Tuscany: Look Local

Looking the part is more than half the battle when it comes to blending in with Italians. After much research (including conversations over wine), we have come up with a few key tips.

1. Know when to dine—and what to order When Italians invite you to lunch or dinner, the question of time never arises. It is understood that lunch occurs at 1:00 p.m. and dinner at 8:00 p.m. Visitors wishing to eat earlier can expect empty restaurants. One benefit of having set mealtimes is that restaurants do not flip tables, so once you are seated, your table is yours for the evening, and no hovering waiters will ask for your coffee orders to get you out the door.

Deciding what to order can be the most difficult task of the day, since Tuscany produces some of the finest vegetables, fruit, cheese, meat and cuisine in the country (and, many would argue, the world). The best option is to dine family style, ordering a few antipasti (like bruschetta, salads and cheese and charcuterie plates) followed by one pasta dish for each diner. Some of our favorites are handmade pici, long, thick spaghetti like pasta, tossed either with a meat ragout or cacio e pepe, a sauce of pecorino cheese and pepper. Meat eaters will love the region’s famous bistecca, grilled T-bone steaks cut from white Chianina cattle.

2. Include the whole family Rarely will you see an important occasion marked in Italy without a mass gathering of what is clearly the extended family. Children are brought to the markets, vineyards, fine restaurants, five-star hotels and casual eateries. Kids are welcome everywhere, and they delight in visiting a country that emphasizes family time, being outside and exploring villages chockablock with castles, fortresses, art-filled churches and gelato stands.

3. Take your time Italians’ rapid speech and the even quicker hand gestures that punctuate it, together with sports cars like Ferraris and Lamborghinis might be the only aspects of the country’s culture that move quickly. For the most part, life in Tuscany proceeds at a determinedly slow pace. Few scenarios present any sense of urgency, and visitors must adjust to having even small interactions, like ordering an espresso or shopping for handbag, involve conversation, contemplation, a phone call or two and possibly a cigarette break.

4. Know—and appreciate—the wine The Sangiovese grape reigns supreme in Tuscany. It is the prime ingredient of Brunello di Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino, Montepulciano Vino Nobile, Chianti Classico and a participant in the trendy Super Tuscans. Unsurprisingly, every Tuscan has an opinion on which is the best wine. The differences between the varieties, vintages and aging processes could be grist for a college-level course. A fun way to study them is to set up tastings in the three key winemaking regions: Montalcino, Montepulciano and Chianti. (For extra credit, try the white wines of the Maremma region or the newly hot Bolgheri wines, which have a higher alcohol content and are typically made from the same French varietal that is mixed with Sangiovese grapes to create Super Tuscans.)

5. Visit in shoulder seasons Most of the popular regions of Tuscany are overflowing with international tourists in July and August, but in the spring and fall, they are comparatively empty. Italians from Florence, Rome and beyond might be your only co-visitors during the gorgeous months of May, September and October, when temperatures are a bit cooler but there are wildflowers galore (in spring) and mushroom, truffle and chestnut foraging (in fall). You might have smaller hotels nearly to yourself, which is particularly magical in a castello (castle) or borgo (town) property.

6. Sample a variety of accommodations Renting a villa for a week or two might be tempting, especially with a large group, but the Tuscan region is too big and rich to explore through mere day trips. Consider breaking up your trip, with three to five nights each in a grand, castle-centric property, a hotel in a medieval village and a villa, as your last stop. More adventurous travelers might enjoy spending a night or two in an agriturismo, a sort of bed and breakfast on a farm.

7. Don’t be afraid of road trips Tuscany is relatively easy to drive around, with a handful of good highways and country roads that are wide and well marked. Be sure to request a GPS device with your rental car, and enter latitude and longitude coordinates rather than addresses, as many small towns are not recognized.

8. Create your own meal Whenever possible, visit a town’s weekly market, small family-run stores and farm shops and put together picnic meals of crusty bread, pecorino, prosciutto, tomatoes, olives and wine. If you can’t, appeal to a winery, restaurant or your hotel for a small spuntino, or snack, which will inevitably result in a meal of nibbles fit for Tuscan royalty.

If you love to cook and are staying in accommodations with a kitchen, take advantage of the area’s bounty by visiting the markets and preparing a feast from what you find there. Indagare can arrange for an excellent private chef to come to you and give a private cooking lesson.

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