Drinking wine and eating cheese in the rolling Tuscan hills is an absolute dream... Something I've been wanting to do for years now. My husband and I are are both Italian by heritage. Our greatest relationship with our heritage comes in the form of food and family gatherings. While in Tuscany, we quickly learned that food culture in Italy is a bit different from the Italian-American food culture we practice here.
Like everybody else in NYC, we're foodies. We're also Italian-American home cooks... good ones. As delicious and satisfying as our homemade meals are, we've always wanted to know what delicious Italian foods we might be missing.
Is our homemade gravy really as good as the ragù they serve in Italy? (The short answer is yes, but I'll write more about that in a different article) Before our honeymoon, I had a lot of food-related questions, mostly regarding the ingredients, flavors, textures, and processes of Italian cooking in Italy.
An Italian cultural learning curve
What I didn't consider was how different Italian food culture in Italy could be from that of Italian-American food culture in the U.S. Let's just say, some culture has clearly been lost in the sauce of the American melting pot.
In New York, Andrew and I have the privilege of blending in. After all, we've lived on the East Coast our whole lives. Despite our Italian heritage and having the most Italian names possible, we stuck out in Italy. Primarily due to having little knowledge of Italian food culture. Luckily, we learned as we went, and hopefully did not offend anyone with our American ways!
The reality of Italy's food scene turned out to be quite different from what I am used to here in the U.S, in the best ways possible, and here's how.
3 ways Italian food culture in Tuscany blew my mind.
1- The best food is hyper local and seasonal
Something I learned quite quickly upon arriving to Tuscany was just how local the dishes are. Eating and drinking local, in-season food and beverages is very much part of Italian food culture.
For instance, many menus flaunted pumpkin ravioli or pumpkin cream soup. And they tasted so fresh! Nothing like pumpkin spice lattes, which most of my readers know I despise.
Additionally, you won't find bolognese, a meat sauce native to Bologna and NYC, in the hills of Tuscany. Aside from a couple tomato-based sauces, we ate mostly white ragùs. One restaurant used prunes as the ragù's natural sweetener, which tomato would typically offer in a tomato-based ragù.
Furthermore, at Castiglion del Bosco, a stunning winery and high-end resort, we ate the most local prosciutto one could possibly eat. They make it in-house using the estate's own pigs. Knowing the flavors well, our guide Marcello, urged us to save some prosciutto for the riserva, one of their most impressive wines.
More examples of extremely local Tuscan ingredients
- Umbricelli- a type of very thick homemade spaghetti native to the Umbria region of Italy. (right next to Tuscany).
- Truffles, olive oil, and pecorino- These three ingredients are all fresh, abundant, unique, and absolutely delicious in Tuscany.
- I learned that in fall and winter chefs use freshly grated truffle as commonly as black pepper. It adds an element of complexity and umami to rich, cheesy dishes like Cacio e Peppe.
- Almost every vineyard makes at least one olive oiI, complex and unique in flavor, just like the wine.
- Finally, I did not encounter a Tuscan pecorino that I didn't love.
- Wine- Maybe it goes without saying, but wine seems to "flow from the fountains there" as my friend Enzo Resta so beautifully put it. But Italy's drinking culture differs from ours. We noticed very little desire to get drunk among Italians. Instead, they seemed to prefer delicious wine and food pairings over a boozy cocktail. TIP: Make sure to try some local rosé and white wines too.
2- Dining out is an experience, with set times for lunch and dinner
Most restaurants in the small towns we visited served lunch from 12-2:30pm and dinner from 7-10pm. A couple even respectfully turned us away if we arrived as that time frame was coming to a close.
I can't speak for the summer months when tourists flock to Italy, but we visited in late November. So the majority of customers we encountered were local residents. And these towns are tiny! It wouldn't make sense for restaurants to stay open during the hours between lunch and dinner.
Since most locals naturally show up during business hours, restaurants simply aren't prepared to begin cooking a meal at 2:30pm. And they would never even suggest "making it quick" and rushing your meal along. In fact, restaurants almost always wanted to give us a lovely dining experience, welcoming us with bread, olive oil, a wine list, and a menu consisting of several courses.
Planning your day around restaurants
So if you are planning a trip to Tuscany, my advice would be to plan your day around your meals. And expect each meal to be somewhat of an experience. You can make reservations at almost any restaurant via phone or email.
When you're done eating, ask for the check, il conto. They will not automatically bring it to you, so as not to rush you out.
After lunch, consider visiting a nearby winery, which will be easy to find, for a wine tasting. Almost every winery offers a spread of pecorino and cured meats to compliment your wine and hold you over until dinner. TIP: Most wineries do require reservations at least a day in advance.
3- I REPEAT, dining out is an experience, so each person orders their own meal.
Sharing plates is one of my favorite ways to enjoy a meal out with friends. Here in NYC, we can find pretty much any type of cuisine imaginable, and many of these cuisines are built on the idea of sharing plates. This style of eating has become something many Americans just do. And no one would bat an eye at this request.
When I began going out for meals with my now husband's family, (who are Sicilian) I noticed something peculiar. Instead of sharing a few appetizers, they each order their own first and second courses.
I originally found them a little strange for this practice. "Why would you want to eat an entire appetizer by yourself?" I often wondered but never said out loud... "Don't you want to try more things?" I eventually got used to it and expected it from them.
Primi e Secondi Piatti
Well, in Italy they would fit right in. We quickly noticed that we were doing something very wrong culturally by attempting to order shared plates. It only took one or two awkward requests to share a plate before concluding that we must end this practice imediately. From then on, and with the exception of dessert, which appeared perfectly acceptable to share, we ordered for ourselves.
After making this change, I realized that ordering my own full meal allowed it to flow better. I could now focus on ordering a first course that would best prepare me for my second course. And I didn't have to worry about whether or not my partner would want the same thing. The overall dining experience totally changed for us one we made this change.
I still love sharing appetizers, and will certainly continue to do so here in the U.S, but I didn't miss this habit during our stay in Italy.
Some advice for Americans abroad
One of the best meals we had was at Ristorante Boccon di Vino in Montalcino. This restaurant boasts a fabulous view, kind staff, absolutely delicious, unique food, and a Michelin star. We had one single problem with this beautiful restaurant: all the loud, frankly obnoxious people eating there. All tourists.
So please, lower your voice a little. Mind what you say so you don't insult others, especially the ones hosting you.
Learn some Italian
Wherever you visit, try to greet people and order meals in the country's native language rather than English. I downloaded Duolingo upon arrival in Italy, but it was too late. I wish I had begun a month, or even a week prior.
I've always heard and felt comfortable with the generalization that "everyone speaks English there." First of all, this statement is simply false. Second of all, it's a shame that some people expect it to be true.
Yes, many people speak English. But how lame is it to assume that everybody does or should?
Most importantly, slow down and just enjoy the beautiful country! Don't aim to do too much in one day. And certainly don't refrain from eating and drinking everything you want to eat and drink.