed apart from its freshness. Traditionally, when food was scarce, it was made with leftover bread crusts and leftover food that the palace servants would scrape off the plates of their lords and ladies. The leftover vegetable soup (minestrone) would be reheated, and any vegetables that could be eaten from the garden would be thrown in. Carrots, onions, potato—nothing was off-limits. The recipe was simple: “Non buttare via niente!” (Don’t throw anything away). The only unchanging variables, the three constants, is the Tuscan bread, cannellini beans, and Tuscan kale. Today, the ribollita you order in a restaurant is never reboiled, and is only made fresh, but the flavor is the same—if not even better. And if you’re traveling in the summer when it’s too hot for a soup, you can try panzanella, the summer salad version of a ribollita.
Everyone has been told a different myth as to why Tuscans don’t salt their bread, ranging from a Middle Ages feud between Florence and Pisa’s large port city, to scarcity of salt and its high price tag, to it evolving naturally as the perfect complement to Tuscany’s salt-heavy staples (Prosciutto, we’re looking at you!). Most likely though, the classic Tuscan bread (which isn’t so Tuscan, as its also a common staple in much of Umbria and Emilia-Romagna) was born out of a combination of all three. The Pisan embargo on salt likely limited more easily-accessibly reserves only to the wealthy, and the unsalted bread probably paired so well with the rest of the regional dishes that the tradition stuck. Some tourists might find it bland, some might find it refreshingly light. Either way, there’s no denying that it’s a delicious complement to the rest of Tuscany’s classic dishes—and even on it’s own, when drizzled with newly harvested olive oil.
While the diet of a Tuscan peasant was different from that of a Calabrian laborer in the south, cucina povera all over Italy embraced the concept of simple herbs and spices and fresh ingredients; of not letting anything edible go to waste; and of utilizing every technique to make the meal as tasty as possible. Our Flavors of Florence Food and Wine Tour is the perfect way to try a little bit of everything and learn more about the food of Tuscany. Italian food is so diverse and each region definitely has its own flavor profile, so be sure to try new things and enjoy all Italy has to offer. Enjoy the full list of food tours we offer and read more here.