Tuscan Food Guide
Aah, Tuscany. Famous for its Renaissance art and architecture, gorgeous villages and cucina contadina (farm-to-table Tuscan food). This heart-shaped region of Italy has indeed stolen the heart of many a visitor, including mine.
Tuscany is full of idyllic rural landscapes of rolling hills topped with umbrella pines and picture-perfect medieval towns and villages.
Not to mention the Renaissance masterpiece that is Florence. Tuscany is a must-see that makes it onto the itinerary of just about every first-time visitor to Italy. But while you may be familiar with its history, art and architecture, what do you know about Tuscany food?
You may be surprised to hear that Tuscan cuisine includes a number of naturally vegan dishes. That’s because these are not the dishes promoted to tourists by Tuscan restaurants and market vendors.
These people will probably try to convince you that you simply cannot leave Tuscany without tasting a bistecca alla fiorentina, which is the local name for a T-bone steak. Or they may try to convince you to order the pappardelle alla lepre, a type of pasta with wild hare.
If you look like an adventurous eater, you may even be offered some wild boar, chicken liver, or the classic Florentine street food “panino co i’ lampredotto” (a sandwich filled with cow’s stomach).
But the good news is, you can have incredible culinary experiences in Tuscany without eating anyone’s internal organs. While there are plenty of vegetables to be found here, the real highlight of Tuscan food is the extraordinary number of bean dishes.
Unique Features of Tuscan Cuisine
Italian cuisine is incredibly diverse, and each of the country’s 20 regions as its own local specialties. People from the north of Italy are known as polenta-eaters, while people in the south are the leaf-eaters.
And in Tuscany? The people of Tuscany are known as i toscani mangiafagioli — the Tuscan bean-eaters! The natives of this region are famous throughout Italy for their love of beans. No fewer than 23 different types of beans are grown and eaten in Tuscany.
These are prepared in a number of ways, and one of my favorites is fagioli all’uccelletto — a classic Tuscan bean stew made with tomatoes and sage.
Beans find their way into many of the nourishing stews and soups prepared in Tuscan kitchens. Two more examples are zuppa di fagioli alla fiorentina, literally “Florentine bean soup”, and ribollita — a thick vegetable soup with chunks of day-old bread and white beans.
Other vegan dishes specific to the Tuscan region include panzanella, a salad featuring day-old bread along with tomatoes and basil, and cecina, a savory pancake made from chickpea flour that’s often served either stuffed into small focacce or between two slices of bread.
And leaf-eaters will be happy to know that the variety of kale known as “lacinato kale” or “dinosaur kale” is very common in Tuscan cuisine. Here, it’s called cavolo nero, which literally means “black cabbage”.
Siena, in addition to having many things to see and do, is also the capital of Tuscan sweets and the home of delicious specialties like panforte. The name of this famous cake dating back to the 13th century means “strong bread”, and it’s indeed packed with caloric energy.
Classic Tuscan Dishes
Here are some classic Tuscan dishes to seek out while you’re in Tuscany. On this list, you’ll find breads, pasta dishes, bean soups and stews, and even some desserts. All vegan!
Many of these vegan Tuscan foods fall under the category of cucina povera. This term literally means “poor cuisine” and refers to the foods historically eaten by peasants and other people of humble origins in Italy.
Rather than throwing out stale, day-old bread, for example, Tuscans with limited means would reuse this bread to make delicious soups and salads. And since plant-based ingredients have traditionally been more affordable than animal products in Tuscany, many cucina povera dishes are naturally vegan.
You may have heard of cecina as a type of dried meat eaten in Mexico, but the Tuscan dish is something entirely different. It’s a savory pancake made from chickpea flour, similar to the socca that’s popular in southern France and the farinata found in the Italian regions of Liguria and Piedmont.
And just to confuse things even further, Cecina is also the name of a popular tourist resort on the Tuscan coast. Except that the dish cecina is most popular not in the town of Cecina but in the northwestern corner of Tuscany called Versilia.
There, you’ll find it at just about every takeaway pizzeria in town. In addition to being naturally vegan, cecina is also gluten-free.
This is the Tuscan version of bruschetta – that famous Italian appetizer of toasted bread. While bruschetta can come with various toppings, fettunta is simply slices of Tuscan bread rubbed with raw garlic and drizzled with olive oil.
This is the original garlic bread, and it’s traditionally made to celebrate the arrival of the first olive oil of the season. If you can manage to save a bit of it until after your main course arrives, it’s perfect for mopping up leftover pasta sauce.
This is such a common thing to do in Italy that there’s even an Italian word for it – la scarpetta! Literally speaking, this word means “little shoe”, but in the context of food it means using bread to mop up the extra sauce on your plate after a meal.
This delicious bread comes in many different forms in Italy, but in Tuscany it’s a round, thick and oily loaf that is often stuffed with some kind of filling and eaten like a sandwich. You’ll find it at local bakeries, which will have a variety of fillings on hand that you can choose from.
Plant-based fillings might include braised onions, tomatoes, spinach or roasted peppers. After you choose the filling, the baker will stuff it into the opened-out envelope of focaccia and then slide it back into the oven for a couple of minutes to heat it up.
Pappa al Pomodoro
This popular cucina povera dish is a tomato and bread soup that uses leftover, day-old bread rubbed with garlic. It’s one of the most famous Tuscan recipes and often appears on restaurant menus.
The word “pappa” basically means “mush”, and that’s a pretty good description of the consistency of this vegan Tuscan soup. The bread may start out stale and crusty, but it’s left to soften in tomato sauce until it becomes mushy and blends in with the liquid ingredients.
It’s traditional Tuscan comfort food at its finest. What could be more comforting than a warm bowl of tomato soup soaked up with bread?
Pappa al pomodoro is traditionally served in a clay or ceramic bowl, and it can be eaten either hot or cold, depending on the season. But don’t try to dip a slice of bread into your pappa al pomodoro!
You are likely to be scolded by a Tuscan onlooker, who will tell you that there’s already plenty of bread in the soup itself.
Panzanella is another cucina povera dish that uses day-old bread. This one was traditionally eaten for breakfast or as a snack in between meals.
It contains the same base ingredients as pappa al pomodoro, namely day-old bread and tomatoes. But it takes the form of a salad rather than a soup!
It sometimes goes by the name of “panmolle”, which means “soft bread”. The tomatoes make panzanella a refreshing dish that’s perfect for summer.
Until the 20th century, however, the base of the dish was onions, not tomatoes. Nowadays, the accepted recipe includes day-old bread, tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, and sometimes onions and/or basil.
There are other ingredients (both vegan and non-vegan) that are sometimes added, but purists are against adding these. Of course, it’s always best to check the exact ingredients when ordering in a restaurant.
Zuppa di Fagioli alla Fiorentina
This soup is made with cannellini beans, vegetables and day-old bread, but the consistency is quite different from that of pappa al pomodoro. Whereas the former is softened into a mush (pappa), in this dish the bread is toasted and chopped into small pieces.
Then the chef pours the soup over the bread just before serving it. The vegetables used generally include kale, carrots, celery, leeks and onions.
What do you do when you make too much zuppa di fagioli alla fiorentina? You use the leftovers to make ribollita! The name of this hearty soup means “reboiled”, as it was traditionally made by reheating the soup from the previous day.
So instead of day-old bread, this time we have day-old soup! The leftover soup is placed in a casserole dish and covered with sliced onions and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s then heated in the oven until the onions form a golden crust on top.
These are a type of fresh pasta rolled into long noodles, like fat spaghetti. Sometimes homemade pici are made with eggs, but it’s not hard to find vegan pici made with just water and flour. It’s always best to ask to be sure, though.
Typical plant-based dishes made with pici include pici alle briciole, which is a simple sauce of breadcrumbs, garlic and pepper. There’s also pici all’aglione, which features a spicy tomato and garlic sauce.
Fagioli al Fiasco
I realize that a dish with the word “fiasco” in its name sounds a bit ominous. But in this case, it just refers to a type of glass bottle, or a flask like you would use in a science laboratory. You can even use a Chianti wine bottle to cook the beans.
So, these are “beans in a bottle”, which was a traditional method used by Tuscan farmers to cook beans. The farmers would place a glass flask in the fireplace on hot, ashy embers before going to bed.
They would then wake up to freshly cooked beans the next morning! Nowadays, the flask of beans is usually cooked on a modern stove, but the ingredients are the same. Specifically, these are cannellini beans, garlic, sage and plenty of olive oil.
I have no idea why this dish is called “little-bird-style beans” in Italian, but don’t worry. No birds were harmed in the making of this dish!
It’s a simple meal of cannellini beans in a sage-flavored tomato sauce and can be served either as a side dish or as a main. You will find it in traditional trattorie throughout Tuscany.
Fagioli all’uccelletto makes a filling and economical meal when mopped up with a few slices of bread, la scarpetta style. You can think of it as the Italian equivalent of baked beans on toast, but made with fresh ingredients instead of a sugary canned tomato sauce.
This chestnut cake is one of the most typical and time-honored Italian desserts. It’s usually served in the autumn, when chestnuts are in season.
This is because the recipe calls for a dough of chestnut flour, olive oil and sugar. Castagnaccio originated in the Appenine Mountains, where chestnuts were once a staple food of rural communities.
Some common additions that you might find sprinkled on top are raisins, pine nuts, rosemary and walnuts.
Don’t be confused by its English name, “quince cheese”. There is no cheese in this sweet, thick jelly made from the quince fruit.
You might be more familiar with its Spanish name, “dulce de membrillo”. Quince trees produce a very fragrant fruit that is high in pectin, which is why it’s ideal for making jelly.
The name of this dessert, literally “strong bread”, refers to the strong flavors of the spices used to prepare it. These typically include nutmeg and cinnamon.
It originated in Siena hundreds of years ago and is also a local specialty in the town of Grosseto.
Panforte is a very heavy cake and is made of nuts and dried fruits, similar to a fruitcake. Usually, Tuscans serve it in small portions with coffee. While panforte is normally egg-and-dairy-free, it does sometimes contain honey. Although it’s not hard to find completely plant-based panforte, especially in supermarkets.
Want to taste these classic Tuscan dishes for yourself? You’re in luck, because Veg Jaunts and Journeys is offering two vegan tours to Tuscany in 2021!
The first is a purely Tuscan tour, where you’ll be based in Florence for the whole week. You’ll also make day trips to Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa and a couple of other off-the-beaten-path villages. Click here for more info on the vegan Tuscany tour.
And the second tour includes not just Tuscany but also Rome and Venice. During the Tuscany section of the tour, we will visit Florence and Siena and also enjoy a lunch and wine tasting at a Tuscan winery.
This second tour is the one I will be leading personally, and I can’t wait to take the group to all my favorite spots for vegan Italian food! Wanna join me? Click here for more info on the vegan Italy tour.