The greatest legacy of the old tenant-farming system is what is now—all too fashionably—called the cucina povera—the poor kitchen. Cucina povera is a misnomer. Tuscan food may be simple but it isn’t poor. It can be amazingly imaginative, occasionally even innovative, and always based on the freshest local produce. The cooking is still well available in rural trattorie and unpretentious restaurants throughout the region.
—Beth Elon, A Culinary Traveller in Tuscany: Exploring and Eating Off the Beaten Track (2009)
THE TALL, slender man, fashionably dressed in black slacks and a knitted shirt and with hair cropped close to his head, set a bone-white bowl in front of me. It was half full of something pureed. He reached for the bottle of mineral water to fill my glass. This, I thought to myself, is something I can eat. Finally. The meal was supposed to be a simple one—my first major sit-down after arriving in western Tuscany three days earlier. A bug I apparently picked up in Spain had laid me low, curbing my usual robust appetite and forcing me to seek a doctor’s help in Naples.
Armed with proper medication and after an overnight rest, I had left Naples via coastal train for Pietrasanta, a six-hour journey through Rome and Pisa. A few hours after arriving, I met my landlady, signed a six-month lease, paid lots of euros for two months’ advance rent, and settled into my two-room apartment—three if you count the bathroom. I spent the next few days in light spring rain wandering the small town’s half-dozen or so streets and lounged under an umbrella in the piazza in front of the Duomo. On day three, I felt ready for a regular meal—a dish of lasagna sounded just right. Along one of Pietrasanta’s pedestrian-only streets just off the main piazza there appeared a cheery place with a half-dozen tables tucked into a medieval-era building. Its small sign simply read FILIPPO. Surrounded by a few clusters of mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children, I ordered the lasagna al ragú.
The man walked away, and I examined the contents of the bowl more closely. In the center, on top of the puree, was a bright green ring of something else, along with other embellishments here and there. Its taste was remarkable. I hastily downed the concoction with a few swipes of my large spoon. The bowl disappeared, and a new bowl, this one holding a large square of lasagna, was put in its place.
This version of something I grew up with in a non-Italian home was different: the pasta squares were not overcooked like I had experienced over most of my life. Filippo’s version was lightly al dente, with a creamy cheese infused between tender slices of pasta and doused appropriately with a meat sauce like I never had, even long ago when I was in Bologna, a city famous for its ragú. It simply melted in my mouth.
Sipping strong Italian coffee afterwards, I got the man’s attention and asked his name. It was Filippo himself, Filippo di Bartola. He spoke good English—better than I spoke basic Italian—so I asked him about that strange dish I had at the beginning of the meal.
Filippo seemed surprised by the question. He shrugged. “It has no name. It is simply a starter.” He said its ingredients were heavily pureed potato; celery and zucchini, also heavily pureed; plus touches of pesto and fennel.
I wanted to talk to him some more about his food and about western Tuscan culture, but it was 3 P.M. and the restaurant was closing—I was the last to leave—and he had had a long day. Two English tourists walked in, and Filippo politely directed them down the street. He told them it was late in the day on a Sunday for a restaurant to be open, but they might find a pizza seller farther along.
“Let us meet in three days,” he told me. “I would like to talk to you; it will help me practice my English.”
* * *
I had arrived, shaky from the Spanish bug, in Pietrasanta in mid-April 2012, and was prepared to use this near-coastal town in northwestern Tuscany as a base for a six-month visit to the region’s western coast. At an elevation of only forty-six feet, Pietrasanta is about a mile and a half from the sea, with nearby beach communities—Marina di Pietrasanta, Forte dei Marmi, Lido di Camaiore, and Viareggio—getting the sun-seeker action by European tourists and Italians alike. Pietrasanta, close to the marble quarries of Carrara, Massa, and Seravezza, is famous as a center where artists live and work. It is home particularly to sculptors from all over the world, because the town of some twenty-five thousand souls backs up onto the foothills of the marble-rich Alpi Apuane, or Apuan Alps.
Pietrasanta is positioned, between Genoa and Pisa, along the major north–south routes of the A12 autostrada and the parallel state highway SS1, known locally as “Via Aurelia.” In addition, Pietrasanta sits on the ancient narrow pathway known as Via Francigena, which, in the age of growing tourism, is clearly marked along Tuscany’s entire length for walkers and bicyclists. The Via Francigena is the route that pilgrims from all over Europe once followed to Rome, the capital of Christendom. From there, many would move on by land and boat to the holy city of Jerusalem.
These ancient routes along Tuscany’s west coast still draw travelers, but this part of Italian tourism’s most popular region is not as well known as its more famous eastern half. The 180-mile-long coastal area, from Carrara in the north to Grosseto and Orbetello in the south, draws European travelers but few Americans.
The part of western Tuscany where I am living—the area around Pietrasanta, the Apuan Alps—is known as Versilia. It generally includes Pietrasanta, Forte dei Marmi, Seravezza (which plays heavily in the area’s marble-quarry history), Stazzema, and Camaiore. There are other villages included in this mini region, most notably Sant’Anna di Stazzema, the village tucked in the hills a few miles above Pietrasanta. It was this village where German soldiers, on August 12, 1944, executed 560 men, women, and children.
Most Americans visiting Italy, of course, know “classical” Tuscany: Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, and the Chianti area where Chianti Classico wine is produced. And many go to Italy’s picturesque coastal villages in the Cinque Terra region of southern Liguria, south of Genoa. But western Tuscany remains largely unknown to U.S. travelers who zip through it on high-speed trains from Milan to Rome or along the autostrada, stopping only to eat a cafeteria lunch at an Autogrill, Italy’s most common type of roadside service area.
A bed-and-breakfast owner on the outskirts of Pietrasanta near Camaiore, Tuscany native Riccardo Barsottelli, told me that the largest numbers of visitors include the English, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians. Then come the Dutch, Belgians, Swedes, and Norwegians. Finally, a few Americans, French, Australians, and, perhaps, some Spanish, make up the third group.
Barsottelli said that in his experience, the Americans who come are sons and daughters of parents who brought them as children. “Most have an earlier tie to the coastal area, or perhaps they are second- or third-generation people who emigrated to America from here,” he said.
Pietrasanta, while a few miles inland and with its own vibrant nightlife, has been around since the thirteenth century. Its geographical position seems to have been the key to its founding. In 1255, the podestà of Lucca, its governing magistrate, was Guiscardo da Pietrasanta. In 1255, he decided to move inhabitants of two nearby villages into the area and create a town that would sit along a road network to Genoa in the north and then to France.
Just as important, the new village would be a clear shot to the village of Motrone, just a short distance to the southwest of Pietrasanta and on the coast. Motrone was the primary trading port for the area in the early fourteenth century, so most of the Tuscan merchants dealing in Mediterranean trade ended up living in Pietrasanta.
Historian M. E. Bratchel quotes a letter sent by a Pietrasantese official to the Duke of Milan in 1431, where Pietrasanta was described as “the noblest place in our territory, and in a special sense our port [Motrone] through which we obtain provisions.” Pietrasanta also became a mining center through the fifteenth century, and marble from an array of quarries was being processed there. A century later, Michelangelo was there signing contracts for marble.
Bratchel said the town possessed a complicated society in the early 1430s because of
the very large number of resident and visiting foreigners: members of the Genoese garrison; artisans from Liguria, Lombardy, and all over Tuscany; merchants from Genoa and Pisa; and scions of the great feudal families like the Cattani of Massa and Malaspina of Lunigiana.
A good many of the beach resorts along this western stretch of land flanking the Mar Ligure and Mar Tirreno were developed only after World War II, rebuilt from ruins of the war. For example, much of Forte dei Marmi, once a tiny village of fishermen, did not exist then as a tourist destination. During World War II, medieval buildings were destroyed as a result of fierce fighting between the retreating Germans and Italians still loyal to Mussolini, and advancing Americans. After the war, particularly during the 1950s and ’60s, developers created a coastal resort town from the rubble. This new town, located a few miles west and a bit north of Pietrasanta, is a wealthy enclave. Its array of exclusive stores, hotels, and apartment/condominium buildings is ensconced in those beautiful postwar buildings.
Today, Pietrasanta remains a town of negoziante (shopkeepers) and artists. There are few chain stores here. Those are found far to the east in Siena and Florence.
There are art galleries for the well-heeled, jewelry stores with items behind immaculately shined windows worth hundreds, if not several thousands, of euros each. They are alongside smaller shops selling fruit or dozens of varieties of pasta, or providing services, such as one tiny shop where an elderly man sits, wreathed in the rich smell of leather and glue, repairing shoes.
Finally, I have a chance to sit down with Filippo di Bartola, a native Pietrasantese, now in his forties. The noon-hour rush nearly over, we sit amongst a small group of diners topping off their three-course lunches with small cups of espresso and interesting-looking dolce, or desserts. Filippo brings me a wonderful concoction of cream over light-as-air fondant topped with various berries dai boschi, from the woods: currants, raspberries, blueberries. He starts the conversation with a geography lesson.
“We have the mountains and the sea, and generally the weather is not too hot, not too cold. It is clima mite [mild climate].”
Filippo believes that the high value of the euro compared to the dollar is what has kept many Americans away from Pietrasanta and Tuscany’s western coast. They would rather spend their money seeing the more well-known parts of Italy, and a two-week vacation does not lend itself to much time for exploring. Although the euro declined during the summer of 2012, it did not happen soon enough to boost American tourism here.
He says the largest group of visitors, besides Riccardo Barsottelli’s English, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians, are northern Italians, including those from classical Tuscany in the east. They have been coming here for decades as vacationers or as artists. Since the nineteenth century, Florentines, for example, anxious to escape the summer heat of Tuscany’s deep interior, have kept second homes along its coast, a tradition now also taken up by the English and Germans.
During my talk, a few days later, with Riccardo Barsottelli, he points out that only starting in the 1990s has the land just a few kilometers from the sea become a desirable location for vacation homes for non-Italians. His upscale bed-and-breakfast, Locanda al colle, for example, is located in the hills above Capezzano Pianore between coastal Pietrasanta and inland Camaiore, and is surrounded by groves of olive trees.
“Well into the 1970s property on the hills was worth very little. Now there is a boom here,” he says, gesturing at the tree-studded hillsides surrounding his restored eighteenth-century house with its modern addition.
Both Riccardo and Filippo describe the food of their Versilia as being a different variation of what tourists are used to farther east. Their claims are backed up by the authors of The Appetite Comes Through Eating: A Brief Journey in “Gourmet” Versilia, a book praising Versilian cuisine: “… the Versilia is a sort of gastronomic movement, a laboratory of new trends and rediscoveries … between the coast and plain, the hills and the mountains.”
Filippo di Bartola says the way Versilians use meat is one distinction. For example, the meat sauce for the lasagna al ragú I had during that first meal is a combination of beef and pork. Farther east, he says, Florentine cooks would typically use only beef.
“Very common here,” he says. “Not so common in the rest of Italy.” I can’t challenge his remark, since I have not eaten everywhere in Italy, but I do know that I have never had the likes of the lasagna I had that Sunday, or the tordelli I ate a few days later.
With the local dish known as Versiliese tordelli, according to Gourmet Versilia, pouches are made from thinly rolled pasta cut into circles using a wide-mouth drinking glass. These disks are then filled with a combination of meats blended with sausage, egg, Parmesan and pecorino Romano cheeses, and wild thyme. These are folded in half with the outer edges sealed by the slight pressure of a finger, and covered with meat sauce. The recipes vary from town to town and restaurant to restaurant, the secrets guarded by tight-lipped cooks. Traditionally, tordelli is served during special occasions, but today’s Versilian ristoranti and trattorie usually have one type or another on their daily menus.
A week later, Filippo surprises me with another unique dish with a long name: testaroli della Lunigiana all’olio extra vergine, Parmigiano e basilica. It is from an area north and a bit east of Pietrasanta, from villages in the marble-rich mountains above Carrara. It is a kind of “pasta” I had never heard of. In checking various cookbooks and regional guides, I discovered this pasta is often served with a pesto sauce made of basil, pine nuts, and garlic, but Filippo’s version does not incorporate the pesto—instead it was just drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled generously with Parmesan and basil leaves.
This so-called pasta is made with the simple marriage of wheat flour—some recipes simply call for “flour”—and water. That’s it. Mix in a bit of olive oil and pour it like pancake batter, a quarter-inch thick, into a cast-iron skillet that also has a light skim of oil on its surface.
To create that skim, writer Beth Elon recommends cutting off the end of a potato, dipping the tuber into olive oil, and rubbing it onto the skillet’s surface. You then cook the mixture for a few minutes and flip it over for another few minutes.
Before the testaroli was served, another “starter with no name” magically appeared before me: a pureed mixture of tomato, potato, and carrot served warm with three small toasted bread cubes. “All unique to here,” Filippo declared. And I couldn’t argue with him; I had never seen such starters elsewhere.
Riccardo, meanwhile, goes into greater detail about the food unique to coastal Tuscany. He points to a dish—spaghetti con arselle—found only in villages along the sea because of the type of tiny mussel the sauce contains. Each serving is peppered with those tiny mollusks found by the tens of thousands clinging to rocks and piers along the shoreline.
Simplicity seems to reign here. There is tagliata de tonno, made up of a generous slice of baked tuna coated with crushed pistachios. Or a hungry seafood lover can choose a bread soup with clams. The bread, usually a day or two old, is laid on the bottom of the bowl, clams are placed on top, and a broth is poured over the concoction.
This simplicity in preparation follows me throughout western Tuscany. In the region’s southeast corner, in the village of Pitigliano located about thirty miles east of the coast at Orbetello, I came across the best tomato sauce for pasta I have ever eaten. Light and with chunks of tomatoes pressed through a strainer, this sauce, the owner of Ristorante Guastini told me, uses only well-chopped basil, onion, and celery, cooked together in a splash of olive oil before the strained tomatoes are added. “Utilizzare gli ingredienti a vostro gusto [Use the ingredients to your taste],” she advised me. “Molto semplice!”
But one of northwestern Italy’s best snack foods—and one with a great story behind it—is la cecina. With chickpea flour as its main ingredient, the dish follows the pattern of molto semplice. (A variety of approaches can be found on the Internet and in many Italian cookbooks.) The chickpea flour is mixed with water, salt, and some olive oil. Most cooks let the mixture sit for an hour or so, then pour a portion into the center of a well-oiled round pizza pan, letting it spread out on its own to the edges. In northwestern Italy, there are large pans, called teglie, that are used exclusively for making la cecina, but fourteen-inch-diameter pizza pans do the job as well, a friend advised me.
What comes out of the oven is a large, round, yellow, slightly moist concoction that can be liberally sprinkled with pepper. It looks like a very thin pizza, but it is nothing like the Neapolitan-inspired dish. La cecina is found along the coast from the French city of Nice, once a part of Italy but ceded to France in 1860, to Pisa, just twenty miles south of Pietrasanta. It can be purchased by the slice from street-food sellers, either in carts or those tiny shops in city centers that specialize in pizza by the slice.
The story, or perhaps one should call it “legend,” of how la cecina came about is a curious one: In the thirteenth century, long before a “unified” Italy existed, Genoa and Pisa were warring city-states. In a naval battle fought in August 1284 near a rocky islet called Meloria, located off the coast from Livorno and a few miles southwest of the Arno River’s mouth, Genoa nearly wiped out the Pisan fleet and took hundreds of prisoners.
On the way back to Genoa, with the prisoners locked away deep in ships’ holds, a storm tossed the vessels around, spilling jars of olive oil and chickpea flour around the prisoners’ quarters. The contents mixed together along with the salt water that had seeped in from the Mediterranean. The Genoese, so the legend goes, didn’t want to waste the ingredients, so they said the prisoners could eat the mixture.
The Pisans, being proud folks, refused to eat it, and let their plates sit out in the sun for a day or two. When hunger finally won over pride, they discovered that the sunbaked concoction was really quite good. It is the salt water that apparently gives the chickpea flour its fine taste.
* * *
Many of these easily prepared dishes are considered “peasant” food. Yet when travelers today sit in the grandest ristorante or the tiniest osteria, or inn, they eat various versions of these dishes and usually pay a lot of money for them. These days, finely executed and presented food like this (with the exception of snack food like la cecina) is what most of us come to expect when ordering “Italian.”
Such basic ingredients, particularly in small towns and villages, come from the local fattorie, or farms, or a family’s own small plot of land. And during times of great strife—wars, periods of famine or plagues—the magnificent dishes that make up what we consider wonderful Italian food simply were not available.
In the midst of such strife, waste was unheard of. Every bread crumb, every bit of leftover meat, every part of an animal’s organs was used, and wild herbs plucked from hillsides and fields were sought out. These traditions are hard to shake. In current days of plenty, I have seen well-dressed Italians from the Veneto to Sicily gathering wild herbs while waiting for a bus or, outside of Rome, in a field in the shadow of a Roman viaduct’s ruins just off the Appian Way. War and poverty create such habits that are passed on to subsequent generations who hear an older generation’s stories of the extreme privation that Italians have gone through from ancient times through twentieth-century wars.
Pamela Sheldon Johns, in her classic Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking, tells stories of such privations. In Pietrasanta—today a city of beauty and art, of massive public displays of sculpture great and small, of hotels and B and Bs, jammed restaurants and bars filled with Europeans, Italian tourists, and Pietrasantesi—times were incredibly difficult during World War II, especially during the occupation by retreating Germans following Italy’s 1943 surrender to the Allies.
German soldiers would come into houses and demand wine. Once, Johns relates, soldiers slaughtered a family’s cow, hauling off the meat but leaving the head.
“We were hungry at home; I started dragging the head down the road, and a couple of boys tried to take it,” Johns quotes her storyteller, Ilvana Corsi Tognocchi of Pietrasanta. “A German officer saw what was happening and ran them off. I made it home with the head, and my mother made soup.”
Ilvana said meat was very scarce during the war, despite her father being a butcher. So the family ate only what they had: polenta with olive oil and pecorino cheese. “I remember eating spaghetti and beans a lot,” she told Johns. They made cooking pots out of empty bomb casings, and because the Germans did not like corn, they would put grain in containers with corn sprinkled on top so the soldiers would leave them alone.
Other families, when they harvested grapes for wine for themselves and with the hope of selling to others, “would save the seeds from the pressings, and [they] roasted and ground them to make a hot drink,” Johns describes. It was a poor substitute for espresso, a quintessentially Italian drink that either was not available or the price was too dear for many families. And sometimes, the innocent civilians in the war-torn land were reduced even more to basics, living off old bread and dried chestnuts.
The outstanding and varied dishes found in restaurants and in many Italian homes today were, as Johns tells us, “born in frugality and innovation.” People, whether caught up in the privations during the many wars that swept through Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy or simply because they were poor, used only what was locally available, scouring the landscape for whatever they could find, such as chestnuts lying on the ground, which they would dry and eat or make into flour.
Living near the sea was a blessing because folks could go out in small boats and catch their daily meals. But during most of 1944, Germans forbid locals to go out in boats “for military security reasons.” Occasionally, brave locals would slip down to the shore and fill a bucket with seawater so they could boil it down for the salt.
Stories of such privations are slipping away as older generations leave us and because the Italian peasant class disappeared after World War II ended in 1945. People at all levels of society now have the ability to make a variety of dishes their forebears never could have dreamed of having, except in few-and-far-between times of plenty.
The food part of my journey along Tuscany’s Mediterranean coast taught me that the uniqueness of certain dishes, region to region, village to village, comes out of what is available in each local spot. For example, in the north, including Tuscany, chestnuts are plentiful, so they end up in various dishes or as flour. Farther along in west-central Tuscany, in the heart of wheat country famous for its flours, chestnuts might only be sold on street corners hot off a charcoal grill. Polenta, a type of cornmeal boiled into porridge, is common in the north of Italy and particularly in western Tuscany, but is seldom seen in the south. La cecina might be big along the coast north of Pisa, but unheard of in Rome and towns farther south. Those places have their own urban legends about certain dishes that have become uniquely Roman or Neapolitan or Palermitani.
Other examples abound. Pesto, usually made with crushed basil and garlic, is mildly garlicky in Italy’s north, particularly in western Tuscany, and heavily garlicky in the south. Tomato sauces on pasta are quite subtle and light in the western Tuscan villages I frequented, a bit creamier in Rome, and heavily dominated by chunky tomatoes in Naples and far to the southern end of the peninsula and Sicily.
Meanwhile, back in Pietrasanta, the type of pasta covered in meat sauce is different than, say, pasta Bolognese in Bologna far to the east. There the only pasta used for that famous sauce is tagliatelle, long, flat ribbons similar to fettuccine but common only in Emilia-Romagna and Umbria. Using any other pasta for that dish, say spaghetti or Versilia’s flat, square-cut testarolli pasta, would be sacrilege in those regions.
But Tuscany’s wild west is not all about food. Art, old and new, and the people who make it are a big part, particularly in the area around where Michelangelo selected his marble.
Copyright © 2014 by John Keahey