It’s a clear day in Tuscany as warm sunlight blankets a stretch of chartreuse green. Italian cypresses line the roads, curving through hilly grasslands to unending vineyards, solitary hilltop towns, and saffron-coloured farmlands. At the brink of twilight, a nonna is calling out to her family for dinner as she brings out the feast.
Tuscany is the crown jewel of the Italian tourism scene, and many have swamped the accessible cities where the tourist buses go. Yet, there is an understated beauty that still lurks in uncharted territories that surprises at every bend of the road.
Many associate Tuscany to its thriving wineries – after all, the undulating countryside of well-manicured greens are a result of vineyards and wineries that have been around since the 8th century. Drinkers and non-drinkers alike wine trip through this hilly region in search of the Tuscan reds. Castello della Paneretta stands tall in the Chianti region, where you can take a tour through the castle grounds. A wine tasting there includes pairing the wines with bread, cheeses and cold cuts.
Drive through the cypress-lined path to Poggio Antico for their Brunello di Montalcino wines. If you can spare a meal in the country, head to the winery’s restaurant to feast on Tuscan flavours and uninterrupted views.
For the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, head to Azienda Agricola Poliziano. You will be taken through the vineyards and cellars before the wine tasting.
Pecks of old-world towns dot the hilltops – a stop at any one of these is a must, to get acquainted with the Tuscan vibe. Many speak of glorious towns like Siena, Pisa and Lucca, but it’s the unsung hero towns that give you a peek into the people’s everyday lives. A long way down south of Florence is Pienza, home to pecorino cheese. Pienza has some of the best views of the Val d’Orcia due to its high vantage point. A visit to any of the cheesemongers there will get you stocking up on a plethora of cheeses (truffle cheese, pistachio cheese, and what have you). Just a few kilometres east and west of Pienza are the towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino for impromptu wine tastings at bars and more stunning views.
Hands down, the best way to stumble into an obscure town is to drive aimlessly, not caring where you end up in. That is the spirit of exploring Tuscany – to let it surprise you.
When it comes to Tuscan food, it has got to be meats, cheeses, olive oil, and plenty of good wine. Tuscany is one of the few regions in Italy where you can find Chianina cattle. This fabled beef is what makes a mouthwatering piece of Florentine steak. Ragus (meat based sauce) are what Tuscans pride themselves on. Ground meats are stewed for hours with tomatoes, celeries and carrots, and served spooned over homemade pappardelle sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan cheese. For more on what to eat here, check out the eating guide.
The expanse of the Tuscan countryside means that there is plenty of room for country houses, which were erected during the days of old. Over time, these copious dwellings have been converted into swanky bed and breakfasts for travellers. On top of being a winery, Castello della Paneretta has a villa that can house ten to eleven people next to acres of sprawling vineyards. Never mind the sheer size of the villa or the glistening swimming pool, it’s the ambrosial meals cooked by the hosts that guests rave about. If you want to take home a recipe or two, you can always go for the cooking class.
For those who love the city and everything abuzz, Le Tre Nonne in Florence is an affordable accommodation with antique rooms and a hearty Florentine host who’s more than happy to share with you every nook and cranny of the artistic city.
Married to a Florentine sommelier, admirer of Pellegrino Artusi, a food blogger cooking in the suburbs of Tuscany – Emiko Davies is synonymous with the notion of Tuscan cuisine. She’s a Food52 columnist and food writer for The Sunday Times, The Guardian and Jamie Oliver Magazine. Emiko reveals her secret to picking an authentic gelateria, which wineries to go to, and the farm to table restaurant you need to dine at in Tuscany.
What is the one local dish you feel travellers can’t leave Tuscany without trying?
This definitely depends where you are in Tuscany, as each town has their unique specialties. In Livorno, it would be cinque e cinque, a baguette filled with chickpea flour pancake. In Florence, it would be a panino with lampredotto, or abomasum tripe, it’s not your regular tripe or your regular panino! Served warm with chilli sauce and salsa verde, it’s absolutely delicious.
In the lagoon town of Orbetello in southern Tuscany, it would be spicy smoked eel or bottarga (cured fish roe), served with some lemon juice and olive oil. In Siena, you’d want to order a plate of pici, or hand-rolled fresh noodles, or pinci if you were in Montalcino. In the town of San Miniato, where my husband was born, it’s fresh white truffles that you need to try.
What about your favourite restaurants?
I am partial to my neighbourhood of Florence and I love the little restaurants in hilltop suburb of Settignano like Caffè Desiderio and La Sosta del Rossellino, full of character and run by people who want to make other people happy through their food and wine.
I also love Canto del Maggio in Terranuova Bracciolini, between Florence and Arezzo. It’s another special place run by a family who grow their own vegetables and make everything from scratch, all set in the most enchanting garden.
In San Miniato, there is a family-run butcher shop called Sergio Falaschi that has created a restaurant out the back behind the counters. They have the most exquisite view over the hills and have a small, appealing menu that changes daily.
The Fioroni family farm in San Gimignano, Poggio Alloro, is also a wonderful place for an organic farm to table meal with a stunning view over San Gimignano. On Saturday nights, they serve their own hand-raised bistecca from chianina cattle.
Name one Italian dining etiquette most travellers miss
I think it can be hard to get used to the ordering of a meal they way Tuscans are used to. You start with antipasto, which is often something shared like a plate of salumi or a basket of broad beans with pecorino cheese. Then, move onto primi, which is either a soup or a pasta dish. Then you have secondi (mains) with various contorni (side dishes) that have to be ordered individually, and are usually portions large enough to share amongst the table.
Some people assume they have to order one of each thing, but in reality, Tuscans themselves may not always do that. It’s a huge amount of food and you may feel more comfortable ordering just two courses, say an antipasto and a main, which is often shared, and saving a bit of space for a simple dessert.
Name some tourist traps travellers should avoid in Tuscany
Unfortunately there are many. Get gelato at a dedicated gelateria – that is, a place that only does gelato. Bars that sell gelato as well as sandwiches and pastries and coffee and everything else probably aren’t making their gelato in house! And remember that good gelato comes in metal tubs, often hidden, it isn’t displayed in huge mounds.
Bars – the Italian word for a café – have different prices for sitting down and for standing at the bar. Italians will stand at the bar for their coffee and pastry. In a few places, this is being phased out in favour of a more Anglo-Saxon style café where you can sit all day long. But in general, and especially in a really classic Italian bar, be aware that there are two different prices depending on where you take your coffee. Many places don’t bother making this known or assume you should know, and some people can get a shock when their bill arrives.
There are so many beautiful parts of Tuscany, but it is a very large region, so I personally would recommend sticking to one small area and getting to know that well.
For example, the Val d’Orcia, a beautiful valley near Siena, has plenty to keep you busy between pretty towns, spa towns and cheese, but you could combine it with an itinerary that takes you to Siena and Florence too.
Or another area that I just mentioned above is Maremma. Maremma is large too, so you could follow it all the way down the coast, even including some islands like Elba Island, which you can reach from Piombino or Giglio Island, from Porto Santo Stefano. You can also stick to the area south of Grosseto and enjoy the hilltop towns, the sea and good, country food.
If you’re in a rush, don’t try to do too much. Just pick one place. Florence, for example, makes a perfect city break for a long weekend because you don’t need to worry about renting a car, it’s easy to arrive by train or plane and you can choose to stick just to the historical centre.
This is something I hope to write more about on my blog soon, as it can be tricky to find places that have a cellar door that are easy to get to or even visit. My husband is a sommelier so we are often visiting wineries but they are definitely not the usual kind that would be easy for a traveller to find!
One of the ones we love, Altura Winery, is on Giglio Island, where you definitely need a car, but there is no cellar door. You can, however, find the wine at the same family’s restaurant, Arcobaleno, on the island.
Places like Montalcino and the Chianti Classico area that are better equipped for visitors and the wineries there make it easier to drop by and visit or taste wine. Another lovely place to try a bit of wine is the beautiful little town of Bolgheri, it’s basically made up of wine bars and wine shops so you can visit the town and taste all the local Super Tuscan wines directly there. Do a bit of research before you go, rent a car and have a designated driver!
What do you mean by wineries with a cellar door?
A cellar door is the term for a sales point in a winery. It could be a room, a shop or a tasting room, sometimes it’s even bigger and there is a restaurant or seating. It depends, but the main thing is that there is somewhere guests can taste and buy wine. Wineries that don’t have this aren’t often prepared to receive visitors. For travellers, it would be easier to go to wineries that have cellar doors.
Name one best kept secret of Tuscany
I’ve just written a cookbook about it, so it is not so secret now, but the coast and islands of Tuscany are incredibly beautiful and have a lot to offer. I particularly love the southernmost coast of Tuscany around Monte Argentario. We lived there for 6 months in Porto Ercole.
Many people have never heard of it, which shows you just what a secret treasure it is. Nearby is Giglio Island, one of the most beautiful places I have visited, and the Maremma countryside from Capalbio to Pitigliano and the towns in between make for wonderful exploring and eating.
One thing is that you need a car and you need to be a bit adventurous, and this is also what makes it so secret. It’s not the kind of place that people can easily wander into or stumble across, you need to have a bit of motivation. It’s for proper travellers and people who love the outdoors, the sparkling sea and eating traditional dishes like wild boar stew, deep fried anchovies and hearty soups.
What should travellers bring home with them from Tuscany?
I always like to bring food or drink as a souvenir, something you can’t find anywhere else. If you are lucky enough to be able to bring fresh goods like cheese or salumi home, that’s a good option and most places will vacuum pack these for you. Otherwise, something like good extra virgin olive oil. Look for the ones in a tin if you are afraid of the glass breaking in your suitcase.
An unusual bottle of wine or something harder to find like vin santo (Tuscan dessert wine) makes a nice memento, especially when accompanied by a large bag of cantuccini (Tuscan almond biscotti), which are made for dipping into vin santo. This is a typical finish to any Tuscan meal, and cantuccini are also very hardy and travel well.
I personally like to bring home a big box of panbriacone, a panettone-like cake soaked in an alcoholic syrup from the Pasticceria Bonci pastry shop in Montevarchi. Many pastry shops in Florence sell it too. It’s divine and always well-appreciated!
More than a decade has passed since Under the Tuscan Sun was released, and Tuscany is still as breathtaking as ever. The plan to explore the region is simple – get a car and drive take the autostradas up to charming hilltop towns and wineries. When you head to the rolling hills, homemade pastas and meats rule the Tuscan palate.
Look forward to: Ragu, handmade pasta and wine.
Gelateria dei Neri
Where: Via dei Neri, 9/11, 50122 Firenze, Italy What: Gelato For: After meal sweets
The search for the authentic gelato in Florence is no mean feat, but Gelateria dei Neri is a household name amongst Florentines for the right Italian ice-cream. Traditional flavours like nocciola, pistachio and limone are golden. For a bite of something more unique, granita (Italian ice that originates in Sicily) comes in mandarin, pink grapefruit and mint flavours.
Area: Florence Where:Via Pisana, 2R, 50143 Firenze What: Anything For: Cheap Italian fare
When it’s time to get off work, the Italians head to Trattoria Sabatino, a family-run eatery in Santo Spirito which seems to serve a locals-only crowd. You can hardly spot hordes of tourists in Sabatino, but instead find hungry Italians engaged in conversations over simple Tuscan fare. Food is dished out in small portions and prices start from €2. Try the mushroom salad, which are raw porcini mushrooms lightly drizzled with olive oil.
Where: 42/31, Via Di Novoli – 50127 Florence (FI) – Italy What: Panini For: Breakfast
La Schiacciateria is the accidental breakfast find that became a routine stop every morning. It’s hard to choose between a pizza or a panino, but either way you won’t be disappointed. Simple ingredients are what makes its panino top-notch. Just prosciutto, mozzarella, rocket and a drizzle of olive oil sandwiched between focaccia.
Where: Via dei Palchetti, 6R, 50123 Firenze, Italy What: Florentine steak For: Dinner
Almost anyone who is a Florentine steak aficionado knows thatLatini is the place to go in Florence if you want one that’s done right. Before you order a Florentine steak, know this – Florentine steaks are cooked rare on the inside and fully seared on the outside. No exceptions. Any beef cooked more than medium rare is not a bistecca alla Fiorentina. Ordering to the minimum weight set by the restaurant is a requirement. Rest assured that this large piece of steak can be shared.
Where: Piazza Sant’Ambrogio 7, Florence, Italy What: Wine and anything on the menu For: Drinks
The Italian under-30 crowd can be found in Caffè Sant’Ambrogio in Piazza Sant’Ambrogio. After 8 pm, the piazza gets bustling, and the waiters at Caffè Sant’Ambrogio are busy handing out drinks to its patrons. This casual joint doesn’t burn a hole in your wallet and the menu satisfies a cosmopolitan palate – hamburger steak with melted cheese, and pasta with tuna pesto and olives.
Where: Via delle Cantine, 1, 53045 Montepulciano SI, Italy What: Steaks For: Romantic dining
Matthia and Monica opened L’Altro Cantuccio in 2013, and has since been known to serve some of the best Chianina beef in Tuscany. Varied cooking styles of the Chianina beef makes up most of the menu here. The chef serves it grilled, raw (tatare or carpaccio style) or as a meat sauce for pastas. To go with the beef is an extensive wine list which boasts the best of Montepulciano wines.
Where: Piazza Castello, 53024 Montalcino – sant angelo in colle SI, Italy What: Homemade pici pasta with breadcrumbs For: Tuscan cuisine
In Sant’Angelo, Il Pozzo serves really handmade pastas (as they emphasised) and a wine list that boasts the best of Montalcino. Its owners, sisters Franca and Paola, are born and raised in this part of Tuscany, and learned everything about Tuscan cooking from their grandmothers. Don’t expect modern Italian cuisine here, but rather, Tuscan dishes from a simpler time. Handmade pici pasta with breadcrumbs is a local specialty, and so are the pappardelle al cinghiale and acquacotta.
Where: Via Camollia, 49, 53100 Siena SI, Italy What: Ragu and truffle salad For: Tuscan cuisine
Push past the tourist crowds in the main square to get to the quiet street of Via Camollia, where truffles and ragu are found in Da Enzo. You can’t resist the traditional Tuscan ragu cooked with homemade pappardelle and topped with a generous sprinkling of freshly grated cheese. You’ll wonder if an Italian nonna resides in the restaurant’s kitchen. Since you’re in the region, go all out with the truffle salad, a dish jam-packed with a generous shavings of this iconic Tuscan ingredient.