Florence visitors arrive every year equipped with a list of what to do, what to see and, most importantly, what to eat during their visit. It’s almost impossible to visit the city without indulging in a bistecca alla Fiorentina, a gargantuan cut of beef that is aged to perfection in Florence’s most celebrated restaurants. If you’re a foodie, there are endless opportunities to sample classics like tagliatelle pasta with porcini mushrooms and truffles, pappardelle with wild boar ragù, or the delightfully crunchy schiacciata bread (especially the version made with crushed grapes). And that’s just the start: there’s nothing like strolling past the Duomo with your favorite gelato, sitting on a terrace eating zuccotto or finishing your meal with homemade cantucci biscuits dipped in local vin santo.
You could easily spend your holiday sampling all of the best cuisine that Florence has to offer, but you’d only be getting a taste of what’s available in the surrounding area. Due to both its position in the heart of Tuscany and its very well developed transport infrastructure, Florence is the perfect place to base yourself if you’re looking to whet your appetite and explore. Some of the most prized ingredients and best recipes in the world are within a short train ride or drive from the City of Lilies. For delectable foodie experiences, there are lesser-explored areas of Tuscany that will satisfy your hunger for adventure and make any trip a memorable one.
Gourmet Flavors in the Garfagnana
Located just over an hour’s drive or train ride from Florence, northwestern Tuscany is a foodie’s dream that flies under the radar. Known as the Garfagnana, this mountainous area is famous for its chestnuts, which were a staple of the Tuscan diet for millennia and still form the basis for local cuisine. While the countryside is an ideal location for trekking and biking, a visit to the city of Lucca is a culinary highlight for even the most seasoned traveler. Chestnuts feature in a great many classic dishes, and you’ll often find pasta made from chestnut flour. However, the most famous chestnut dish is the sweet castagnaccio, a cake made with chestnut flour, olive oil, rosemary, raisins and pine nuts.
Other must-eat dishes from Lucca include tordelli Lucchese, an egg pasta that falls somewhere between a ravioli, a dumpling and a tiny pie. Traditionally, it is filled with beef or pork, Swiss chard, pine nuts, raisins, spices and cheese. But the most interesting ingredient in tordelli filling is the most nondescript: stale bread. Lucca, an important trading post, was much more prosperous than other towns of the same size, making it therefore wealthier. The culinary evidence of that is the inclusion of eggs in the tordelli pasta; poorer regions would not have been able to afford such a luxury and would have only used flour and water to make their dough. But using stale bread in the filling shows that despite their wealth the Lucchese were not inclined to waste anything, including the ends of bread. These funny details are often the very things that make food such a great tour guide, and nowhere is that more true than in the wild mountains of the Garfagnana.
Seafood on the Shores of Livorno
When you think of Tuscany, chances are that your mind goes to rolling hills and rows of vineyards that seem to stretch into infinity. However, the region has some of Italy’s most dramatic and stellar coastlines and fabulous seaside towns. At just over an hour’s drive or train ride from Florence, Livorno is a relaxed city with tons of charm and even more great food. Of course, it won’t be surprising that the city is famous for its seafood, in particular the famous cacciucco. Although many port cities boast their own version of fish stew, this one seems to perfectly embody this wonderfully eclectic place: five types of fish (one for each “c” in the name) are cooked together until it becomes not quite a soup and not quite a stew, but something entirely unique.
Livorno is just one of many great beach experiences near Florence. The uniqueness of the city comes in part from its history, which saw it develop in the 1500s as a trading outpost for the Medici empire. As such, the city was known for its liberal laws and multicultural population, which is still evident in some of its signature dishes. Cuscussù alla livornese is a local version of the Levantine couscous that most believe to have arrived in the city with the Sephardic traders who settled here in the Middle Ages. Like many other cities by the sea, its history has been shaped by the constant traffic between worlds beyond the horizon. If you head to the port and grab a citrus-infused doughnut known locally as frate, you can almost picture it for yourself!
Siena’s Sweet Tooth
One of the most iconic cities in Tuscany, Siena has a history that dates to the Etruscan period and gave birth to some of the most influential minds in the Renaissance. Along the way, the world’s oldest bank also set up shop there, and the world famous Palio horse race draws visitors from all over the world to watch as the medieval center is transformed into a stadium. Of course, you can visit Siena at any time of the year and get lost in its grandeur, as it’s only about an hour’s drive or train ride from Florence. But the city is much more than a perch in the lush Tuscan countryside, and nowhere is this better experienced than through the foods that originate there. Get a dish of pici, a thick rope of flour and water pasta that originates in Siena, and is prepared with a variety of meat sauces typical of the region. If salumi is your weakness, the rare Cinta Senese breed that originates from Siena produces some of the most coveted cured meats in the country and is still only reared in the area.
But if you’re in the mood for something sweeter, Siena may just be the paradise you’ve been searching for on your Italian holiday. As one of the most culturally important and wealthiest cities during the medieval period, Siena had access to delicacies like sugar, candied fruits and exotic spices well before other areas. The result is the luscious panforte, a dense cake made with sugar, honey, butter, nuts and spices like cardamom. The famous cavallucci cookies also originate from Siena and have since become a staple of Italian Christmas celebrations. Look out for their larger cousin, known as berriquocoli, and often containing candied cedar. If you still have room, you would be remiss not to try some ricciarelli di Siena, an almond biscuit that is said to have its origins with a Sienese nobleman who returned from the crusades with a similar recipe in hand. Don’t worry, you can always take them to go!