Surprise! Italian food isn’t, strictly speaking, “Italian food.” There are lots of similarities, but for the most part, each of Italy’s 20 regions serves up its own distinct cuisine. Tuscany is no exception. Many visitors book cooking tours through the region, but there’s no reason to miss out on the food if you remain in Florence. A food and wine tour offered by a passionate local, such as Curious Appetite, is a fantastic way to learn about the city’s most delicious nibbles. A tour is a great starting point, but make sure you don’t leave Florence without trying each item on this list.
The cuisine of Tuscany is known as cucina povera, or “poor kitchen,” and the bread of Florence embodies this concept. It’s said that in the 12th century, Florentines didn’t want to pay a salt tax to nearby rivals Pisa, and so they’ve been making their bread without it ever since. Much of the bread served in the city is bland, so the schiacciata is a lovely surprise. It’s a flat bread drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, much like what many of us know as focaccia. Try it stuffed with salumi and cheese for a mid-day snack.
If you’re looking for ultra-rich, ultra-sweet sweets, Florence bakeries might not be the place for you. This is a cuisine that uses olive oil rather than butter, after all. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pause and sample the treats those lovely little pasticceria are offering up. Stop in and pick up a bag of cantucci, tiny biscotti made with almonds. These twice-baked little gems are lovely dunked in your morning cappuccino or evening espresso (never, ever have your cappuccino after noon!) but even better if you dip them into the local dessert wine known as Vin Santo.
8. Zuppa di fagioli
Tuscans are known as “bean-eaters”, so don’t allow yourself to leave Florence without sampling at least one dish made with cannellini beans. Fagioli all’uccelletto is a popular side dish in the city. If you know a little Italian, don’t be alarmed – there are no birds, or uccelli, present in this dish. It consists solely of cannellini beans stewed in olive oil and tomatoes, with a bit of salt, garlic and sage to impart flavor. The dish may sound simple, or even boring, but it’s an excellent accompaniment to the roast meats prominent in Tuscan cuisine.
Spending your summer vacation in Florence? Be sure to try this local salad, which once again embraces the Tuscan tradition of “poor cooking.” Leftover, stale bread is used to create a delicious meal. The bread is soaked in water, then squeezed dry. Tomatoes, onions, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper are added to create the customary Florentine panzanella. The bread can be soaked in the vinegar or basil might be added to the finished product, but additional ingredients – capers, mozzarella, or lemon juice, just to name a few – are looked down on by those that embrace tradition.
Gelato is not confined to Tuscany. Nor is there a particular “spin” given to it in Florence (although some say it was born there). But it’s not possible to spend time in this city and not be confronted with heaps upon heaps of creamy gelato, enticing the weary tourist to stop for refreshment. Don’t fall for it! The best gelato is handmade in small batches, and there are no vivid pinks or bright greens to be found. Look for small stores displaying nothing but covered tubs, and do your best to sample what’s in season.
Whereas you’d eat panzanella in the summer, come winter you’re more likely to find ribollita on the menu (don’t worry; gelato can be consumed year-round). This dish, whose name means “reboiled”, might best be described as a soup, but the texture is ultimately much thicker than even a stew. Ribollita is yet another Tuscan dish with roots in cucina povera, as it originated as a use for the previous day’s minestrone and was thickened with day-old bread. You might not expect it from a dish composed of stale bread, kale, carrots, tomatoes and other assorted vegetables, but it’s remarkably tasty.
4. Pappardelle with cinghiale sauce
Cinghiale, or wild boar, is a bit of thing in Florence – there’s even a fountain featuring one in the city’s New Market. You’ll often find pasta with wild boar sauce chalked up on the menu boards scattered around the city. Foreigners might find this a bit outside of their comfort zone, but if you’re one that enjoys pig, you’ll definitely love this gamier version, which ups the flavors of a pork ragu. The sauce is most likely served over pappardelle, a rather wide noodle favored in Tuscany, although sometimes it will be served over tagliatelle, a noodle which resembles fettuccine.
3. Olive Oil
Many of the olive trees in the groves surrounding Florence are said to be around 600 years old, and those ancient limbs are the ones that provide the tastiest fruit. In Tuscany, olive oil isn’t a luxury, but rather a necessity, present at every meal. And like wine, olive oil differs based on climate, growing conditions, the soil, and other factors. Olive oil from Tuscany has a more delicate taste than those from further south, although the flavors vary even from town to town. Stop in at shops around Florence and it’s likely the proprietors will let you sample a few!
2. Bistecca alla Fiorentina
This Florentine dish is for serious carnivores only. But no matter how much you love meat, don’t attempt to tackle this one alone! Bistecca alla Fiorentina is a T-bone steak that typically weighs in at well over a pound, brought to diners with the meat hanging over the edges of the plate. The beef comes from the local Chianina cattle and the steak is meant to be served rare – this is where that bland Tuscan bread is a perfect accompaniment, allowing diners to soak up all the juices. Those juices are the only “sauce” you’ll find on this steak, but the meat is so delicious you’ll need nothing else.
Hands down, the dish you absolutely must eat when visiting Florence. If you have squeamish members of your party, just don’t tell them that lampredotto is made of the fourth cow’s stomach. If you yourself are unadventurous, you’ll forget all about the fact that you’re consuming tripe once it melts in your mouth. This ultimate “poor kitchen” dish is available in restaurants, but is often best at one of Florence’s food stalls or carts. There it is typically served as a sandwich, with the lampredotto layered inside crusty bread that’s been dipped in the broth the meat was cooked in.