What’s your favorite Italian food?
Recently, Marco asked me the same question. Though it might seem simple enough, I knew that coming from him, the question wasn’t as simple as it sounded.
“Food or dish?” I asked.
I thought about some of my favorites. I knew that risotto or pizza wouldn’t do. He’d want something more specific. There was really only one Italian food so specific that I could admit I loved it more than the others.
“Pici with wild boar ragù.”
There’s no way to actually choose a favorite Italian dish. If I’ve learned anything from the Italians it’s that a food’s quality – its goodness – depends on a million different factors. It depends on the season, the freshness, the way it was picked, carried, preserved, cut and ultimately cooked. It depends on the weather, the rain, that particular season’s climatic elements. It depends on the soil, the minerals, your mood at the time.
With all that in mind, my tastes go time and time again to the strong, rustic flavors of Tuscany and Umbria. I’m not a pasta-lover, but give me some pappardelle with any kind of their typical wild game ragù (boar, hare, deer) and I change my pasta-hating tune. Pair it with one of the many amazing Tuscan wines and choose a starter of crostini with a chicken liver pâté and you’ve got possibly the best meal you’ll have in years. If you’re feeling something even stronger, sprinkle truffles over top. You can sprinkle truffles on top of anything – omelette, steak, ice cream – and the pungent, gassy smell will completely change the dish.
There’s no such thing as Italian food, only regional food, and the hills of Tuscany and Umbria produce some of the best ingredients and dishes that the country has to offer. These are some of my favorites:
No Italian meal starts or ends without olive oil. It is the base ingredient and the final dressing. And though most of us grab the cheapest bottle (I understand, even the cheapest bottle isn’t so cheap) there truly is a difference in olive oils. It’s a complicated crop and its color, smell and taste is influenced by so many things. It certainly influences a meal! Tuscan olive oil is some of the best in the world, and at a truly good Tuscan restaurant you’ll understand what quality oil truly means.
Crostini are a classic appetiser in both Tuscany and Umbria made with small toasted slices of bread and a spread on top. Some of my favorite are the simple chicken liver crostini, sometimes served with capers and lemon. Though the name is enough to turn you off, everyone should try it at least once – the flavour is rich and rustic and perfectly balanced with the unsalted Tuscan bread. Of course you can find crostini al tartufo, with a black truffle spread, and in Umbria crostini all norcina is another popular choice.
Pecorino cheeses with jelly
Another great antipasto in Italy are the cheese trays. You’ve probably already ordered the sliced meats or affettati (knowing how amazing they are in these regions) so why not get a cheese tray to accompany it? There’s nothing quite like the pecorino, or goat cheese, in Tuscany, and the honey and jellies they give you to accompany them are the cherry on top. Ask your waiter how to eat them – the honey and jelly is meant to accompany a specific cheese, and you should always save the strongest for last!
Speaking of tartufi so often already, truffles are found throughout Tuscany and Umbria, though Umbria is for sure Italy’s truffle cash cow. Annual festivals and sagas (local, food based festivals) celebrate the truffle yearly and the region’s classic dishes are enough to show its love for the expensive root. There are black truffles and white truffles, the latter of which is noticeably more expensive. This is likely for its short season. Black truffles grow from October to March, white truffles only from October to December,
They say you either love truffles or hate them – the pungent smell and overwhelming flavour can be a turn off for many – but I think that there is more than enough space for those whose feelings fall in between the two extremes. Start small with just some truffle shavings over your pasta, omelette or ice cream before you decide to get that skirt steak with a truffle gravy (which I’ll for sure be eating).
Though you might be surprised to see “wild boar” written on a menu, in Tuscany and Umbria you’ll get used to it fast. Hunted in both regions, wild boar meat is gamey and delicious and often eaten over pasta as a sauce or as its own secondo. This is where my favorite dish comes in to play: pici con ragù di cinghiale. Pici are a classic Tuscan pasta shaped like thicker spaghetti but made fresh with egg. The wild boar ragù is the perfect condiment to the thick pasta.
Norcino is a mostly-invented word that is applied to any of the cured pork coming from Norcia, Umbria. Apparently the butchers in Norcia were so good at their trade and had such good meat that the word norcino became the overarching term for the valued meat from Norcia. Cured in a time tested way, try norcino as a pasta ragù, or even in a simple sandwich. I did once and it was so good I wrote an ode about it.
Bistecca alla fiorentina
The Florentine steak is a massive T-bone steak grilled on a wood fire. It’s so massive, that they cook it for 3-4 minutes on the front, back, AND side, to be sure it’s not entirely raw. Though I usually don’t get steak when I eat out, when in Florence it’s a sin not to get at least one to split with a friend – it’s not made anywhere like it is in Tuscany!
Actually, it’s nearly impossible to choose one of the enormous variety of Tuscan wines to choose from. From Chianti to Monticello, Brunello to Montepulciano the reds of Tuscany can hardly be beat. That said, I really enjoy the dry, full-bodied reds that come from one of the prettiest hilltop towns in the region. Since it often costs a bit more than its also-deserving sister, Chianti, Montepulciano feels like a real treat.
The cuisines of Tuscany and Umbria are both known for simply, seasonal and hearty meals. A classic in the cucina povera, or “poor cuisine” nothing goes to waste here. Made with local ingredients like pig-hunted truffles and fresh wild asparagus, the meals still feel like they’ve been hunted and foraged. And don’t be put-off by my carnivore-loving list – the region has some of the best local produce in the country! Turn more toward the hearty, cost-effective soups like ribollita or the classic tomato soup, pappa al pomodoro and the white beans in Tuscany can’t be beat.
Though I finally gave Marco and answer, the truth is that when you’re traveling in central Italy, it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite dish!
Food, Italian style:
There’s No Such Thing as “Italian Food”
The Food of Valtellina
An Aperitivo in Milan and How to Have One
Italy’s Traditional Food for The New Year
What to Eat in Liguria
On Italy and Food