Tuscany is one of the most beautiful and culturally rich regions not just in Europe, but in the world. People across the globe visit the region to marvel at its architecture, study its artwork, and simply to walk the streets that were walked centuries ago by some of the greatest and most pioneering minds that the world has ever known – da Vinci, Michelangelo and Dante to name a few.
But there’s one other thing that is never far from the minds of visitors, and that is the food! If you’re looking for villas for rent in Tuscany, and you’re keen to experience all of the culinary excellence and versatility that the region offers, it’s worth knowing that Italian food as we know it is often quite different from how it is prepared in the kitchens of restaurants and households in Italy. So it’s a good idea to do some research in advance, so that you arrive with a basic knowledge of traditional Italian dishes and eating habits and make the most of the opportunity you have to explore the wonders of this world famous cuisine.
All of the above is true wherever you go in Italy, but it is especially true for visitors to Tuscany. This ancient and celebrated region is proud of its traditions and customs, so food served in restaurants here is usually even more untouched by the influence of outside forces than elsewhere in Italy – and even closer to the traditional, authentic recipes that Italians have been using in their homes and trattorias for many decades and even centuries.
The Italian Meal Structure
The first thing to understand about traditional Italian cuisine is that the basic meal structure which serves as the underlying model for Italian meals is quite different from formal meal structures in the English speaking world, which tend to revolve around a simple starter – main course – dessert model.
In a formal meal in Italy, antipasto – a selection of meats, cheeses and vegetables – is followed by two smaller main courses, with a vegetable side dish and then a salad before dessert. As a result, when visiting Tuscany, you can expect to see Primo (the first main course) and Secondo (the second main course) listed on restaurant menus, rather than simply ‘mains’. The Primo dishes will likely be centred around either pasta, risotto or gnocchi; the secondo will most probably be predominately about meat or fish.
Those who have eaten in more traditional style Italian restaurants outside of Italy will probably be familiar with this concept; and, whilst in a traditional formal dinner both courses are usually taken in smaller portions, it is the customary norm even in restaurants in Italy to order either primo or secondo as your sole main course – and portion sizes are naturally slightly larger!
Almost all restaurants you eat at in Tuscany will be serving Italian food according to traditional recipes, and not ones that have been influenced by foreign culinary practices and innovations. This can sometimes come as quite a shock to some tourists, so it’s worth knowing what to expect before you go.
Many dishes we consider to be Italian classics are in fact quite different from the traditional dishes they’re based upon. Spaghetti Bolognese, for example, is a dish that has largely been pioneered outside of Italy. It is based on the Bolognese ragu, but its use of fresh tomatoes, garlic and herbs makes it much more like a Neapolitan ragu from the south of Italy – so diners ordering Bolognese may be surprised by the rich and meaty nature of the authentic version, and the fact that it is always served with tagliatelle and not spaghetti.
Other examples of such differences occur in famous and popular dishes like carbonara, which is made without garlic or cream, and bruschetta, which is usually simply grilled bread with garlic and olive oil – with the optional addition of fresh tomatoes.
All of these classic Italian dishes are almost always served according to the traditional recipes in ristorantes and trattorias across Tuscany, yet it’s quite uncommon to find them prepared this way outside of Italy. If you know about the differences in advance and know what to expect, the element of surprise will be removed – and you’ll be able to enjoy the simple but delicious flavours of fresh, quality, local ingredients prepared according to recipes which have stood the test of time!
Tuscans are as proud as any Italians of their regional produce and their special regional dishes. Focaccia is a popular Tuscan flatbread that you’ll see on the menus of pizzerias and other informal eateries, and being sold as street food from kiosks. It is a salty bread and is great for breakfast or lunch.
Perhaps the most significant of Tuscany’s regional specialities is the famous bistecca alla fiorentina. A Florentine dish, it consists of a T-bone from a two year old Chianina ox and is rapidly grilled over a charcoal fire, causing the outside to become well done while the interior remains rare. The dish is usually served by cutting the steak into strips and presenting it on a large sharing plate, making it perfect for large groups.
Many people are surprised on arriving in Tuscany to discover that many of their favourite Italian dishes are served quite differently from how they are at home, but with some background research before setting off, you’re guaranteed to have a culinary adventure that will reinvigorate and extend your love of Italian food!