the Tuscan Soil
gourmand’s sojourn in Italy reveals the many charms of true
a recent week spent traveling through and dining in a few
of the cities and towns of Tuscany, I never saw a supermarket.
That’s because the cuisine stays close to the fertile ground.
It may be presumptuous to generalize about an area the size
of Massachusetts based on mere hours spent in the environs
of Florence and Siena, but it’s a common affliction among
visiting American writers.
The food is rustic, I was warned. It’s not fancy. No sauces.
What I wasn’t told is that dining is an all-day affair that
includes tending and harvesting the farmland, butchering and
preparing the meats, making pasta, putting together a compelling
ragù and, especially, producing excellent wine and olive oil.
Tuscany is the upper front thigh of Italy’s leg, bounded by
the regions of Umbria and Emilia-Romagna, with the Pisa end
of the province facing the Tyrrheian Sea. Despite its extensive
seaside holdings, Tuscany’s cuisine is defined by its two
greatest agricultural products: olive oil and Chianti. As
Waverly Root observes in The Food of Italy, “Its people
speak the national language in its purest form, and . . .
cook the most robust form of food, meat (especially beef),
in the simplest manner, without fuss or frills.”
It has to start with good meat. The pig on the table before
me was killed that morning, after a short life of natural
foods and little confinement. Beside the carcass is Sergio
Giovannoni, a stocky man with a mane of graying hair, who
runs a 12-inch butcher’s knife across a steel. With deft,
trained fingers, he sets to work on the beast.
He speaks no English; my Italian is the insufficient souvenir
of opera fandom. We converse in a pidgin of sign language,
but, not to get too precious about it, we share the language
of food. Except that my lexicon is rooted in the supermarket
shelf; his includes the shotgun.
Sergio works at Fattoria Lavacchio, a farm that, unsurprisingly,
produces wine and olive oil. They’re also part of the Italian
agriturismo movement, which encourages such farms to
also take in tourists. He is the house butcher/chef/factotum.
Should you choose to dine at your lodgings, you’ll be served
whatever he decides to make that day.
My first lunch there began with ribollita, and the
group I was with—a dozen American restaurant people—was bowled
over by it. Puzzled, too: It seemed to be no more than a serving
of thick bean stew. Ribollita literally means “reboiled,”
and it’s a Tuscan classic, born of the traditional Sunday
dinner of beef boiled with carrots and leeks. The vegetable
leftovers would be combined, the following day, with stale
bread and mashed beans and, inevitably, olive oil. Now it
usually also includes cavolo nero, or black cabbage,
and we’re convinced that that was the ingredient that put
this dish over the edge.
Because the flavors, in Sergio’s preparation, leapt out at
us. Nothing fancy in the seasonings—I begged a recipe and
found little other than salt and pepper as enhancements—and
yet it was so lively on the palate that it threatened to overshadow
the roasted, farm-raised chicken that followed. Threatened,
but it didn’t.
It didn’t hurt that there were breads to go with it. Bread
made on the premises. Bread made from the wheat ground at
a restored windmill—the only working one in Italy—located
The following day, after Sergio turned a pig and two boar
into roasts, sausages and what eventually would become soppressata
(after the pig’s head boiled for a sufficient amount of time),
he set to work with cornmeal and water and produced a fresh,
sticky polenta that he served with a pork ragù (another product
of the late pig).
A short walk from the our lodgings was a restaurant called
Mulino a Vento (after the windmill), but Vincenzo,
the chef, is a Sicilian, and thus (as the Tuscans whisper)
not truly Italian. Yet he used fried squares of polenta
as a bed for a stew of cinghiale, the wild boar
first hunted in Tuscany because of its fondness for wine grapes.
Another night, Vincenzo served us the most renowned of all
local dishes: bistecca alla fiorentina. It’s a two-inch
cut of what we call a T-bone steak, from the muscular, grass-fed
Chianina cow, a white-coated animal unique to the area.
The steak is rubbed with lemon, rosemary (such bushes appear
as ornamentals alongside the farm’s walkways) and olive oil,
and grilled rare. Vincenzo obviously saw in me a trencherman
who deserved, and was awarded, the bone itself, to which clung
the rarest beef.
In contrast, Sergio one evening took a simpler cut—a whole,
boned, butterflied hare—and covered it with strips of his
homemade prosciutto. On top of this went thin slices of pecorino
cheese, and that was covered with a scrambled egg layer (eggs
sourced, naturally, from the farm’s own hens). The roast was
wrapped around tubes of Sergio’s own rabbit sausage, then
tied and roasted. Served with a side of pisellini stufati
(stewed peas), it had an incredibly persistent flavor
that lingered long after the last glass of grappa that night.
Each glass of Chianti Rufina, a state- controlled variety
unique to the area in which I stayed, seemed to soar up and
into the food. Likewise, the peppery olive oil, the best of
it cold-pressed and stone-ground, added a unity of flavor,
whether drizzled on crusty bread (fettunta) or worked
deeply into a dish.
With so many components feeding off the same soil, there was
a continuity to each meal and to the succession of meals.
And all of these components came together at a small farmhouse
in the town of Petorio, not far from Siena. Sergio had a room
at this house because he visited regularly to butcher meats
for his friends. When he brought us there, trays of meat and
potatoes already were roasting in a large, deep, wood-fired
oven, the aroma dominated by the dark flesh of more cinghiale.
Working more quickly than I could follow, Sergio’s friend
Gina made a volcano of semolina flour on a bread board and
broke eggs into its crater; soon she was hand-rolling pici,
a thick spaghetti unique to that area.
Tomatoes and potatoes both arrived in Italy from the New World,
and the latter took an especially long time to catch on. When
it did, its favorite Tuscan preparation became the olive oil-drenched
potato cubes that finally emerged from Gina’s oven, their
outsides crunchy, the insides like little olive-scented clouds.
First there was pici with a rabbit ragù; then there
was more rabbit, roasted alongside duckling and chicken, served
with the wild boar. Add to that the Chianti made on the premises,
and the olive oil ditto. By now, Sergio was in his T-shirt,
toasting Gina, toasting her husband the winemaker, toasting
our group. And we toasted him back, easing from Chianti to
sweet Vin Santo and then into an amazing, orange-scented grappa
that we easily polished off.
When your local agriculture defines your cuisine, it also
defines your community, a social phenomenon well described
by Wendell Berry. The thriving hillside communities of Tuscany,
where the by-products of this close-to-the-ground cycle are
such excellent food and wine, are a case study in how well
that can work.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Sophie Bistro (2853
Route 9, Malta) announces its first cooking class
of the season, to be held from 11 AM to 4 PM Sun.,
Oct 23. Tentatively titled “Fall Harvest,” the
class is limited to 12 people and will be a real
hands-on experience. The students will work together
to prepare a number of dishes, focusing on techniques
that can be used in the home kitchen, after which
everyone will sit down to a late-afternoon lunch
to enjoy the fruits of those labors—with the added
fruit of wine. The price is $125 per person. Also,
the restaurant’s first wine dinners of the season
take place at 6:30 PM Wed., Nov 9 and Thu., Nov
10. The theme will be “Seraphic Syrah,”and the
dinner will focus on the divergent ways in which
the French use this versatile grape to make everything
from rosé to Chateauneuf du Pape. The dinner will
include five courses designed by Chef Paul Parker
to complement each wine. The cost is $75 per person
plus tax and tip, and seating is limited to 20
people per night around a single banquet table.
For more info and reservations, call the restaurant
at 583-3538. . . . Remember to pass your scraps
to Metroland (e-mail email@example.com).
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very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's
at Ogdens. You review described my dining
experience perfectly. This wasn't the case
with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or
Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree
that a restaurant can have an off night
so I'll give the second unit on Central
Avenue a try.
yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back.
Second, I haven't had a chance to visit
Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading
would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant
- it's not that far away. People traveled
from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam.
From his background, I'm sure the chef's
sauce is excellent and that is the most
important aspect of an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on
the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm
looking forward to trying this restaurant
- I look forward to Metroland every Thursday
especially for the restaurant review. And
by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam
location and is opening a new bistro on
Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running
in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake
Bistro. It should be great!
comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants
being as "standardized as McDonald's"
shows either that you have eaten at only
a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or
that you have some prejudices to work out.
That the physical appearances are not what
you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing
on the food. And after all, that is what
the main focus of the reviews should be.
Not the physical appearances, which is what
most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on
Central Avenue, may not look the greatest,
but the food is excellent there. And the
menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian,
chicken, and more..