Traditional Tuscan cuisine has become a revered reference point for many top modern chefs. A good portion of the dishes are based on ancient Etruscan recipes and whatever is fresh, ripe and available during a certain season. And it is one of the healthiest diets in the world. Its foundation is cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and fresh vegetables, lean meats, and fish. While meat is now a standard at meals, it is only a relatively recent arrival—until well after World War II, it was a Sunday-only luxury.
Nearly all Tuscan restaurants feature traditional cuisine. Some have their own regional twist—for example the Maremma region is passionate about onions while the rest of Tuscany worships garlic. Again I have tried to spread my suggestions all over Tuscany with two in the big cities (if you can call Siena with a population of 55,000 big). The other three are almost secret places that only the very cognoscenti know about. So feel privileged; I do, every time I go to them and have a heavenly meal.
Osteria del Cacciatore (Monte San Savino)
This is a sentimental favorite. It was the first place we ate in Tuscany when we came to find a house here 27 years ago. It’s where we discovered how good pork ribs left uncut in their entirety, but grilled on Mediterranean hardwoods, can be. It is still as amazingly good as it was then run by a new generation of the same family. Set by the roadside in quiet woods precisely halfway between Monte San Savino and nowhere (toward Siena), it has the freshest local meats, cheeses, and sturdy local wines. The specialties are grilled meats especially bistecca alla Fiorentina (a thick, lightly-cooked steak that is butter-tender), fresh pastas, wild boar, wild duck, and porcini in season, as well as fresh pastas with assorted Tuscan sauces. Best to make a reservation, for it is a favorite with locals especially for Sunday lunch.
Trattoria La Tagliola (Arcidosso)
Halfway up the old volcano called Monte Amiata, hidden at the end of a road of a tiny hamlet, is this revered trattoria with a blazing grill in its middle. It specializes in mountain Tuscan fare with a mania for porcini mushrooms. This is in fact porcini heaven. If you don’t know what those are, you haven’t lived. Grilled, they are much tastier than steak; thick in a soup, they are unique; fried, they’re to die for; sautéed with a bit of garlic and parsley and spilled atop fettuccini they’re…you get the point.
They also have excellent milk-fed piglet, oven-roasted with wild fennel, or roasted Guinea hen, or leg of lamb. Their oven-roasted potatoes are a work of art. A la cacciatore—meaning stewed slowly with tomatoes, herbs, and garlic—they offer wild boar, tripe, or liver wrapped in bacon. For dessert: chestnut-based—they grow all around the town—or the usual Tuscan sweets. Ignore at your own peril.
Ristorante La Bussola (Porto Santo Stefano)
Tuscan fish dishes are as simple and as remarkable as the rest of Tuscany’s cuisine. The key with them—even more so than with meats—is freshness. La Bussola, cozy, romantic, with a charming interior lovingly cared for by Mario, is right across the road from the fish-boat harbor, and they buy only what is the best that day. They serve all the classic Tuscan dishes: homemade pastas with various fish sauces, whole fish roasted in a hard crust of salt, tagliatellini with mixed seafood, mixed grilled fish, etc. But they can also serve something special for those looking for new tastes: gnocchi di patate (potato dumplings) with prawns, leeks, and arugula, half-moon ravioli stuffed with pesto with prawns and truffles (just writing about this makes me swoon), and pasta with squid and radicchio. Unforgettable.
Trattoria Da Burde (Florence)
Now, you’ll ask, why of 2,000 restaurants in Florence, am I choosing one that’s a lengthy walk west along the Arno, completely out of the touristy area? Not only that, but it’s only open for lunch except for Friday night dinner. Well, it’s simply because it’s over a hundred years old—started as a restaurant and food store—and it serves unadulterated local dishes with prices that seem to be from a past century. The starters are all the Tuscan classics: various sliced meats and crostini. The soups are so hardy a spoon will stand up in them. The desserts change by the seasons. If you want something other than Friday dinner, then Il Santo Bevitore, just across the Ponte Vecchio, is a must.
La Taverna di San Giuseppe (Siena)
Inside the walls of Siena, just a few hundred yards from its famous Campo, is about as true a Tuscan food experience as you can find. The excellently stocked wine cellar cut into the sandstone was an Etruscan dwelling, and later a medieval chapel. The ambience is informal, the menu changes every few weeks to follow what the season has to offer from asparagus and artichoke, to truffles. The ravioli, pinci, and pappardelle are all homemade; the beef cutlet in a crust with porcini makes you want to close your eyes to savor it, and the Fiorentina steak is strictly from the Chianina breed. This is a favorite place with locals, you’re well advised to make reservations. Or I’ll beat you to it.