Justin Cloud is a professional cook and world traveler based in Boston, USA. Justin has over 14 years of cooking experience, having worked at a variety of culinary establishments in Europe and the United States. For about seven years, he taught cooking at Toscana Saporita, a cooking school in Tuscany.* He has been a students’ finals judge at the prestigious International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in New York City. Here, he gives travelers tips on how to enjoy the gastronomic delights of the gorgeous Italian province.
What’s different and special about Tuscan cooking?
Tuscany has some of the best food that I have ever eaten, some of the most sought-after ingredients. Tuscany was a very rich region, and you can see it in the cuisine: they use egg yolks in their pasta, which is how you get that nice rich yellow-colored fresh pasta. In the (poor) south, in Sicily, recipes for pasta involve water and flour, that’s it, because they didn’t have eggs to waste on their pasta. So economic diversity plays its role in the cuisine too. In Tuscany you get much more decadent dishes. For example, you wouldn’t see butter anywhere further south than Tuscany, for the most part, everything’s just olive oil.
Italian cuisine is very broad; every time I go back I discover something new – a technique, a flavor, or a recipe – something that surprises me. What it really comes down to, food is different from region to region, even from community to community. So it is not just Tuscan… take Stiava, the town in which Sandra (the founder of Toscana Saporita cooking school) grew up in: the reason she opened the school was that she really wanted to preserve the heritage and culinary traditions of her community, which is different from the next community.
What are the must-try dishes for every first-time traveler to Tuscany?
I will do the food in the order that a typical Tuscan meal would be served. That’s usually for dinner. In Italy, the big meal is dinner – it’s a three-to-four-hour event. For lunch you can go to a bar, where you can grab a pastry or even some pasta, but you take your time with dinner.
You start by ordering your antipasto. I would recommend getting any of the cured meats, but especially prosciutto, brasata and bresaola; cheeses – pecorino is probably the most “Tuscan” of cheeses, and you’d want some parmigiano; fried pizza dough; crostini. You’d want to get bruschetta of some kind. Bruschetta is very broad; it literally just means grilled bread with toppings. In Tuscany, one that they do that’s very common is topped with chickpea puree with rosemary and a little bit of chicken stock. You can also get just a grilled piece of bread with a slice of tomato, slice of mozzarella and basil.
Then you’ll have some form of pasta, your primo – sometimes one, sometimes three. In Tuscany, you definitely want to have amatriciana, which is a tomato-based sauce with onion and pancetta or guanciale (different kinds of bacon).
One of my favorites is tordelli, which you will find anywhere in Tuscany and every recipe is slightly different, which I also enjoy. They are meat-filled ravioli with a meat ragu. At this one place I liked I’d have four courses of tordelli – because it was so good. There was this 85-year-old and that was all she would do, make the pasta. She would make these meat-filled pillows; they were so light. They were so good. And they had just a touch of nutmeg and cinnamon, so it was slightly sweet and meaty and delicious… The older the cook, the better the pasta, I can tell you that right now.
You always have lasagna in Tuscany. They don’t use as much cheese: it’s more like a meat sauce with béchamel and it’s just topped with parmigiano.
For the secondi – the main event – I will give you my favorite, something you should not miss: it’s called stinchi (pronounced like “stinky”; it’s the plural of stinco), it’s a pork shank, the lower half of the leg, below the knee. You braise that for seven hours until it is falling-off-the-bone tender. It is amazing.
One of my other favorites is really simple – just grilled rabbit leg. And then there’s bistecca alla fiorentina, or Florentine steak, which is a huge cut of steak… They are very proud of their beef in Tuscany.
Any desserts you shouldn’t miss while in Tuscany?
100 percent you have to try gelato (Italian for ice cream). Personal favorite – pistachio, and they have these cherries there, amari, they are tiny and they are sour, they preserve those in a sweet syrup and they’ll do a gelato out of that. Tiramisu – almost anywhere else, you get a piece of cake. When you get a tiramisu in Tuscany, it’s probably going to be in some kind of chalice or a small bowl, because it’s layered. It will be messier…
Tuscan food should be “rustic-chic”: the flavor should be phenomenal but it should look like mom just put it on the table.
Pana cotta (Italian for “cooked cream”) is another dessert you should have. I am also a big fan of bambolloni: it’s just like a doughnut, but it’s a very light airy dough that they fry. Once they come out, they toss them in a big bowl of sugar and then they cut them open and pipe in Chantilly cream or chocolate or fruit preserve.
That’s basically the series of events: antipasto, pasta, secondi, dessert, and then your after-dinner drink or digestif, which would be Grappa or Amaro and then coffee.
Please talk to us more about drinks – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
Wine is the drink of choice in Italy; coffee would be a close second. The coffee is just amazing. I don’t drink coffee in too many places, I don’t drink coffee at home, but when I am in Italy I’d have two or three coffees a day. And I like the “correto”, which is where they “correct” it with some form of alcohol. My favorite is Sambuca. Just walk into a café and ask for “un caffè corretto sambuca,” and they’ll give you a shot of espresso and top it off with a splash of Sambuca.
You are not gonna want to miss the wine. One of the most well-known wine-producing Tuscan regions is Chianti (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chianti). Chiati Classico is the wine of choice. There are people who live for wine in Tuscany; the tradition is centuries-upon-centuries-upon-centuries-old and they take this very, very seriously.
Some of my favorites among the reds are Barolo, Amarone or Chianti Classico. Barolos and Amarones are heavier, they have a higher alcohol content, but they pair really well with grilled meats, your secondo. And the Chianti Classico can be a little drier, a little sharper… Chianti Classico is made from the Sangiovese grape, which is not grown in many other places. (In order for a wine to be considered Chianti Classico, it has to be at least 80 percent Sangiovese grapes.) It is a very hard grape to grow, but it can produce a really delicious flavor if done properly. The climate there is harsh, summertime is hot, the terrain is mountainous, so it’s kind of rocky; the terroir is not the best. The winegrowers I know tell me that that’s the kind of condition you want to make really good wine. You don’t want to make it easy on the grapes. The struggle of the grape is what produces really good wine.
So where can travelers enjoy some of these delicacies? Any tips?
You are going to have dishes that are native to the place you are at – that’s the thing to look for. So different places will have different must-try dishes. My advice is: stay away from touristy places. Go with an open mind and look at what the locals are eating. This is how you are really going to get a flavor of where you are at.
Do you need to spend a lot of money to eat in Tuscany? Can you have a good time and not go bankrupt?
I think so. You are not gonna get the full experience. The things that I’m describing, they are going to cost a little more, but if you wanted to go the cheaper route… а good way to do it is the way the Italians do it: a light breakfast consisting of pastry, yogurt and espresso. Lunch again will be very light, something like a panini sandwich, something on the go, and especially if you are traveling, that’s something that you would probably do anyways. You know, you are out sightseeing, you are going from a museum or just walking around the city. Breakfast and lunch should be relatively cheap. Dinner is the meal you want to do right. It’s an event over there; it’s not just a meal. If you want a quintessential Tuscan experience, you are gonna need to know somebody there and you are gonna want to go to their house for dinner or find a small family-owned establishment that attracts a lot of locals.
As far as eating out, there are so many tourist traps you need to watch out for. I’d do some research for dinner. I’ll spend 45 minutes to an hour planning dinner when I’m eating out in Italy. If you know someone there, ask them. If you don’t, there are plenty of travel advice sites like TripAdvisor.
Where have you been in Tuscany, and what impressed you the most, other than food?
Siena, Florence, Lucca, Forte dei Marmi, San Gimignano, Viareggio, Isola d’Elba (the island where Napoleon was banished in 1814) – these are the places that I’ve been to multiple times and that I keep going back to.
Siena is gorgeous and it’s the oldest most intact medieval city in the world. The surrounding area, on for instance the drive from Pisa to Siena, is your quintessential movie shot of Tuscany: with the rolling fields of wheat and lavender and the little houses in the sunset… Siena is very quaint: it’s a city, it feels very tight, the streets are narrow, the buildings tall, but everything has a comforting kind of feel to it. Florence is more modern; I’d compare it to a New York City with some amazing Renaissance works of art. Lucca is surrounded by these huge walls, built during the Renaissance to protect the city from attack, which remain intact to this day. Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi are on the beach, so they are more about vacationing.
Where do you normally stay, and do you have any tips for booking budget accommodation?
I either stay somewhere for free, with friends, or go for the cheapest place possible because I just need somewhere safe to leave my stuff and take a shower, go to bed. Аirbnb.com is good, or if you do Booking.com a week before you are going somewhere, they start doing discounts. Once they know they are not going to be full, they start lowering their prices… I stayed at a 400-dollar room one time for 65 dollars (USD) when I was in Barcelona last time. In high season, I probably wouldn’t do that though.
* Taking a cooking or a language course is a great way to get to know Tuscany if you can afford it. A simple Internet search will return numerous offers for either kind of class. Normally, these courses last upward of two weeks and include visits to some of the region’s most famous sights.