There is probably no region in all of Italy as well known to American travelers as Toscana. The renaissance jewel box city of Florence probably drives most of this as many travelers recall the school days of art history 101, and Florence really delivers the goods with the Uffizi museum, Palazzo Pitti and Michelangelo’s David all very easily accessible. Just south of the city lay some of the most famous vineyards in the world, the Zona del Chianti Classico and, aside from the beautiful Tuscan countryside and the great wine tasting opportunities, there are many great dining options.
The food of Toscana is often deceptively simple, the following places vary from fancy to downright country and form a good cross section of some of my fave places to eat, but do not be afraid to follow your nose. As in most of rural Italy, the sign of a great place is the presence of the local workers, especially at lunch. Just 20 minutes south of Florence in a quick car there is the small town of San Casciano where a temple of Tuscan tradition called Antica Posta practices the art. Here you will find the classic simple cooking of the region replete with cavolo nero, the local black cabbage, as well as crostini toscani, zuppa di farro, brilliant local salumi and exquisite pici (handmade short spaghetti) with rabbit ragu.
Just 10 minutes down the road, in Cerbaia Val di Pesa, there is a special place named La Tenda Rossa. Not 100 percent traditional on the plate, the food is more the creative, freewheeling style I associate with Babbo. Delicious and intriguing, this is not the place for the fiorentina, but is exciting and stylish dining in a country setting.
Twenty miles southeast is the classic Chianti town of Greve where Domenico Baldi creates a blend of classic and modern cooking in a beautiful rustic setting with a defintive terrace view of the surrounding vineyards at Il Vescovino. For the pure classics da Padellina serves ribollita, pappardelle with wild boar and the classic fiorentina with simple trattoria style at quite easy prices. In Radda, where from the piazza you can easily see the vines of one of my favorite wineries in all of Toscana, Monte Vertine, there are two choices. The first, Vignale, is in a Relais et Chateaux hotel with classically flavored but modernly presented variations on la cucina Toscana. The second, Al Chiasso dei Portici, just outside of town, has a small menu of delicious country dishes including great salumi and the classic fennel scented pork roast “Arista Toscana”.
In Panzano there is a must stop for any serious meat lover at the butcher shop of a great friend of mine named Dario Checchini. His shop, Antica Maccelleria Checchini, is the fantasy of salted, cured and fresh meats with a theatrical setting and the very handsome and fascinating man himself presiding over the counter with advice and tastes for anyone with a smile. His torpedo sized soppressata lies on the counter, tempting you to take some on the road for a vineyard picnic… submit…..resistance is useless. In the piazza of Gaiole there is a mythic family run trattoria called lo Sfizio where all that is Tuscan comes together with a simplicity and family run pride that makes it one of my faves in all of Italy. The porchetta alone will bring you to your knees with tears of joy and near religious fervor, the wine list is an expression of the very soil and perfect for every dish on the menu. To the south, Siena…… Nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the main piazza in Siena….. nothing. Buon Appetito.