Tuscan cooking, with its emphasis on simple dishes using fresh, quality, local ingredients, has had a seminal influence on Italian cuisine. Classic Tuscan antipasti are peasant fare: bruschetta is stale bread, toasted and dressed with oil and garlic; crostini is toast and pâté. Olive oil is the essential flavouring, used as a dressing for salads, a medium for frying and to drizzle over bread or vegetables and into soups and stews just before serving.
Soups are very popular – Tuscan menus always include either ribollita, a hearty stew of vegetables, beans and chunks of bread, or zuppa di farro, a thick soup with spelt (a barley-like grain). Pappa col pomodoro (bread and tomato soup) is also good, while fish restaurants serve cacciucco, a spiced fish and seafood soup. White cannellini beans (fagioli) are another favourite, turning up in salads, with pasta (tuoni e lampo), with sausages in a stew (fagioli all’uccelletto), or just dressed with olive oil. Tuscany is not known for its pasta, but many towns in the south serve pici, thick, hand-rolled spaghetti with toasted breadcrumbs. Meat is kept plain, often grilled, and Florentines profess to liking nothing better than a good bistecca alla fiorentina (rare char-grilled steak), or the simple rustic dishes of arista (roast pork loin stuffed with rosemary and garlic) or pollo alla diavola (chicken flattened, marinated and then grilled with herbs). Hunters’ fare such as cinghiale (wild boar) and coniglio (rabbit) often turns up in hill-town trattorias.
Spinach is often married with ricotta and gnocchi, used as a pasta filling, and in crespoline (pancakes) or between two chunks of focaccia and eaten as a snack. Sheep’s milk pecorino is the most widespread Tuscan cheese (best in Pienza), but the most famous is the oval marzolino from the Chianti region, which is eaten either fresh or ripened. Dessert menus will often include cantuccini, hard, almond-flavoured biscuits to be dipped in a glass of Vinsanto (sweet dessert wine); Siena is the main source of sweet treats, including almond macaroons and panforte, a rich and very dense cake full of nuts and fruit.
Tuscany has some of Italy’s finest wines. Three top names, which all bear the exclusive DOCG mark (and price tags to match), are Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – not the sort of thing you’d knock back at a trattoria. There are dozens of other Chianti varieties, most of them excellent, but it can be difficult to find a bargain. Both Montalcino and Montepulciano produce rosso varieties that are more pocket-friendly, and other names to look for include Carmignano and Rosso delle Colline Lucchesi. Two notable whites are dry Vernaccia di San Gimignano and the fresh Galestro.