It’s a wild and woolly part of Italy, verdant, fecund and stunning, squished between the mountains and the sea. We arrived at the inn just in time to interrupt our host, Alessandro’s, Easter dinner. Impeccable timing, as always, compounded by the inn’s location. We were smack dab, exactly in the middle of the heart of the heart of Nowhere.
Mortified, we gingerly asked Alessandro if the restaurant would be open for dinner. Our hearts sank when he said no. It was 5pm and our bellies were already rumbling with hunger, having eaten nothing but a pastry hours ago and worlds away in Florence.
We glumly looked around. There wasn’t another building in sight, except for miles away, crowning a few hills hunkering darkly against the horizon. It took us nearly two hours to find the inn once, would we ever be able to find it again in the dark? We cursed our stupidity for not staying in Florence on Easter Sunday.
Alessandro must have sensed this in the way our faces fell, because he looked at us in a kindly way and said, “No, no, no, I’ll cook something for you… Something small. Around 8pm. Okay?”
We were expecting a loaf of bread, maybe a few olives, a plate of pasta with bottled sugo, a few cookies and a liter of vino rosso di casa at most. And we would have been perfectly contented with the bread and wine alone, but what we got was one of the biggest and best dinners we ate in Italy.
Alessandro started us off, naturally, with antipasti: perfect brushcetta, the most wonderful pickled peppers, preserved artichokes, cheese with honey and freshly baked focaccia with prosciutto, capocollo and pancetta. The hot bread gently warmed the uncooked pancetta, coaxing out all of its porcine fatty goodness. It was a revelation. I never would think to eat uncooked bacon, but there I was, oinking my way through my two slices.
Our primi was petite squares of homemade lasagna. Alessandro swore he made everything himself, from the noodles to the ragu and that he’d eaten it for breakfast that very morning. I believe him. The noodles only hinted at being noodles, they were so thin. And there were a least eight perfectly constructed strata in each square, but there was no slippage and no knife necessary. Each layer blithely gave way to a fork’s pressure. It was lasagna nirvana.
But it didn’t stop there. We were happily stuffed and couldn’t imagine eating another thing, when the kitchen door swung open on the most glorious steak I have ever seen. Cooked to a perfect medium/medium-rare, it was at least 4 inches thick and the size of a dinner plate. Seasoned simply with salt, pepper and olive oil, Alessandro had cut “fingers” into its depths to allow it to cook through. It was the most delicious, tender and perfectly prepared steak I’ve ever had, especially in light of the previous night’s meal.
We had gone out for “Florentine” steaks at a “trattoria” in Florence. We had wanted to dine at the Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco, a delicious looking neighborhood joint in the Oltrarno, but alas, our plans were thwarted by zillions of other people who wanted to eat there, too. So we ended up “somewhere else.” “Somewhere else” was a smelly, expensive, yet serviceable tourist trap of a restaurant. But we were there, and we were hungry, so we gamely ordered on. Honestly, the food wasn’t bad, but when cast in the light of our meal in the Maremma, it was a sad ghost of truly great Italian cooking, which is a shame.
So… I’ve told you about the antipasti, the primi, and the secondi… But, you know what? I haven’t even told you about my favorite part of dinner yet! It wasn’t the perfect steak. Nope. Nor the beautiful bacon, peppers or lasagna just like Nonna makes. Nope, nope , nope. And it wasn’t dessert either. (We didn’t have any. There wasn’t anywhere to put it!) Nope, to me, the most perfect, delicious and wonderful part of our meal was the beans.
When we ate at Trattoria del Carmine in Florence, I ordered a plate of garbanzo beans from the daily specials menu. I figured, if a chef puts a dish called simply Ceci as one of his daily specials, it’s probably pretty special. And it was. Startling in its simplicity, just olive oil, garlic and salt, it was the best thing I ate that night.
The same was true at Alessandro’s. His beans, presented as the third dish in our troika of antipasti, were the local, generic Tuscan white beans, probably from a can, heated through and dressed simply in olive oil and a dusting of dried herbs. Simple enough. But it was the final seasoning that made them revelatory: finely minced raw onion. The onion’s bite, its delicious tang, brought out every nuance of those beans; their creaminess, their vegetal savoriness, the very essence of their beaniness.
The Tuscans, it seems, have magic beans (or at least a magic touch with them).
We had them again the next night, at a pizza place perched atop one of those hills lurking at the rim of the vast Maremman plain. We had gone off exploring along the coast and returned to the inn sunburnt and windblown. When we arrived “home,” Alessandro and the noble Nero were waiting for us. We were the only people staying at the inn, he said, and rather than cooking us dinner again, Alessandro wanted to know if we’d like to go with him and his wife to his friend’s pizzeria for dinner.
At first we said no, it felt awkward. But he insisted and, well, let’s be honest, it sounded really great, so we went. And it was. I know you’re never going to believe me when I tell you this, but I can’t remember the name of the place. In fact, I’m not sure I ever even knew it. But it’s in Sassofortino, outside the walls, overlooking the plain. It can’t be that hard to find, now, can it? The pizzas were delicious, as was the dessert of frutti di bosco over mascarpone cream, but once again, it was the beans on the antipasti plate that stole the show.
The owner of the restaurant, who bore an odd resemblance to Frank Fontana from Murphy Brown, used borlotti beans for his fagioli, but the treatment was the same. Simple, simple, simple. Oil, salt, a few slivers of fresh tomato and the beans.
A quick internet search for “Tuscan beans” turns up all kinds of recipes using carrots and cheese and special pots and sausages, but I think they’re missing the point. While there is obviously room for variation in making these beans; they can be chickpeas or borlotti beans or canellini beans; they can be dried or fresh, bottled or canned; you can add herbs or leave them out, there is one constant. Simplicity.
And so, I don’t feel right telling you the name of the inn we stayed at, because it may no longer be there. Alessandro and his wife had already bought a new place on the coast and were cashing out of the inn on the plain while we were there. But, I can offer you my recipe for Tuscan beans.
And that’s obviously the next best thing, right?
Head below the jump for the recipe for Ceci o Fagioli alla Toscana.
Ceci o Fagioli alla Toscana
prep time: 5 minutes + a few hours soaking time ~ cooking time: about 30 minutes
I used dried ceci that I brought home and reconstituted, but you can use your favorite bean. Just make sure it’s the best quality you can find. Canned beans, well rinsed, are okay for this too.
- 1 cup dried Ceci, Borlotti or Canellini bean, or a can of beans, well rinsed
- 1 Onion, very finely minced
- 2 cloves Garlic, very finely minced
- Olive Oil
- Minced Parsley
- Lemon Juice
If you are using canned beans, skip the soaking and cooking steps.
Soak the beans for 4-6 hours. Pour the beans and their soaking water into a pot, bring the water to a boil, lower to a simmer and partially cover. Cook 20-30 minutes until tender. Drain the beans.
Return the pot to the stove and heat a large glug of olive oil over medium heat. Add 3/4 of the onion and the garlic. Cook until softened. Add the drained beans and season with salt. Cook a few minutes until heated through. Add the remaining onion. Turn off the heat. Stir to incorporate.
To serve: Sprinkle with a little parsley and lemon juice. Enjoy!
Cook’s Note: Sage or rosemary and a few tomatoes are also delicious in this.