Italians make eating the art, not the food. Unlike the modern trend in America, Italians don’t eat with their eyes. According to a Florentine, if served a dish with fancy drizzles and garnishes they will ask “What’s the matter? The food not good enough?” With good food, you need good drink. Wine is the drink of choice and tap water is a sin. If you ask for water you get bottled water (still or fizzy) without ice. Just a few of the things we learned on our trip to Florence and Lucca in Tuscany.
While as Americans we realize food can be regional Shrimp and grits can be found in Charlottesville, but not in Albuquerque. Carolina BBQ looks (and tastes) nothing like the BBQ in Texas. Italy is not just regional, but hyper-regional. When we were in Florence sixty miles from the sea we were told no one eats fish. In Lucca about half-way to the sea, fish was common on restaurant menus. In Florence rice is eaten, but not as often as farther north in Milan.
Before I hear from Italians here and the old country, let me add a few caveats. My information about eating in Italy is based on three sources:
1. My Tuscan grandparents who immigrated to the US before 1920. Both lived in small Communes near Lucca.
2. Our experience with restaurants in Florence, Lucca, and Pisa on our trip to Tuscany October 2017.
3. Our guide for the “Food and Nudes” tour of Florence (no I won’t explain the title of the tour).
We did not eat at high-end restaurants. We tried to eat at the places locals ate, or at least less touristy places. No Michelin stars on this trip and the most we paid for any dinner (for two) was about sixty euros. With that in mind, we continue our dive into eating in Italy, or at least Tuscany.
The first thing to remember about eating in Tuscany is that you are not in America. Much of what you learned about Italian food from restaurants here is not true and may get you laughed at or as in one case (when I asked for Parmesan cheese) looked at strangely.
The pizza we eat in America is an Americanization of food soldiers ate in southern Italy during WWII. North of Naples a bread with olive oil and anchovies or some other simple topping, was eaten, but that’s the closest thing to what we call pizza from Tuscany. The number one American ingredient, pepperoni, is not even known in Italy. With tourism funneling billions of euros into Italy, they decided to give us we want. You can now find Americanized pizza in Tuscany. But why waste the calories? Wait until you get home and eat American pizza and while in Italy, do as the Italians.
While we were served bread and olive oil with every dinner, according to our foodie’s guide, at least in Florence, they don’t eat bread with olive oil. I’m not sure about this ‘fact’. I don’t remember eating olive oil on bread at my grandparent’s house. However, they used butter. Possibly an Americanization of an old habit.
Speaking of bread, the bread in Florence did taste a bit flat. I shrugged it off as the restaurant skimping on bread. We found out later that long ago Pisa blocked shipments (or added a huge tariff) to salt shipped to Florence during one of the many conflicts between cities in Italy. The Florentines, to show their contempt for Pisa made bread without salt and still do. One more note on the difference between America and Italy, never, ever use two forks or a fork and spoon to eat pasta.
We need to talk about how meals are structured in Italy. Typically Italians eat three meals a day. Gelato is very common in the afternoon between lunch and dinner or in the evenings after dinner. Coffee is never drunk after a meal. Why should it? Coffee is food and you don’t eat more food after your meal is complete. I don’t drink coffee so I can’t talk about the difference between latte and espresso when you can and can’t drink which.
Business in Italy, like most of the Mediterranean countries, traditionally had the mid-afternoon off from work and school to rest. With the influence of the modern world, this is dying out. We did find, especially in Lucca, many shops closed from 1 pm to 3 pm (13:00-15:00). With this Italian form of siesta, patrons at restaurants linger over their lunches, spending up to three hours in conversation with their dining partners. Restaurants may not close until 2 or 3 pm (14:00 or 15:00), but they stay closed until 7 pm (19:00), except for restaurants catering to tourists
In Italy, a full meal (lunch or dinner) consists of four courses; appetizers (antipasto), soup or pasta (primi), meat or fish (secondi) and dessert (dolce). Except for special occasions, most people don’t eat all four courses. In everyday eating, they eat two courses. I remember my grandparents always eating two, pasta and a main course. Sometimes they would have fruit or nuts for dulce. Pasta as a secondi or main course is not done in Italy. If you order pasta or risotto (rice) and you get a full portion, you are in a tourist restaurant. One time I ordered cheese ravioli in a green sauce. There were four postage stamp sized ravioli. A perfect primi dish.
Breakfast is a quick meal served before leaving for work (or school) or on the way to work. Breakfast is something sweet. Pastries or fruit are common, as are fruit juices. Modern Italians may eat cereals, but always cold. At hotel breakfast bars we did find cheeses and sliced salami or crudo, bread, and eggs, but that was for tourists.
Lunch ranges from full meals to sandwiches (panni) on the go. Don’t act like a tourist, a single sandwich is a panno, multiple sandwiches are panni. Don’t ask for one panni. Some shops have pre-made panni you pick from and get it cold or toasted. You can also order a custom panno. We never saw potato chips or any crisp salty food while eating in Tuscany. They might be there, we never saw any.
Eating in Italy is not cheap. We spent from eight to twenty euros per person for lunch. However, the least expensive meal we ate in Italy was lunch in Pisa. We were walking between the train station and the Field of Miracles (home of the Leaning Tower). It was noon and we saw a small panni shop on a side street. We were the only non-locals in the shop. With the server’s limited English and my three or four Italian words, we ordered a sandwich and a piece of Italian style pizza with a bottle of water for about five euros. Best deal in Italy.
If eating is an art in Tuscany, dinner is a masterpiece. Unlike the American trend for fusion foods, pretty plates with a few items, in Tuscany you will get simple dishes presented simply. We were told by our foodie guide that recipes are never changed. Nothing is added, taken out or substituted. While I’m not sure how true that is, I do know tradition seems strong in the food culture in Italy.
By simple dishes I mean simple. A steak is served on a plate with nothing else, no garnish, no sides, just a piece of meat. Combinations are rare, and side items like vegetables are not common but are offered on the menu. A roast pork dinner I had was a dozen thin slices of pork with broth. Only once did I find two things on a secondi plate, a pork cutlet in a tomato sauce and polenta. That might even count as three. However, this chef appears to be a rebel in other ways.
Tuscans are meat eaters, specifically beef. While pork and chicken are found on menus, beef is king. The top of most menus features some type of steak. Always cooked rare, don’t ask, that’s the only way they cook it. Sometimes strips of steak cut and arranged on the plate, sometimes a whole steak. In Florence’s central market there were several butcher shops showing their selection of meat, with of course steaks prominently displayed.
While I normally ordered primi (usually soup) and secondi, my wife settled for bread and secondi, so touristy. We did have pizza one night in Lucca. I know I said don’t waste the calories, and after eating the pizza I wish I had taken my own advice. I did have a soup primi, so at least I did that. The pizza was an attempt at American pizza. A thin crust with a tomato sauce, a few bits of ham, salami and a scattering of cheese. If it wasn’t for a family tradition of eating pizza on Saturdays I would have skipped it. And on top of everything we ate at 6 pm (18:00).
An interesting fact we learned, where in a restaurant you eat effects the price. If you grab something to go or eat at the bar you pay the least amount If you eat at an open-air table the most, with inside tables in the middle. I paid two euros for a soda I grabbed to go and when we ate at the same restaurant at an outside table, later in the day the same soda was three euros.
Neither my wife or I drink much alcohol, we did not participate in the customer of a small after dinner drink (we did have one glass of wine with dinner once). We also skipped the dessert menu (dolce) in favor a gelato shop. The Tuscans sure do love their gelato. Every few feet on the streets there was another Gelateria.
By now most Americans know that gelato is a frozen desert much like ice cream. One of the main differences is the flavors. Gelato is available in a wide assortment of flavors which are more intense than their American cousin. Also, it is lower in fat being made with milk and not cream. Not all gelato is dairy based, fruit-based gelatos, much like sorbets are available.
If you want to eat like a Tuscan in Italy what do you do? Eat where the locals eat, not at tourist restaurants. How do you find where the locals eat? My wife and I have come up with a few rules.
1. If the menu is in English it is a tourist restaurant. Translations are OK, but it is better if only Italian appears on the menu.
2. If you hear mostly Italian from the staff, it’s hard to tell. However, if all the dinners are speaking Italian, it’s a locals restaurant.
3. If pasta is the main course it is a tourist place.
4. If they open before 7 pm (19:00) for dinner it’s a tourist place.
5. If they don’t take credit cards, definitely local. However many local restaurants do now take the big two credit cards.
6. If they ask for a tip, tourists joint. Italian workers work for pay, not tips.
We ate at a local restaurant on a street outside the walls of Lucca. No English translation on the menu, no one spoke English and we were the only non-Italians in the place for lunch. A real Tuscan eating experience.
To wrap thing up one thing we learned from our trip to Tuscany, Diet sodas are rare, ice is rarer and the beef is always rare.