Is Tuscany everything you hear it is? Rolling cypress-lined hills with fields of grapevines and groves of olives at every turn? Yes. Towering hill towns, each filled with history, simple but delicious food, and scenic vistas of the valleys below? Check. Incredible shopping with artisanal products you never have enough room for in your suitcase — olive oil, truffles, confections, leather goods, scarves, clothes, shoes? Indeed. Should you rent a car to truly experience Tuscany? Absolutely. Will a Garmin GPS device help you navigate? Absolutely not. Throw that thing out the window and have a friend be your co-pilot with an iPhone and follow that green dot on Google maps. Old school physical maps wouldn’t hurt either for those times when you lose the satellite signal (not that often but it’ll save you a few missed turns).
Following are some of the highlights of my trip. I doubt that you will go wrong no matter where you go in Tuscany but because there are so many options, it might be helpful to have at least a few things in mind when you get on the plane. We were a bit overwhelmed before we went but just having a few ideas in our pocket made the trip easier and the other discoveries easily presented themselves to us. What we were surprised to find is that almost everyone spoke English. And those who don’t, you find a way to communicate. Italians seem to like Americans. Yah!
We started the trip in Firenze, aka Florence. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance. Michelangelo, Botticelli and Da Vinci all created their masterpieces here. Be sure to visit the Ufizi Gallery, one of the most beautiful museums in Europe where you can see Botticelli’s stunning Birth of Venus. Michelangelo’s David is housed at the Accademia di Belle Arti and is definitely worth a special visit. And of course don’t forget to visit the Duomo, the beautiful cathedral with stunning views of Florence. We were only in Florence for a couple days so that’s about all you’ll get in if you’re there for a short time. There are many other cultural options should you stay longer.
Fashion designers Roberto Cavalli and Guccio Gucci are famous modern day residents. And you know what that means. Great shopping! We ran ourselves ragged hitting the shops as well as the open San Lorenzo Market which is a must visit – mostly leather goods and scarves. Just be careful of the knock-offs from China and be brave. Negotiate!
Behind the San Lorenzo Market (and a little tricky to find) is the Central Market. Now we’re talking! The Central Market is an indoor food market filled with vendors selling cheese, meat, pasta, wine, olive oil, mushrooms and more. There are also several places to eat. My former intern, Tess Gittleman, tipped us off to Nerbone as a good lunch spot there. Everything is made from scratch – of course. You stand in line, grab your food, then sit at tight tables and dig in. They were serving risotto, tripe and pasta but what truly shined was their slow cooked beef sandwiches with 2 sauces on top – a spicy red sauce, and a bright, green sauce. Make sure you get both sauces on there!
I’ll give you 3 more food highlights in Florence. The rest you will just stumble on yourself. Vivoli – best gelato. Pick the size of cup you want at the register and pay then get in line and choose your flavor. Highly recommend the hazelnut. It’s life changing. For dinner, try La Giostra. While there are a lot of Americans eating there, the food is 100% authentic Italian and there is a story about the owner being a prince which is an interesting tidbit. The main waiter is a character you won’t miss. He looks like a Pirates of the Caribbean extra with 30 bracelets up one arm, big rings on his fingers and multiple necklaces. Entertaining for sure. Highlights of the meal include octopus ceviche and rabbit roulade. Another great dinner spot is Buca Del’Orafo right near the Ponte Vecchio (a bridge over the Arno river, riddled with touristy jewelry shops). One of the chefs is a young American girl named Karly who is a cousin to our former intern, Molly Siciliano. Food Network’s Giada de Laurentiis gave the restaurant a great review in her blog — “Best meal ever.”
My last note on Florence is if you are looking for a lovely affordable place to stay, try the Monna Lisa. This is my second time staying there and I loved it both times. It has a lot of character, a lovely outdoor garden, beautiful breakfast buffet in the morning and a quaint little bar for a nightcap. It is centrally located, less than 5 minutes from the Duomo. Florence is a very walkable city (which is a good thing because there’s no subway).
When we hit the road from Florence to our destination in Buon Convento which is 2 hours south of Florence, we decided to stop in San Gimignano. We had heard it was beautiful and it was a nice break for us to get out of the car and get some air. San Gimignano is a medieval walled town with lots of shops (a little on the touristy side but well, we’re tourists) and stunning views. It was also our introduction to Tuscany’s obsession with “cianghale“ (wild boar). We saw many a stuffed wild boar in the shops. We bought some cianghale salame with pistachios and it was excellent. Later in the week, we had cianghale ragu with pici (Tuscany’s signature hand rolled spaghetti) which was also amazing. If you see cianghale on the menu in Tuscany, order it!
We arrived in Buon Convento a little before dinner. We stayed at a vineyard called Casali di Bibbiano which is actually just outside of Buon Convento in Bibbiano. Alberto Guadagnini is the owner of Casali as well as several restaurants in Philadelphia and Florida. He was a very gracious and accommodating host and helped arrange one of my bucket list activities – truffle hunting! The property is beautiful as you would imagine. Alberto makes several red wines and one white – all of which we had unlimited access to at dinner every night. He also makes grappa, strong stuff made from grape skins. Beware. You can easily just sit by the pool with a glass of wine and gaze at the scenery. Or you can take a nice hilly walk into town and grab a life changing ganache-filled croissant or shop for hand-knitted scarves. Chef Italo Marone made us stunning meals every night with whatever was available from the market or in his garden on the property. Every time I asked him what was in a dish, I realized it was just simple, high quality ingredients. Get to know Italo and watch him whip up an easy Barley Salad with Pesto. So good! I can’t wait to make it myself.
So let me tell you about the truffle hunting. If I wanted to go, Alberto told me I had to meet him at 6:30am. I think he thought I’d decline but hell no, I was going! My friend, Melinda, was a trooper and came along as well. We drove into town and met up with a third generation truffle hunter and his trusty, adorable truffle dog. We then drove to a truffle reserve where we started sniffing out truffles. Truffles grow underground which is why you need a dog to sniff them out. They used to use pigs but apparently the pigs were eating the truffles. Can’t say that I blame them. It was so much fun to watch the dog dig wildly with both paws, stick his head in a hole then let his owner dig a little further to see if there was a precious white truffle in the hole. After two hours of hiking around, no white truffles. However, just as we were about to give up, resting on the surface…a small black truffle! Looks like a big piece of dirt. Amazing they’re able to find these things. Next time you have truffles with your meal, don’t balk at the sky high prices. It’s justified.
While there are too many highlights of the trip to count, personally my visit to Montelpuciano to film cookbook author Pamela Sheldon Johns was the highlight. Pam is originally from the United States. About 20 years ago, she started visiting Tuscany and teaching classes. One day she and her husband (an artist) decided they would move to Tuscany. And now they live on a beautiful farm, Poggio Etrusco, with their daughter, that they run as an inn and have been chosen as one of the best cooking class experiences in Tuscany by Food and Wine magazine. Pam is a local now. When we visited, it was olive harvest time. She had some folks harvesting the olives (Melinda and I got to pick a few – fun!) and spoke beautiful Italian to them. They joined us for lunch at the farm table in her dining room which was delightful. Also joining us was her daughter’s “adopted grandfather” Virio Neri who is featured in her book. A charming man. My own regret is that I didn’t stay there for a couple of days to spend more time with Pam and to learn more great recipes! Strongly recommend that you do if you go.
Pamela’s house could be a movie set for an authentic Tuscan home and her kitchen is adorable. As you’ll see in her videos, she has a wood burning oven! Every little pot, pan, gadget, bottles of olive oil (they’ve already pressed 2900 kilos this year!) & jam perfectly fill out the kitchen you want to hang out in with a nice cappucino (which we did). Pam has a new book out called Cucina Povera. It is one of my favorite cookbooks in a long time. All of the recipes are peasant recipes that have lived on in Tuscan kitchens and now you can make in your own. Each recipe has a story which makes you want to make the dish even more. Pam and I selected two dishes for her to make that we could film. One is Ceci Stufati (Stewed Chickpeas) – a simple, soul satisfying side dish or add pasta and make it a meal. The other is Ricciarelli, almond cookies indigenous to the Siena region of Tuscany. While this is typically a very complicated cookie to make, Pam came up with a simplified version that’s very close to the original. Pam is a wealth of knowledge as well as a warm and wonderful person. She is so passionate about the food she cooks and it comes through on camera. I hope that you enjoy the videos as much as I enjoyed filming them. Pam will be in New York and Connecticut this month for a short book tour. Go and meet her if you have a chance. Or pick up a copy of Cucina Povera for yourself or a gift. It’s a wonderful cookbook.
While there were many more culinary highlights to the trip, I think you get the idea and that if you are planning a trip, the highlights I have featured will be helpful to you. Feel free to comment below if you have any questions or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Buon appetito!
I want to thank my longtime (not old) friends Lisa LaFrance and Melinda Warren for allowing me to mix business with pleasure and thanks to Melinda for standing in as how2heroes staff photographer. I’d also like to thank my new friends, wine writer JoAnn Actis-Grande (who introduced me to Pam) and Fa Lundeen, for joining us on our Tuscan adventures.
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Watch and see truffle hunting in action.