The genius of Tuscan and Umbrian cooking is in its simplicity. Fancy sauces aren't needed to hide the food because Tuscans use pure, strong flavors and the freshest of ingredients. The great dishes are in fact very basic: homemade ribbons of egg pasta in hare sauce, game or free-range domestic animal meats grilled over wood coals, and beans simmered in earthenware pots.
The most prominent cooking additives are wine and olive oil. Tuscan and Umbrian oil is some of the finest in the world -- especially oil produced around Lucca, close to the hill village of Castagneto Carducci, and around the Umbrian Vale of Spoleto -- and comes in several gradients depending on the level of acidity. The more the olives are bruised before being pressed, the higher the acidity will be, which is why most olive picking is still done by delicate hands and not brutish machines. We don't know why they bother classifying some oils as vergine, fino vergine, or soprafino vergine, because no self-respecting Italian would use anything but extra vergine (extra virgin), some of which is rated DOC and DOCG, just like wine . Olives are harvested and pressed in October, and the oil is best fresh.
Another popular, and expensive, Tuscan and Umbrian garnish is the tartufo, or truffle. It's a fungal tuber (read: mushroom) that grows inexplicably around the roots of certain trees in certain soils under certain conditions that have for centuries baffled a food industry desperate to farm these lucrative little buggers.
Natural truffles come in both black (rare) and white (exceedingly rare) varieties, and they turn up in only very few areas of the world. Tuscany and Umbria are blessed to have both kinds growing underfoot, the black in many areas, especially Spoleto, and the white around San Miniato in Tuscany and Gubbio in Umbria. Fall is truffle season.
We have separated restaurant listings throughout this guide into four price categories, based on the average cost of a meal per person, including tax and service charge but not including drinks. The categories are Very Expensive, more than 50€; Expensive, 25€ to 49€; Moderate, 15€ to 24€; and Inexpensive, less than 15€. (Note, however, that individual items in the listings -- primi, for instance -- do not include the sales or service taxes.)
Tuscan & Umbrian Cuisine
Antipasto -- The classic Tuscan appetizer is an antipasto misto, which simply means "mixed." It usually entails affettati misti and crostini misti, both of which can be ordered alone as well. The former is a plate of sliced cured meats and salami, like prosciutto (salt-cured ham), capocollo (meaty pork salami), finocchiona (capocollo with fennel seeds), and sopressata (gelatinous headcheese -- better than it sounds). Crostini are little rounds of toast spread with various pâtés, the most popular being di fegatini (chicken liver flavored with anchovy paste and capers) and di milza (spleen), though you'll also often get mushrooms, tomatoes, a cheesy sauce, or (especially in Umbria) a truffle paste.
Another popular appetizer is simple bruschetta (in Tuscany often called fettunta), a slab of peasant bread toasted on the grill, rubbed with a garlic clove, drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkled with coarse salt -- order it al pomodoro for a pile of cubed tomatoes and torn basil leaves added on top. In summer, you'll also be offered panzanella, a kind of cold salad made of stale bread soaked in cold water and vinegar mixed with diced tomatoes, onions, and basil, all sprinkled with olive oil. A pinzimonio is a selection of raw vegetables (celery, fennel, peppers, and the like) with olive oil in which to dip them.
Primi -- Tuscan first courses come in three types. Of the zuppa or minestra (soup), the top dog is ribollita, literally "reboiled," because it's made the day before and reboiled before serving. It's a chunky soup closer to a stew than anything else. The prime ingredients are black cabbage, bean purée, and whatever vegetables Mamma taught you to add in poured over stale peasant bread. Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup) can mean either this or a soupier breadless alternative.
Pasta is the most famous Italian primo, and in Tuscany the king is pappardelle alla lepre (very wide egg noodles in a strong-flavored sauce of wild hare). From somewhere around Siena and south, every town has its own name for the simple homemade pasta that's basically durum wheat mixed with water and rolled between the hands into chewy fat spaghetti. In Siena province, it's called pici or pinci; around Orvieto, order umbrichelli; and in Assisi or Spoleto, call it stringozzi (or some variant there of). It's usually served in a basic tomato sauce or alla carrettiera (a tomato sauce spiked with peperoncini hot peppers).
Other typical pasta dishes are penne strascicate (a tomato-and-cream ragù) and strozzapreti, "priest stranglers," because clerics would supposedly choke on these rich ricotta-and-spinach dumplings (sometimes called gnudi -- nude since they're basically ravioli filling without the clothing of a pasta pocket).
Secondi -- Tuscans are unabashed carnivores, and the main course is almost always meat, usually grilled. Italians like their grilled meat as close to raw as rare can get, so if you prefer it a bit more brown, order your bistecca ben cotta (well done, which just might get you something close to medium).
The king is the mighty bistecca alla fiorentina, traditionally made from thick T-bone steak cut from the sirloin and enveloping the tenderloin of the snow-white muscular cattle raised in the Chiana valley, although lately the meat is just as often imported. This is grilled over glowing wood coals, then brushed with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with cracked black pepper. So simple, so good. The steaks average 1 to 2 inches thick and weigh about 3 to 4 pounds.
More everyday secondi are grigliata mista (mixed grill that may include lamb, sausage, chicken, or steak), arista (they usually leave off the di maiale because this dish invariably consists of slices of roast pork loin), fritto misto (mix of chicken, lamb, sweetbreads, artichokes, and zucchini dipped in bready egg batter and deep-fried in olive oil), and any wild game, especially cinghiale (wild boar), which is often cooked in umido (stewed with tomatoes), as well as domesticated game like coniglio (rabbit) and anatra (duck). They cook pollo (chicken) arrosto (roasted), alla diavola (with hot spices), or al mattone (cooked under the weight of a hot brick), but usually tend to dry it out in doing so. A lombatina di vitello is a simple veal chop, prepared in myriad ways.
One Tuscan specialty to which Florentines are particularly beholden is trippa (tripe, the stomach lining of a cow), most popularly served as trippa alla fiorentina, tripe strips or cubes casseroled with vegetables and topped with tomato sauce and parmigiano. Cibrèo is another local Florentine dish -- a mix of cockscombs and chicken livers mixed with beans and egg yolks and served on toast.
Aside from fresh fish, both Tuscans and Umbrians make widespread use of baccalà, salt-cured cod they soften in water before cooking and often serve alla livornese (cooked with tomatoes and other veggies in white wine and olive oil, occasionally with some tripe thrown in for good measure).
Contorni -- Tuscans are called the mangiafagioli (bean-eaters) by other Italians. And fagioli here, the Italian word for beans in general, almost invariably means white cannellini beans (sometimes red kidney beans or green broad beans will show up, increasingly as you get into Umbria). However, a simple plate filled with nothing but fagioli or fagioli in fiasco, cooked al dente with a liberal supply of olive oil poured on and ground black pepper for taste, is somehow divine within Tuscany's borders. For something zestier, order fagioli all'uccelletto, in which the beans are stewed with tomatoes, garlic, and sage.
Any other vegetable -- melanzane (eggplant), pomodoro (tomato), carciofi (artichokes), or peperone (bell pepper) -- is usually sliced thin, grilled, and served swimming in olive oil. About the only other side dish central Italians turn to is patate (potatoes), either arrosto (roasted and covered with olive oil and rosemary) or fritte (the increasingly popular french fries).
Dolci -- Tuscany's best sweet is the dreamy gelato, a dense Italian version of ice cream, which you should ideally get at a proper gelateria and not in a restaurant. The main dish to have after dinner, however, is cantucci con vin santo. Cantucci, or biscotti di Prato in that town most famed for them, are the Tuscan variant on the twice-baked hard almond crescent cookies called biscotti, usually eaten by dunking them in a small glass of the sweet dessert wine vin santo.
Panforte is a very dense fruitcake. (One of Siena's specialties, pan pepato, is its medieval predecessor, with more exotic spices including black pepper added into the sweetness.) A castagnaccio is a dense cake made of chestnut flour and topped with pine nuts; necci are chestnut-flour crepes; and a zuccotto is a concentration of calories in the form of sponge cake filled with semifreddo moussed chocolate, cream, candied fruit, and nuts. Other cookies are ricciarelli of honeyed marzipan (a sugar/honey almond paste), brutti ma buoni (ugly but good chewy almond-sugar cookies), and ossi dei morti (bones of the dead -- light, crumble-in-your-mouth matrices of sugar).
What to Drink
Tuscany and Umbria have been wine country for thousands of years, and the region is the most famous wine zone in Italy.
To Italians, wine is the obvious only choice of beverage with dinner, so in most restaurants your only decision will be rosso o bianco (red or white). Unless you want to celebrate some special occasion or are in the mood to expand your connoisseurship, the vino della casa (house wine) will almost invariably do wonderfully. Sparkling wine, called spumante, is usually imported from other Italian zones (the most famous of which are Asti and the Valdobbiadene, which produces the best prosecco). Those refraining from alcohol for personal or health reasons needn't worry -- you won't be met with scowls or discouragement if all you order is a bottle of mineral water; wine consumption is expected at meals but certainly not required.
To test out a few glasses without the full meal, drop by an enoteca, a wine shop or wine bar, where you can often sample before you buy (any regular bar will also pour you a glass of house wine for 2€ to 3€). When tooling around the wine-heavy countryside of Tuscany or Umbria, any sign that touts vendita diretta means the owner of those vines will sell to you direct.
Classifications -- Italy's wine fall into four main classifications. DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines are those that a government board guarantees have come from an official wine-producing area and that meet the standard for carrying a certain name on the label. A vino di tavola (table wine) classification merely means a bottle doesn't fit the pre-established standards for the other classifications, and is not necessarily a reflection of the wine's quality. However, vino da tavola is generally used for what it was originally intended to mean: simple, hearty, tasty table wines that go well with any meal but probably won't send wine snobs into ecstasies of flowery poetic description.
In 1980, a new category was added. DOCG (the G stands for Garantita) is granted to wines with a certain subjective high quality. Traditionally, DOCG labels were merely the highest-profile wines that lobbied for the status (getting DOC or DOCG vastly improves reputations and therefore sales, though the costs of putting up the wine annually for testing are high). In 1992, the laws were rewritten and Italy's original list of six DOCG wines (three of which were Tuscan) jumped to 15; the count now stands at 47. Eight of these are Tuscans (Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, Chianti, in several varieties, Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Morellino di Scansano, and Aleatico dell'Elba) and two are Umbrian (Sagrantino di Montefalco and Torgiano Rosso Riserva).
Many respectable producers have experimented by mixing varietals with French grapes, such as cabernet and chardonnay, to produce wines that, though complex and of high quality, don't fall into the conservative DOC system. The category known as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) has since 1992 generally been applied to these, as well as to good quality "regional" wines that don't meet any specific DOC criteria. Among this classification, the highbred wines became known as Supertuscans: There's no guaranteeing the quality of these experimental wines, yet most self-respecting producers won't put on the market a failure or something undrinkable. If you come across a 30€ bottle with a fanciful name marked as an IGT, it's probably a Supertuscan -- or aspires to be.
Perhaps the highest-profile Supertuscan is Sassicaia, a huge and complex cabernet blend that lives for decades and is priced accordingly. It's produced by a single estate near the coast south of Livorno and, despite the popular status of more well-known wines such as Brunello, is perhaps Italy's finest red wine. The cabernet grapevines used here were transplanted from the Château Lafite in the 1940s.
The practical upshot of all this is that DOC and DOCG wines represent the best of traditional wine formulas. IGT wines are for unique wines from even smaller specific areas or single vintners, and this is one of the fastest growing categories among the better wines and extraordinary one-offs.
Tuscan Wines -- Undoubtedly, Italy's most famous wine is the easygoing and versatile chianti, traditionally produced all around central Tuscany. The Chianti Classico zone of the tall hills between Florence and Siena produces the oldest, most balanced blends; it was the world's first officially established wine area in 1716. In the 19th century, a more exacting formula for chianti was worked out in the hills between Siena and Florence by Baron Ricasoli, with 75% to 90% sangiovese with other local grapes thrown in to mellow it out and make it more drinkable. Only recently were the DOCG laws controlling chianti relaxed to allow fully sangioveto chiantis to be produced, and today, a Chianti Classico can have anywhere from 70% to 100% sangiovese, often rounded out with an imported cru such as cabernet, merlot, or pinot nero. This has led to a surge in the quality and full-bodiedness of chianti, moving most of it from being a knockabout good table wine to a complex, structured, heavyweight contender in annual wine fairs. Although quality still varies, it's usually thoroughly reliable and is one of the best everyday wines produced anywhere.
Other Chianti DOC zones are Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Florence's table wine; Chianti Colli Senesi, the largest zone, filling in gaps around Siena where yield regulations keep them from growing Brunello, Vino Nobile, or Vernaccia (the chianti can be very good but is unreliable); Chianti Colli Aretine, a mellow edition; Chianti Colline Pisane and Chianti Montespertoli, the featherweight contenders; Chianti Montalbano, the juicy-fruits of the gang; and Chianti Rúfina -- not to be confused with Ruffino, one of the biggest Chianti Classico houses -- which flexes its muscle east of Florence to make chiantis of some complexity and style.
Tuscany's powerhouse red wine -- and, depending on whom you ask, the number-one or number-two wine in all of Italy -- is Brunello di Montalcino. It was developed in the 18th century when the Biondi-Santi vineyards were hit with a fungus that left only the dusty slate-blue sangiovese grosso grapes alive. It was the first wine to be granted DOCG status. Brunello is 100% sangiovese grosso, aged for 4 years (5 for the riserva labels), most of it in oak barrels. It's a deep-ruby elixir of remarkable complexity, a full mouth feel, long flavors, and usually a good deal of tannins. It needs steak or game dishes to let it shine; for a lighter-weight adventure try the Rosso di Montalcino, a younger, fruitier version.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is Tuscany's other long-respected red, a deep-garnet liquid that rolls around the tongue with a lasting flavor of fruits, violets, and damp soil. It's good paired with meats but also with fruit, bread, and cheese on a picnic. Significantly cheaper than Brunello, it's a less complex but more versatile wine.
Two of the oldest wine zones, also founded in 1716, border Florence, and both have made use of French grapes since the 18th century. The tiny DOC Pomino zone to the east of Florence (abutting Chianti Rúfina territory) mixes cabernet, merlot, and sometimes pinot noir into its sangiovese for a pleasant red. DOCG Carmignano, near Prato between Florence and Lucca, tosses cabernet into the chianti-like brew to make some of Tuscany's freshest, yet still refined and interesting, wines. Although they age well and keep forever, these wines can also be drunk practically straight out of the barrel.
More recent phenomena, pioneered by the Antinori family in the 1970s, are the so-called Supertuscans, made predominantly of cabernet and merlot along with just a smattering of the local Sangiovese grapes. The two most famous of these are Sassicaia and Ornellaia, produced near the town of Bolgheri in southwest Tuscany. Ornellaia produces wines in the Bolgheri DOC zone, while Sassicaia has its own DOC status -- it's a sort of subdivision of Bolgheri and the only Italian estate occupying its own, exclusive denomination. Consequently, Sassicaia is one of Italy's most prestigious and expensive labels.
Tuscany produces many other fine DOC reds in zones throughout the region, such as the smooth Rosso delle Colline Lucchesi around Lucca. One of the best is a Maremma wine, rather trendy in Italy, called Morellino di Scansano. Like chianti -- to which it's similar but silkier -- it's about 80% sangiovese, with some other Tuscan grapes thrown in the mix along with Alicante (a Spanish grape known among the French as grenache).
Tuscany's only white wine of note is Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a dry wine of variable quality, but it enjoys the status of being one of Italy's few DOCG whites. Few other whites stand out in Tuscany, though the area around Pitigliano and the Valdichiana both produce drinkable vino bianco, and the Chianti zone is making some headway with its lightweight Galestro. Perhaps the finest little-known white is the dry Montecarlo, from the hills east of Lucca.
Umbrian Wines -- Torgiano Rosso Riserva was made DOCG mainly through the efforts of the Lungarotti vineyards and their Rubesco label, a blood-red wine making a strong first impression with a musky tannic bite that fades quickly through black fruit flavors. Sagrantino di Montefalco is the heavyweight contender DOCG of Umbrian reds, a purple-dark liquid of long flavors with a rounded mouth feel and a strong, lasting tannic hold. Other good local DOC reds are Colli Altoberini, Colli del Trasimeno, and Colli Perugini (a young zone; also produces rosé and white).
Umbria's mighty white is the Orvieto Classico, an ancient wine that was once an abboccato semisweet wine until prevailing tastes led to the mass production of Orvieto Classico secco, a dry white that fills wine-store shelves across the world. Interestingly, in Orvieto you can still find the old varieties, a straw-colored wine that not only goes well with food, but actually holds its own as a treat to savor. Another good white made in many zones across Umbria is Grechetto.
Good Year or Bad? -- Because most producers in Tuscany and Umbria are subject to the same basic weather patterns, the generally good and bad years for most labels are, by and large, the same. 1997 is what they call a 1-year-in-50, which means you shouldn't hesitate to scoop up any '97 bottles (if you can still find any) even at what seem to be inflated prices -- it'll be half a century before stuff this good comes around again. Steer clear of 2002 and, for many (but not all) producers, 2003. In the last decade or so, 2001, 2004, 2006, and 2007 are the most remarkable years. Vintages since 2007 have been generally good.
More Italian Menu Terms
Agnello -- Lamb.
Aragosta -- Lobster.
Baccalà -- Salt-cured cod, usually reconstituted and stewed.
Braciola -- Loin pork chop.
Branzino -- Sea bass.
Bresaola -- Air-dried, thinly sliced beef filet, dressed with olive oil, lemon, and pepper -- usually an appetizer.
Cacciucco -- Seafood stew of Livorno in a spicy tomato base poured over stale bread.
Cacio or Caciotto -- Southern Tuscan name for pecorino cheese.
Calamari -- Squid.
Caprese -- A salad of sliced mozzarella and tomatoes lightly dressed with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
Capretto -- Kid.
Carciofi -- Artichokes.
Carpaccio -- Thin slices of raw cured beef, pounded flat and often served topped with arugula and parmigiano shavings.
Casalinga -- Home cooking.
Cozze -- Mussels.
Faraona -- Guinea hen.
Fegato -- Liver.
Formaggio -- Cheese.
Frittata -- Thick omelet stuffed with meats, cheese, and vegetables; often eaten between slices of bread as a sandwich.
Frutte di mare -- A selection of shellfish, often boosted with a couple of shrimp and some squid.
Funghi -- Mushrooms.
Gamberi (gamberetti) -- Prawns (shrimp).
Granchio -- Crab.
Granita -- Flavored ice; limone (lemon) is the classic.
Lepre -- Wild hare.
Maiale -- Pork.
Manzo -- Beef.
Mascarpone -- Technically a cheese but more like heavy cream, already slightly sweet and sweetened more to use in desserts such as tiramisù.
Merluzzo -- Cod.
Minestrone -- A little-bit-of-everything vegetable soup, usually flavored with chunks of cured ham.
Mortadella -- A very thick mild pork sausage; the original bologna (because the best comes from Bologna).
Osso buco -- Beef or veal knuckle braised in wine, butter, garlic, lemon, and rosemary; the marrow is a delicacy.
Ostriche -- Oysters.
Pancetta -- Salt-cured pork belly, rolled into a cylinder and sliced -- the Italian bacon.
Panettone -- Sweet, yellow cakelike dry bread.
Panna -- Cream (either whipped and sweetened for ice cream or pie; or heavy and unsweetened when included in pasta sauce).
Pecorino -- A rich sheep's-milk cheese; in Tuscany it's eaten fresh and soft.
Peperonata -- Stewed peppers and onions under oil; usually served cold.
Peperoncini -- Hot peppers.
Polpette -- Small veal meatballs.
Polpo -- Octopus.
Porcini -- Huge bolete mushrooms.
Salsicce -- Sausage.
Saltimbocca -- Veal scallop topped with a sage leaf and a slice of prosciutto and simmered in white wine.
Sarde -- Sardines.
Scaloppine -- Thin slices of meat, usually veal.
Tonno -- Tuna.
Torta -- A pie. Alla nonna is Grandma's style and usually is a creamy lemony pie; alle mele is an apple tart; al limone is lemon; alle fragole is strawberry; ai frutti di bosco is with berries.
Torta al testo -- A flat, unleavened bread baked on the hearthstone and often split to be filled with sausage, spinach, or other goodies.
Trota -- Trout.
Vitello -- Veal. A vitellone is an older calf about to enter cowhood.
Vongole -- Clams.
Zabaglione/zabaione -- A custard made of whipped egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine.
Zuppa inglese -- An English trifle, layered with liqueur-soaked ladyfingers and chocolate or vanilla cream.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.