Tuscan Cuisine, Italian-American Cuisine and Sofia Ristorante
Obviously there are some major differences in the type of food you would eat if you were on vacation in Tuscany, as compared to the type of food that we know in America as "Italian-American". I thought it would be fun to do some research about Tuscany, and find out what type of dishes are traditional Tuscan dishes and how they compare to what we identify in America as Italian cuisine.
Geographically speaking, the region of Tuscany is actually quite large, and somewhat triangular in shape. Tuscany is predominantly hilly, about 25% mountainous and only about 8% flat. Tuscany includes 278 provinces and municipalities. Looking at a map of Tuscany, it's important to note the influences of: seas, islands, mountains, valleys, towns, villages and beaches, which are all elements that make up the beauty of Tuscany. (source: www.toscanainside.com)
In my research of what distinguishes the cuisine in the region of Tuscany, I was surprised in its simplicity. Tuscan cooking, according to discovertuscany.com writer Louisa Loring, is based on using fresh and simple ingredients, which often are seasonal. Some examples of these ingredients are legumes, cheeses, vegetables and fruits. Typically, ingredients are based on what Tuscans can find at the local market for that week. The accessibility of these ingredients often make meals easy to prepare and involving just a few ingredients.
Although we use the word "simple," that does not mean the meals are lacking in flavor or heartiness. In fact, these dishes can be very rich in flavor, hearty and quite filling. The meals are always accompanied by the regional bread. Since we are talking about Tuscany, this is a white, unsalted loaf. The tradition of the unsalted loaf actually dates back to the 16th century. Because of the tax on salt, bakers had to change the way they baked bread. In Tuscany, this tradition of unsalted bread has been handed down through the years and Tuscan bread stands apart from other breads in other regions for this reason. Although it sounds flavorless, the purpose of the unsalted bread is to soak up all the leftover juices on the plate, as the bread takes up the flavor from the dish, and leaving an empty bread basket at the end of the meal.
In Tuscany, meals are broken down by Primi or First course, and Secondi or Main course. Some examples of First Course meals stem from a tradition of not wasting food. Ribollita (a Tuscan vegetable and bread soup) is hearty and thickened with leftover bread, cannelloni beans and inexpensive vegetables available year-round like onions, carrots, celery or cabbage. Pappa al Pomodoro, a tomato and bread soup, is another traditional dish made from day-old bread, tomato, olive oil and garlic. These are two examples of dishes that are favorites among the locals as well as tourists. Other common dishes include Trippa, which is the lining of the cow's stomach (we would probably know this in America as "Tripe Stew" or something similar), which has been stewed in tomato sauce for a long period of time.
Main courses feature a famous steak that comes from Valdarno and Mugello called "bistecca alla fiorentina," which comes from a special cow breed, the Chianina, is generally served alongside roasted potatoes and beans. In addition to the signature steak, Tuscany is also known for its wild game, like wild boar, hares, pheasants and other birds. Chefs will tenderize the meats in a stew or serve as a sauce over pasta.
Side dishes don't vary much from region to region. Beans or a hearty green vegetable sautéed in olive oil, side salads or roasted potatoes (when they are in season) are typical side dishes.
As history tells us, in the 19th and 20th century, America experienced Italian immigrants coming to North America, who had to adapt to a more urban lifestyle. Instead of growing vegetables, they had to be purchased. While in Italy, dishes were heavy on vegetables and low on protein, however in America, the shift of Italian-American dishes actually became meatier, saucier and bigger. (source: First We Feast, The Illustrated History of Italian-American Food, by Gemma Horowitz).
According to Simone Cinotto, author of The Italian American Table,Soft Soil, Black Grapes, and Making Italian America, most Italian immigrants came from poorer regions of Southern Italy, where meat was scarce, and most meals consisted of vegetable-heavy ingredients. However, in North America, inexpensive pork, chicken and beef were a delight to find, and therefore helped transform some traditional dishes to contain more meat, more sauce, and larger portions. In America, they were able to dine with nobility, and to these immigrants, it became a symbol of hope and optimism.
Prior to the 1920's, Italian-American food was somewhat perceived negatively. However, by the 1950s, with the founding of Chef Boyardee, and other entrepreneurs of Italian descent, the cuisine became more mainstream. The ultimate acceptance was in 1955, with the film Lady and the Tramp. In the 1960s and 1970s, third generation Italian-Americans proudly boasted about their Italian roots, re-discovering their heritage and introducing recipes that were handed down by their grandmothers. It was also in the 1970s that Tomie de Paola's Strega Nona children's books became popular, about a grandmotherly Italian healer with a magical pasta pot.
Italian-American restaurants have evolved since then. You can find anything from a pizza restaurant, casual spaghetti and meatballs (which is not Italian by the way, it's American), to more refined restaurants where the cuisine is led by an Executive Chef's philosophy around the cuisine. With so many celebrity chefs who are either Italian in heritage like Guy Fieri, or chefs like Giada de Laurentis, who learned how to sharpen her culinary skills in Italy, Italian-American cuisine has evolved greatly.
Sofia Ristorante prides itself on combining Tuscan-inspired heritage with what we identify as Italian-American cuisine. The dishes that we present are classic entrees that are recognizable by name or by description. However, what makes our food special is the attention to the specific ingredients that go into every dish.
Chef Abby harmonizes the ingredients so that they fit well together. You will notice as you take each bite, you will recognize each ingredient for what it is. The sauces are flavorful, not heavy or overdone. She understands the importance of balance between meat dishes, the ingredients in the sauce and the side dish, so that each dish becomes a symphony of flavor, rather than a heavy and uninspired entree. Often Italian dishes can be overwhelmed with too much sauce or too much cheese. You will find that Chef Abby reaches a delicate balance that allows you to experience Sofia Ristorante's dedication to freshness and quality.
Each dish, each creation and all its ingredients are brought together with purpose. Using fresh ingredients daily, and homemade pastas, she prides herself in bringing only the freshest and most flavorful entrees to the Sofia Ristorante table. If you have dined here before, we welcome you to come back and try something new. If you haven't dined with us, you are in for a rare treat.
While it is true that our doors will not be open until at least May, not being able to create culinary magic each day is something that Chef Abby misses greatly. Owner Emma Parente regrets she cannot share her family's love for food from her native Italy with you at this time. But our doors will be open again, and we will be here, ready to serve you once again.