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Authentic Southern Italian Cuisine
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The Flavors of Toscana

August 2, 2013 Carlino's Restaurant no comments

If Rome is the soul of Italy, then Tuscany may be its heart. The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance that later spread throughout Europe, Tuscany – or Toscana, as it’s known to Italians – contains Florence, Siena, Pisa and the home of the world’s most beautiful marble, Carrara. The region’s rich cultural heritage extends to its culinary history, too; every time you enjoy a Florentine dish or appreciate the simplicity of great minestrone, you taste the fresh flavors of Tuscany.

The Tuscan Landscape

Like most Italian regions, Tuscany loves the sea. The region’s western coast provides a bounty of fresh seafood, including the calamari, octopus and mussels that form the basis of cacciucco, a hearty Tuscan seafood stew. One of the oldest fishing communities in the world is Castiglione della Pescaia. Even if you don’t speak Italian, you might spot the town’s fishing roots in its name; “Pescaia” loosely translates to “fishery,” and the people here have fished the Mediterranean since Roman times.

The Tuscan coast is mild, but away from the warm waters of the Mediterranean, winters can be harsh. That’s ideal for developing great soil, which is why Toscana was the Roman breadbasket for centuries. Gently rolling hills are ideal for growing wheat and grazing sheep or cattle, so it’s no surprise that many of these ingredients feature prominently in Tuscan cuisine. Sheep’s milk cheeses such as pecorino and morello are fixtures on Tuscan menus, but they also excel at producing creamy fresh cheeses from cattle, including a regional version of mozzarella that replaces the traditional water buffalo milk the more familiar cow’s milk.

Tuscan wheat has gone to make semolina for pasta and flour for breads for centuries. Over time, wheat farmers have bred strains to handle harsher weather in the mountains and milder temperatures closer to the coast, giving rise to summer and winter wheats that can make anything from crusty Italian breads to a tender, fine-grained panettone studded with dried and candied fruits.

Olives also grow beautifully in southern Tuscany. Some trees that produced oil for Roman diners still bear fruit for olive oil today. Tuscan oils are regarded as some of the finest, but many of the region’s olives also wind up as antipasti or flavorful accents in a salad. Spinach, lettuce and cress grow well in the region’s low-lying areas while citrus fruits prefer higher ground.

Dining Alla Toscana

A region’s geography shapes its national palate, and Tuscany’s abundance has gifted it with one of the world’s most delicious native cuisines. When Caterina de’Medici married into Spanish royalty, she missed a taste of home cooking and imported Tuscan chefs to create the flavors of Florence for her. Today, dishes with spinach are still called Florentine in her honor.

Simplicity is the hallmark of Tuscan food. A Tuscan cook believes that too much ornamentation of a dish just gets in the way of appreciating the vibrant flavors of native ingredients. Given Toscana’s abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood and meats, it’s no wonder that natives embrace elegantly simple preparations. Sauces are used sparingly as accent flavors rather than to cover up a dish.

Tender veal piccata epitomizes the Tuscan attitude to food and embraces the best of what the region has to offer. Flavored with Tuscan olive oil, its crisp exterior comes from the area’s abundant wheat fields and the flour they produce. To keep any flavors from getting lost in the dish, the light sauce comes from deglazing the pan with a splash of white wine and a squeeze of local lemons to brighten it. Butter from the region’s dairy farms finishes and enriches the sauce without concealing the dish’s other flavor notes.

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