Many people who visit Florence or Tuscany ask where they should eat, and there’s plenty of information out there about restaurants, cafes and bars. But I think the better question is what to eat. After many years of painstaking research (well, just eating while in Italy), I have definitely found my favorite things to order. Some of these are obvious and some are unusual, but they are all pretty reliably yummy. Here are my favorites, in no particular order:
1. Pasta al dente— Al dente technically means “to the tooth,” but the term is used to refer to underdone pasta or vegetables, or whatever you are cooking. Any respectable restaurant in Italy will have handmade pasta, and most serve it a little more firm / underdone than the soggy stuff we are used to in the States. You can order it with whatever sauce you like, but a uniquely-Tuscan treat would be pappardelle (a wide, flat pasta) with cinghiale (wild boar). Sounds weird but it’s delicious!
2. Prosciutto with melon— This appetizer can be found on almost any menu, and is a go to item for my kids. Tuscan melon, when in season, is simply amazing. It’s the sweetest and juiciest melon around and goes perfectly with the saltiness of prosciutto. I once had lunch with a friend at her house outside of Florence and she served prosciutto with fresh, ripe, enormous figs instead of melon, and sprinkled the plate with salt and balsamic vinegar. It was a simple, yet unforgettable dish.
3. Pizza margherita— You really can’t go wrong with Italian thin-crust pizza. The dough, the sauce, and everything about it is just perfect. Personally, I prefer fewer toppings. Pizza margherita is simply pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. If all of the ingredients are fresh, this is pizza at its best.
4. Pecorino with honey— Pecorino is a hard sheep’s cheese with a delightful buttery flavor. On an antipasti platter, pecorino is the highlight for me, as it goes well with prosciutto, salami and all the other meats. But the best way to eat pecorino, in my opinion, is with a dollop of honey. The flavors blend perfectly.
5. Pappa al pomodoro (tomato bread soup)— I’m told that this dish originated in the poorer regions of Tuscany, where food was scarce and tomatoes and leftover bread were readily available and inexpensive. However, something about the way it is spiced, the way the bread becomes warm and soft in the broth, and the freshness of the tomatoes, makes this a perpetual Tuscan favorite and a favorite of mine.
6. Bruschetta or Crostini (yummy stuff on toasted bread)— Tuscan bread served in restaurants is usually unsalted and pretty bland, because it’s meant to be dipped in deliciously salted olive oil. However, I have never gotten on the unsalted bread bandwagon. Maybe it’s because I live in the San Francisco Bay area, land of sour dough. So I’m picky about my bread. However, when in Italy, I love bruschetta and crostini, which are basically toasted bread with garlic and various delicious toppings. I order this a lot and it’s almost always fabulous. You can get tomatoes mixed with garlic and olive oil, liver pate, different mixtures of vegetables, olives, etc. It’s all good.
7. Bistecca fiorentina— This is basically a huge T-bone steak grilled and topped with nothing but high quality olive oil. While there is fish to be found at nice restaurants, inland Tuscany is not generally where you would order seafood. Italians eat what’s local and in season. Remember the wild boar discussed above? That’s the perfect example. There’s plenty of beef around, and the Florentines know how to prepare it. If you order this in a restaurant, plan to share.
8. Gelato— My kids like menta (mint) and stracciatella (chocolate chip). My husband appreciates good old fashioned cioccolata (chocolate). I like fresh seasonal fruit, like peach. Amazing. Need I say more?