A Mother & Son's Trip To Tuscany
Last year, I told my mum that, for her birthday, we could use the stash of British Airways points I had been hoarding to go anywhere - within reason - that she wanted. Most people, or at least me, would seize the opportunity to fly across the globe; to see Machu Picchu, or some other wonder of the world. But not my mum. Instead, she said she wanted to go to Italy. When I - slightly selfishly - asked “why Italy? Don’t you fancy the Caribbean?”, she responded, “well I’ve never been to Italy, Finn, so if it’s quite alright with you, that’s where I’d like to go”.
How could I protest? It was her birthday, after all.
And so, with that decision made, we booked our flights to Pisa, in Tuscany, known, of course, for its iconic leaning tower. The intention wasn’t really to visit Pisa, though: we were just passing through. Really, it was all about visiting Florence, which I, too, had never visited and yet had heard so many wonderful things about.
In any case, giddy from the several glasses of prosecco we saw off whilst flying over the Alps (we are Geordies, after all), we arrived in Pisa’s Galileo Galilei Airport for our mother and son adventure. Despite being the smaller sibling of the bigger, and immeasurably more beautiful, Florence, Pisa remains the gateway to Tuscany, with its airport the region’s largest.
Pisa: Gateway to Tuscany
Realising we couldn’t not see Pisa, we decided to spend a night there, staying in a private boutique apartment with cold stone beneath our feet and opulent high ceilings. With our bags dropped off, we sought out a local shop and bought a good bottle of Chianti, the region’s staple wine, to enjoy whilst getting ready to see the town against the backdrop of night. If I recall, I had the song “Patricia” by Nino Rota, from the Italian classic film “La Dolce Vita”, playing on repeat as we sipped from our glasses. I had been quite stressed, and a little exhausted, in weeks prior, and the soft, relaxed tempo of this short, sweet song ushered in that feeling of respite that only holidays, and especially holidays in Italy, can evoke. The vino may have helped, too…
As we headed out into the prettily lit streets of old Pisa, I already knew where we were headed. You see, when we’re abroad, all we care about is the food, so - and it’s probably a little sad - I make a “gastronomic itinerary” before I’m even off the plane, scouring TripAdvisor for things that I think will bring delight. Our first stop took us to I Porci Comodi, a tiny little place on Pisa’s Via l'Arancio. Beautiful bottles of Tuscan wine were scattered, and candles lit, and, to my delight, it was completely empty. Unfortunately for my mum, though, who is vegetarian, I hadn’t had the foresight to realise that a place whose name celebrates "comfortable pigs’" might not be her first choice. As a smiling, olive-skinned waiter brought over a sprawling platter of Italian meats, my mum asked if he had any vegetarian options. He seemed puzzled, and disappeared back behind his little deli counter before reappearing, a couple of minutes later, with the most fantastic selection of Italian cheeses, and lots of crusty bread: a feast fit for comfortable pigs, and us, alike. I was reminded of Italy’s welcoming spirit, and of its people’s good-naturedness. I even slipped out for a moment to share a holiday cigar with the girl from behind the counter.
Having already overindulged, we headed for dinner at Pisa’s San Domenico, a pretty little restaurant with neatly-set tables, each adorned with heady, freshly-cut rosemary. This herb - rosmarino in Italian - seemed to be widely used in the region, and gave fragrance to the Pappardelle al Ragù di Cinghiale I enjoyed as my primo. “Cinghiale” is the Italian word for boar. Boar ragù, usually served with pici, or, as here, pappardelle, is probably Tuscany’s best-known dish, given the large, wild population of the animal throughout the region. Our waitress even told me that boar are something of a nuisance for local winemakers, as the animal has a predilection for Sangiovese grapes, frequenting vineyards during harvest season to gorge itself. I smiled to myself imagining this mischievous animal snuffling its way through the vines.
The next morning, we rose early and took breakfast as the sun rose, sitting outside a stone’s throw from the Leaning Tower. Fuelled by a strong caffè doppio and blushing, red tomatoes piled atop toasted ciabatta, we posed for obligatory photos in front of the city’s iconic torre. Thereafter, a short walk to Pisa’s train station saw us wave goodbye to this little Tuscan town as we boarded the train to Florence, with all its promise occupying our minds.
Florence: Jewel of the Renaissance
Arriving in Florence, the great capital of Tuscany, and the Renaissance, we chose to walk from the train station into the city’s centre. Should you visit in future, I would recommend doing the same. Aside from helping us work up an appetite, the stroll allowed us to take in the city’s magnificent architecture. Like some jewel of centuries gone by, the Florentine cityscape is a sea of terracotta, punctuated only by the River Arno and its medieval bridges. By the time we reached our hotel, the NH Collection Firenze Porta Rossa it was, of course, time for an aperitivo. This was cheerfully produced by the receptionist, who, as we thirstily drained two dainty glasses of prosecco, enjoined us to visit the city’s famous Duomo. Truth be told, we were too busy thinking about dinner to pay much attention to the countertop map induction, a hotel tradition that feels at once both anachronous in the age of Google Maps and yet so welcome.
Our room was gorgeous, carved from light stone, with imposing arches, a four-poster bed and feature cistern, also made from stone, atop a short flight of presidential-feeling steps. As we rested our feet, I imagined the Medici, a powerful family of medieval Florence, luxuriating in similar settings whilst machinating against other nobles in the city. All whilst drinking dark, tannic wine from deep-set goblets.
The White Truffle
For dinner, we did something I’m normally opposed to: we ate in the hotel’s restaurant. But with good reason: it is a specialty truffle restaurant, celebrating the region’s tartufi - which, if you're less languorous in your travels than I - you can go out into the countryside and hunt. We were content merely with eating truffles, but not before a fabulous starter of lobster, artichoke and potato cream. When perusing the menu, I confess I winced a little when I saw the price of the white truffle pasta dish (around €60, we’re all friends here). But, as the waiter lulled me with stories of the tartufo bianco, I could scarcely not try it - after all, if you cannot indulge when visiting the timeless centre of the Renaissance, when can you?
And so, a tangle of fresh, buttery tagliolini made its way to our table - this shape I was familiar with; we’ve ran it several times here at Pasta Evangelists - before the waiter, with a real sense of melodrama, took what felt like a deep breath and began shaving fresh white truffle all over the pasta. The aroma was at once both beautiful and pungent, and, like all those who love food, faced a momentary dilemma: to photograph or to devour? Fortunately, for devouring won the day, I had taken a video moments earlier, showing the tartufo bianco being shaved over the dish. This you can see below.
Believe it or not, truffle even managed to make its way into our dessert - tiramisu came with freshly shaved black truffle, as you can see below. Bizarrely, it really worked. Indulgence at its absolute best.
Exploring the City
The next day, we headed out into the streets of Florence, stopping briefly so I could restock my favourite cologne, Acqua di Parma (as the name suggests, this comes from Parma, not Tuscany, but it’s a lot easier to find in Italy than back in the UK!). After a long walk that took us past the city’s beautiful, and surprisingly large, Duomo cathedral, built mainly in the 13th century, and across the Ponte Santa Trinita bridge, we stopped off at the Mercato Centrale, or “Central Market”, for a break.
In the market, you’ll find all manner of wonderful Italian food products - there’s even a small Eataly store, which I jubilantly emerged from with artisan Italian soaps and dried porcini mushrooms (perfect to prepare risotto at home). There’s also wine, and lots of it, served - and sipped - in equal measures by the city’s cognoscenti, who, aside from managing to appear ever so refined as they stopped and wined, looked the part, too. Florence is an international fashion centre and its denizens are stylish as they go about their daily lives. We joined them, albeit probably less elegantly - again, Geordies abroad - and whiled away the afternoon with several wines including the region’s iconic Chianti, as well as lesser-known (but still staples of the region) Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino.
How You Can Visit From Home
Having been lucky enough to visit Tuscany just before our lives changed, I can, I hope, at least proffer a few tips that should help take you there vicariously.
First - and though I’m a bit biased - if you’re a meat-eater, you simply cannot escape ragù al cinghiale. Fortunately, for Tuscany week, we’ve included it on our special, regional menu - alongside its traditional pasta counterpart, pici - for you to enjoy. Vegetarians, instead, can be spirited away to the countryside surrounding Florence with our Tuscan summer truffle triangoli.
Whilst I’m not a huge fan of the Negroni - and I know many others aren’t - if you find this cocktail pleasing, or haven’t tried it before, now’s the moment: this cocktail hails from Florence and we’ve drawn on experts’ advice to prepare a simple guide for you to make a Negroni at home.
Oh, and last but not least, you should get a special postcard from the region with your pasta order from Tuscany week. Send this on to your favourite foodie and help them, too, “visit” this special region this summer.