I realize that for foodies from countries like America, Tuscan food in Florence can seem confusing. Recently, I took a quick stroll through common criticisms on sites like yelp and tripadvisor and decided to respond. These misunderstandings can be avoided, and I question the information out there educating people about what real Tuscan food and Italian food culture is about. Yes, Italian food includes plates of creamy gnocchi, carb-rich lasagna, pillow-y charred pizza and silky tagliatelle pasta and rich ragu’. But it is also a culture of regional foods, simple eating with little condiment. People eat out somewhat frequently in Italy, whether for a panino on the go or a quick plate of sliced roast beef and vegetables on lunch break. These meals are consumed casually at simple local cafes, hole in the walls or neighborhood trattorias. The grey area is that everyday Italians rarely go out for nicer, gourmet meals at atmospheric restaurants raved about in culture and leisure publications/blogs which travelers tend to chase after, giving a false impression of what the local eating culture is truly like.
Because eating out is relatively common, the offerings at more modest locales tend to be the real reflection of the touted healthy Mediterranean diet. And that is: salads with few ingredients, pasta with a touch of tomato, steamed vegetables, oven-baked meats or fish with nothing more than fresh local olive oil, salt and pepper. Travelers dining at these home-style places criticize this simplicity without realizing that it is probably the closest they will get to the authentic Italian experience they are googling for.
This post is intended to help people better prepare themselves for their trips to Italy. These are all understandable reactions, especially from people coming from places like the US where our food culture is severely lacking. There may be a dash of tough love but in general, my defenses are intended to help prevent foreign eaters in Italy from being disappointed unnecessarily. Here are some quoted criticisms I commonly hear or read online:
“I was unimpressed with the Florentine Steak- it’s served rare, super big and really expensive!”
This one deserves some tough love. People, the Florentine steak is rare. Period. I have seen and heard of people sending their steak back to the kitchen because it wasn’t cooked enough. I wish that people knew in advance the specifics of the Florentine steak before sitting down to order it- this would prevent disappointment and frustration for all parties involved. It sold by the kilo, usually minimum 800 grams but the average is 1200-1400 grams. A healthy portion of meat is 100 grams aka 3.5 ounces, mind you. Remember that the bone itself is “weighty” so factor that in. The bistecca fiorentina when ordered in a restaurant, varies in weight and size depending on what point the T-Bone is being slabbed at and meant to be enjoyed in social situations. In Italy, eating is about conviviality! Don’t ask why, don’t ask for it to be cooked more and please don’t complain about it. If you’d like a steak more on the well-done side and personal sized, order la tagliata which is a sirloin cut and usually served medium to done. But try to accept the local culture around the Fiorentina. Please don’t expect a Fiorentina steak to be served with sauce. I know in the states, we have lost our sense for what real meat should taste like and forgot that food should be appreciated without globs of emulsified sauce. Try to enjoy the Fiorentina experience, and remember every sensation as to remind you what real food is supposed to taste like.
“Why is there only a few choices for main courses?“
When a place is family run, and doing fresh seasonal fare- this is what you want to see. Too many items on a menu usually means that things are pre-packed, pre-made and re-heated.
“The plates don’t come out at the same time.”
You may know by now that Italians eat course by course. Pasta is served lone and meat comes with vegetable sides. If you order beans, don’t expect them to be very interesting. They are usually very plain and are intended as a side, not a main. Salad is eaten at the end of the meal as a palate cleanser and the bitterness helps to stimulate digestion. On the salad note, there are usually just greens, perhaps shredded carrots and maybe a couple tomatoes. Please don’t expect a chop salad with mushrooms, bacon and avocado!
“They brought us tasteless bread without asking and then charged us for it!”
Dears! Bread is like a palate to behold what is about to arrive. It is paired with either antipasti consisting of salty cured meats or used to sop up juices from your meat, for example. Italians eat bread with their meals and it is just apart of the service charge. You cannot really opt-out of it unless you have a gluten allergy or you specifically ask to be pardoned from the bread because you are anti-carbs, but you still will be slapped with the service charge so just eat it and be happy. It is customary and bread in Tuscany is made without salt for a series of historical reasons which I have lightly touched upon in previous blog posts.
“The vegetables were bland and just average! Just plain potatoes and spinach!”
Again, this is because potatoes are baked naked, boiled even at times and might come with a sprig of rosemary and spinach is usually steamed or tossed in a pan with olive oil and garlic. Spinach and greens like beet greens and kale (bietole, cavolo nero) grow abundantly nearly year round in Tuscany. There won’t be fancy flavors added to it because it is more a question of serving hearty, nutritious foods.
“Why are there so many peppercorns in the beef stew?!”
I really hate English translated menus. This dish I suspect this complaint comes from is the very old recipe of Peposo which has a beautiful history attached to it. See, if the menu had just said “peposo slow-cooked peppercorn beef stew”, people would know what to expect and perhaps do a internet search on the name. Peposo is a poor beef stew, slow cooking the tougher cuts of beef in wine and peppercorns until soft and flavorful. Originally from Impruneta, it is thought to have sustained the team of Brunelleschi for project Duomo after discovering the local dish during his jaunts to the terracotta capital. I’m no historian, so if you have a different account of this legend- please leave a comment!
There are some places which I personally love and see complaints that it is too expensive, and I won’t name names. My advice is this in general: you get what you pay for in life, within reason. If you appreciate pizza made with natural, homemade starter (which is a lot more labor intensive than just chucking in a cube of industrial beer yeast), local stone-ground flour, naturally fermented and risen dough (and can take up to 48 hours) and artisan gourmet ingredients- it will cost more than the sloppy pizzeria around the corner! In general- I hope people understand that Tuscany is not exactly the breadwinner for pizza notoriety. Traditional foods will be less costly in the place the food originates, in most cases. Keep in mind that apart from the product having a cost, but the hardworking owners have overhead and stipends to pay. I’m not saying that good food needs to be expensive, the point is that healthy, quality food with every ingredient thought out down to ancient grains will ultimately cost more than its mass produced counterparts. In Italy, flour is a heavily discussed staple. Big companies are being questioned for sourcing grain from many countries and packaging it in Italy. This drives down the price and inflates the consumer expectation of what a pizza should cost, for example. People tout and have this idea that everything in Italy is local and organic. While there is a strong food culture, there are the claws of the globalized food system tearing away at biodiversity.
Can you think of any other FAQ or have any confusion and criticism of your own to share? As an American myself, I understand where these complaints are coming from. I believe (and hope) if people are given the right information or are consciously proactive, they won’t be so surprised (or disappointed) when the pudding arrives. But I will stand firm on my tough love towards people who shun the bistecca- how could you not love that hunk of meat?
In defense of food around the world,
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