By Gabriella Mileti
NIAF Director of Special Programs
The National Italian American Foundation is pleased to announce that Tuscany will be the 2022 Region of Honor.
Among Americans and foreigners alike, Tuscany is probably the most famous region of all of Italy’s 20 regions. Google the word “Tuscany” and you open a Pandora’s box. Tuscany will reward you with a cultural, architectural and culinary heritage that’s not replicated anywhere else. It has it all.
From Tuscany comes the purest extra virgin olive oil and rustic bread, dry red wines made from the Sangiovese grape, the Renaissance, Pecorino Toscano cheese, Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Dante Alighieri, the Italian language, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Gucci, Pitti, the Medici, the Palio, and the list goes on and on. Indeed, we have a lot of credit due to Tuscany. So, pour yourself a glass of Chianti and sit back and enjoy this journey through la Toscana—ahh the word alone rolls off your tongue like the rolling hills of its countryside. Andiamo!
With its rolling hills, villas, vines, olives and cypresses, the landscape of Tuscany is synonymous with the idyllic Italian dream. The countryside really does look like a painting—vine-covered hills that turn from bright green in summer to tones of ochre as autumn takes hold. Located in west-central Italy, Tuscany’s diverse natural landscape encompasses the rugged Apennine Mountains, the island of Elba’s beaches on the Tyrrhenian Sea, and Chianti’s olive groves and vineyards. It’s many medieval towns and cities like Florence, Siena, Arezzo, Lucca, Pisa, Cortona, and San Gimignano are the definition of living history and each with its own delights and attractions, all well-deserving of a spot on your future Italy itinerary.
As if that wasn’t enough, southern Tuscany is also home to some of the world’s most famous natural hot springs. Thanks to the nearby Amiata volcano (which doubles as the tallest mountain in Tuscany), the waters stay heated at 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit 365 days a year. But don’t worry about any future volcanic explosions; Amiata has been deemed extinct, so go ahead and enjoy the Instagram-famous silky blue water pools of Saturnia, Bagni San Filippo, Bagno Vignoni and Petriolo.
Those hills provide the perfect backdrop for small farmhouses championing the Slow Food movement and agriturismi offering visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the true Tuscan way where the emphasis is on delicious food, great friends and sumptuous wine. Despite the region’s stunning examples of medieval and renaissance art and architecture, most of the typical dishes originate in cucina povera—poor or peasant food.
As always is the case in the true Italian cuisine, the model is simple preparations from pristine products with a few basics that are part of every meal. Extra virgin olive oil is ubiquitous and has a role in every dish. Tuscan oils are known for being fruity and grassy and having a powerful peppery finish. Pasta is central to the cuisine, of course. The pici shape is often served with a perfectly simple sauce of oil, garlic and tomatoes. Tuscans are called mangiafagioli, or bean eaters, and nowhere else in Italy will you find so many legumes, sometimes central as in ribollita, other times as accompaniments.
With miles of shoreline along the Tyrrhenian Sea, it makes sense that salt is harvested in Tuscany. Salt runs through everything—except, famously, Tuscan bread.
Not to be missed on your plate is Pecorino Toscano, a sweet, mellow cheese that is not overly bitter or peppery or salty like its other versions found throughout Italy. And then there’s the bisteccca alla Fiorentina, a high-cut bone-in steak that only comes from the Chianina cattle, an ancient Tuscan breed known for its prized and tasty meat. No rubs or sauces for this steak, just a simple dusting of salt, rosemary and olive oil completes the dish, served rare, of course.
To accompany these meals fit for a king and a pauper? Some of the world’s best wine. Tuscany plays queen in Italy’s wine culture, bowing only to its king, Piemonte. From Brunello di Montalcino and Montepulciano (two different areas, two different wines) to Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile, all these power players of the wine scene are made with the Sangiovese grape. But don’t forget about the Trebbiano grape that makes the famous white, Trebbiano Toscano and Vin Santo.
But Tuscany is not all wining and dining. Tuscans love letting their hair down, and have many opportunities to do just that with a seemingly endless rotation of festivals that take place across the region. Sporting contests dating back to medieval times, like the Palio, jazz festivals, crossbow competitions—the Tuscan summer is a constant celebration. Time your trip to Florence for the end of June and you’ll witness the semis and final of the Calcio Storico, a hybrid of football, rugby and wrestling native to Florence that dates back to 1580. In the annual Calcio, four teams, each hailing from a different Florentine neighborhood, compete in the Piazza Santa Croce, which is covered in dirt and framed by bleachers for the occasion. The final always takes place on June 24, on the feast of St. John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint. It is unlike anything else you’ll see in Florence, or indeed Italy.
Few cities can rival Florence for sheer beauty. It’s everything you think it should be—the thriving, buzzing heart of Tuscany with a palpable sense of history on every street corner. Florence certainly deserves a spot at the top of any list of places to visit in Italy. Touristy, of course, particularly in the height of summer, but so enchanting that you don’t mind sharing the special moments it guarantees with others. Walking around, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve stepped into a book.
Culture is unavoidable in Florence, with a museum or gallery at every turn. How could there not be? After all, this is the birthplace of the Renaissance. The much-photographed Duomo and Baptistery, with their intricately patterned marble facades, dominate the center of the city, as well as the Palazzo Vecchio, a perfect example of Renaissance architecture.
The fresco-ceilinged Palazzo degli Uffizi is Italy’s best-known. Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Michelangelo—the collection here reads like a who’s who of art history. Don’t miss the gallery’s best-known works: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Then there’s the Galleria dell’Accademia, which was built solely to showcase Michelangelo’s David. Walking up to the sculpture through the curiously named Hall of Prisoners (so called for the half-finished sculptures, forever imprisoned in marble) is an unforgettable moment, the sheer scale and beauty of David is unimaginable until you’ve seen him in the flesh, or shall I say marble. The Grande Museo del Duomo, meanwhile, gets fewer visitors than you’d expect despite an impressive roster of works from the likes of Arnolfo, Donatello and Michelangelo.
Florentines are notoriously fashion-forward, even by Italian standards. It’s no coincidence that Roberto Cavalli, Emilio Pucci, Salvatore Ferragamo and Guccio Gucci were all born here. The nearby shop-lined bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, also affords a classic Florentine view. Home originally to the city’s butchers, the bridge now offers visitors the chance to buy gold and trinkets. The area to the north and northwest of the Ponte Vecchio is the best for upscale shopping. This is where locals and tourists come to stock up on the latest from Italy’s best designers and take-home essentials include handmade leather goods and Florentine chocolates.
Tuscany is one of Italy’s eternally romanticized settings where you can never quite separate fact from fiction. We invite you to explore it on your own at your own pace. But be warned, if you stay there long enough, you may find a home under the Tuscan sun.
Look for more about Tuscany in the next issue of Ambassador, on NIAF social media, the Ambassador Peter F. Secchia Voyage of Discovery, and of course, at the 47th Anniversary Gala in Washington, D.C., on October 29. Arrivederci in Toscana!