uscan cuisine has become somewhat of a cliché. The tourist-rich region once coveted for its art and culture has put pots and pans well ahead museums and cathedrals. Cooking classes and market tours are booming. Tuscan wine and olive oil farms are sightseeing magnets, surpassing Medieval and Renaissance landmarks. Tuscan food fads are growing as never before.
It started decades ago with Vivoli, a Florentine gelato joint that gradually began vying with Michelangelo’s David and the Uffizi for tourist traffic. Guidebooks began putting it on the same page as Giotto’s bell tower and the Bronze Doors of the Duomo. David suddenly held a gelato.
In the 1970s, an inconspicuous Florence wine seller whose business occupied what used to be part of the stables of the Palazzo Rucellai (designed by Leon Battista Alberti) began serving a few home-style dishes in its cantina. The place was dubbed Il Latini and evolved into a food-lover’s hub. A splendid restaurant in its time, it fell prey to a badly-managed family feud and eventually became just another tourist machine, its charm and quality traditional menu lost to the flood of new guests.
In came the Supertuscans, A breed of elite wines made for every palate (with little attention paid to European Union wine designation). They went by names such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Tignanello, to name just a few. International acclaim and upscale prices soon followed. So much for vino da tavola.
Fads proliferated. In the late 1990s Florence’s Procacci bar offered truffle paste aperitivo sandwiches. Later, posh Acqua al Due restaurant served blueberry steaks.
Regional cheeses such as Pecorino Toscano, Marzolino and Caciotta Senese, as well as salumi made from the local Cinta Senese pig, gradually became known outside the region. Hyper-local dishes such as ribollita and zuppa di faro traveled to Manhattan and it wasn’t long before chef Mario Batali’s father was curing guanciale in a Seattle shop.
These days, veteran butcher Dario Cecchini recites Dante while carving two-pound Fiorentina steaks in front of awestruck American fans in Greve, nestled in the heart of Chianti. Learning to toss the perfect panzanella (bread salad), brew flawless pappa al pomodoro (bread and tomato soup), or just buying almond Cantucci biscuits from Prato’s famed Mattei aka “Mattonella” biscotti shop, are on every foodie’s agenda.
But not all of Tuscany’s cooking secrets are commonplace. Some are all but unknown, except to insiders. Here’s my own short-list.
Lampredotto is unlikely to make it into most cookbooks. It’s the abomasum, or fourth and final stomach compartment of grazing mammals boiled in seasoned tomato sauce and served chopped as a sandwich filler in unsalted rolls, typical Tuscan street food. A tripe snack, it has plenty of brethren, including musetto, fried brains; boiled pork snout; chopped nervetti, and bovine tongue salads. They’re sold at typical Florentine street-side kiosks known as trippai.
The rolling hills and bell towers of Chianti tend to knock seafood out of the picture. They shouldn’t. Tuscany has kilometers of sandy and rocky shorelines that stretch between the Maremma territories and the seafront marble quarries of Carrara. Argentario, Elba, and the VIP hangouts at Versilia aren’t on most tourist agendas. Nor are fish dishes.
Cacciucco, which emerged from Livorno (Leghorn in English), is one of many fish stews popular along the Tyrrhenian Sea coast. According to Syrian-born Livorno historian Paolo Zalum, the stew was the idea of an ancient lighthouse watchman. After the Florentine Republic barred the use of oil for fish frying inside lighthouse quarters (needed instead to fuel the beacon), the watchman put together a variety of catches and boiled them into a soup. Cacciucco uses very little olive oil in its preparation.
In Livorno, a good cacciucco is said to require at least five kinds of fish, equal to the number of “Cs” in the dish’s name. But if five is the minimum, “the more the merrier” is the rule. Ancient cacciucco recipes call for 13 kinds, including the moray eel (whose fatty flesh donates character and flavor), rockfish, sea robin, dogfish, squid, octopus, mantis shrimp (aka prawn killers), prawns and crab. Local angler, sole, catfish, drum, red mullet, weever, gurnard, and mackerel can also make appearances.
The ink sacs and bony parts of the octopi should be removed; the crab and prawns left whole, and the white fish eviscerated and scaled, with however many taste-rendering heads left whole.
Depending on how many people you’re feeding, and the fish size, you may want to calculate two small fish varieties per person, three squid per person, two or three prawns, and so on. Again, variety is the key.
Another low-profile Tuscan specialty is zolfini beans. Delicate, small, and roundish, these rare yellow beans usually fall apart before even reaching your lips. Cultivation of zolfini (zolfo means sulfur in English) is restricted to the narrow strips of sandy soil of the Setteponti road shoulder that connects Arezzo to Florence in the Pratomagno area.
At risk of extinction, zolfini survived thanks to an IGP certificate (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), a government category that recognizes local products worth preserving. The annual yield is still very low — around 20 tons — with the beans cultivated only in elevated parts of Pratomagno.
Zolfini have a pale yellow sulfur-like hue. They’re also referred to as fagiolo del cento (the hundred’s bean) because they’re commonly sowed on the hundredth day of the year.
Cooked zolfini have a distinctive buttery texture. The absence of hull, or outer covering, makes them easier to digest. Their unique aroma is reminiscent of freshly mowed lawn and morning dew.
Best eaten lightly seasoned, they’re also commonly used — some say wasted — in zuppa di cavolo nero (Tuscan kale soup) and are also used to compliment rosticciana, grilled pork ribs. Finding them in Italy (never mind elsewhere) can be daunting. Connections help and booking long before the harvest is essential. You’ll also need some gold coins, since zolfini are priced based on their minimal availability.
Below, you’ll find my recipe for cacciucco the Livorno fish specialty, and two for cooking zolfini — once again, you’ll have to work to find them. Both of these dishes will reward you with another side of Tuscany.
- Flavor the oil and cook the toughest fish first, adding the softer ones as you go along.
- In a large stewpot, heat the oil with the garlic and peperoncino flakes for a few minutes. If you pinch the chili peppers in half with your fingers, remember not to rub your eyes (or other body parts) before scrubbing your hands like a surgeon would.
- As soon as the garlic begins to tan, add the battuto (chopped carrot/onion/celery) and simmer lightly for 3 more minutes, then add the mollusks (octopus, squid, etc.) and the crustaceans (prawns, crabs, etc.).
- Pour in the glass of wine and the tomatoes, and season with very little salt. Let the wine evaporate, then cover.
- When the octopi are tender, begin adding the white fish, starting with the tougher dogfish, then the sea robin, followed by the rockfish, and so on. Cook for approximately 15 minutes, adding a little hot water, should the soup appear too dry.
- Toast some bread, rub each slice with garlic and place one in each deep soup dish. Ladle in the cacciucco, trying to distribute in each bowl all the different kinds of treasures of the sea. Sprinkle with fresh parsley and dive in.
- 400 gr (2 cups) zolfini beans.
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and halved.
- 5 black peppercorns.
- 1 sprig of fresh rosemary.
- Extra virgin olive oil.
Dried zolfini beans need pre-soaking in cold water for at least an hour. Cooking time is just under 2 hours, so plan the preparation well in advance.
- Rinse the zolfini of their soaking water and cook them partially covered in cold water, along with the garlic, herbs and seasoning, omitting the salt until the very end of cooking.
- When the beans have softened-but not so much that they have become a purée – drain them carefully through fine-mesh cheesecloth.
- Serve with very little extra virgin olive oil and a few turns of the peppermill.
An alternative cooking method is the traditional “al fiasco,” in which the beans are cooked very slowly over burning coals in a flask or pear-shaped terracotta pot. Despite its rural slant, this time-consuming method can be good fun.
- 300 gr (2 1/2 cups) fresh zolfini beans, podded.
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled.
- 4 sage leaves.
- 2 cups water.
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Salt & pepper to taste.
Clean out and remove the straw covering the bottom half of a large quart-capacity flask. Out of fashion Chianti fiaschi are ideal. Rinse well, drain out the water and dry well. Start your coals well in advance. Ideally, a fireplace is better than an outdoor grill. “Cozy” is the key mood here.
- Wash the beans, rinse them and pour them in your flask. Add the olive oil, sage, water and garlic.
- Using a heat diffuser, place the flask over the embers and bring to a gentle simmer. This meaning, small bubbles will be gently rising to the surface like in a champagne flûte. In order to cook the beans thoroughly, the water must evaporate very slowly. This should take about 3 hours.
- When the water has completely evaporated, the Zolfini are cooked. Pour out the beans into a bowl and season them with salt and pepper, and serve them warm with only a smile.