March 1, 1999 | Travel Feature
Eating on the Tuscan Seashore
Slivered favas and tomato add earthy zest to red mullet. Photo: Steven Richter
Think Tuscany, I say, and the hungry you will see images of thick papa al pomodoro, white beans and wild boar sausage, a crusty Fiorintina steak drizzled with fragrant olive oil. That's exactly what you'll eat in the hills towns between Florence and Siena. But on the long Tuscan coast that stretches from the edge of Liguria down to Livorno, la cucina toscana is about seafood. When savvy locals settle in for lunch or dinner in Viareggio, Camiore or Forti dei Marmi they have a choice of shrimp by any other name (gamberoni, gamberetti, scampi, prawnlike maszzancole) and a caboodle of clams (vongole, tartuffi. wiggly razor clams and arselle, no bigger than the tip of your pinky. Mussels are tiny, packed with flavor half the time, pale and pallid otherwise. Squid, cuttlefish and octopus from full-size to the tiniest moscardini appear in salads or come caramelized from the grill.
Branzino (our striped bass) and orata are the best of the local fish, but there may also be turbot, mormora (a cod-like creature), triglie (rouget) or some wimpy river fish, not nearly the variety that jets into Manhattan daily. And almost always overcooked by American standards, even if you request it "non troppo cotta" (not too cooked) or "memo cotto" less cooked. I got fish gelled and opaque but not flaky only once in two months of trying this past summer. But the shrimp, often heads-on in the shell carry a shock of flavor and odd pasty-white sea squill are exotic and tender.
Simplicity is the mantra. You'll rarely see a sauce, certainly not a streak of wasabi cream, perhaps only a tiny puddle of butter, more likely a few droplets of olive oil, no green sauce, no mayonnaise, no foliage, no watercress, no sprouts. Often not even lemon unless you ask. If it's pasta, the ratio of freshly-made noodles to sauce, is an elegantly spare five to one. There are never 22 ingredients or even four if three is classic. The impact of such minimalist saucing is a revelation. Tuscans are proud and conservative. The less traveled are highly suspicious of foreign innovation.
What must wary locals make of Da Antonio, a celebrated fish restaurant in land-locked Chianti? It doesn't matter, well-heeled pilgrims from the Relais et Chateau inn, Borgo San Felice, fill the tables that spill outside to the blossom swagged porch when it's balmy. Cocky and raffish in a white tea shirt and a laundry towel as an apron over jeans, chef-padrone Antonio Farini hefts a fish from the icy drifts of his cooler, affectionately pokes a few live crustaceans to a tap-dance for us and becomes passionate when we ask for red wine (there are none on his wine list). "Something modestly priced," I say. "It's rude to speak of price," he scolds, so we meekly sip a wonderful Bran Caia, l997 Mammemo by Giorgio for about $37. Farini, who immigrated from a celebrity-hangout in Forti de Marmi, spends hours on the road shopping the fish markets of Viareggio and Santa Stefano for sea creatures worthy of his splendid tasting dinner. Say "degustatione" and it just comes -- gossamer slices of raw fish over vegetables, raw scampetti with oil and lemon, white beans and shrimp, octopus salad, scampi fried in a zucchini blossom, canocie (mantis-shrimp) baked in an excess of bread crumbs. By the time we've decimated platters of fine seafood pasta, the whole fish, clumsily boned table side and too cooked for me seems redundant. The luscious bitterness of braised raddichio clears the palate for wild berries.
Chef Franca sends out luscious carpaccio and crudo at Romano. Photo: Steven Richter
Curiosity in the name of research led us on the two-hour jaunt to Da Antonio. It's certainly worth a tempting detour if you're in Florence or Arrezo but we need not have budged. From ur rented cottage in Pietrasanta, a few kilometers from the sea, we spent the summer exploring Tuscan seafood minutes away: The rich creamy black pasta with cuttlefish at La Dogana just down the road outside Camiore. Sprightly seafood pastas delivered with annoying attitude at Puccini in Lucca. The endless parade of piccolo assagi (small tastes) at Scintilla, recommended to us as the best old Viareggio-style trattoria --half the price of the legendary Romano where chef Franca Franceschini took me seriously and permitted my fish to leave her kitchen boldly rare.) And again and again, spending our own money (always a test for a restaurant critic) we treated ourselves to the best in Tuscany, the seafood sorcery of Lorenzo in next-door Forti dei Marmi, Lorenzo Viani with his graying hair and sky blue eyes is the Paul Newman of Tuscany.
Women drop their room keys in his path and all the sun-leathered denizens of this Southampton for Florentines and Milanese vie for his tables. He whirls about his modest place with its stucco'd walls and the open kitchen, taking every order himself, flirting, schmoozing, even serving when he spies plates ready to go and no waiter in sight. Too busy talking to think or too vain to put on reading glasses, Lorenzo fans order the tasting of the week, $39 to $56 for six or seven courses and coffee. A parade of antipasti: Immaculate red mullet carpaccio with celery perhaps. Scampetti and beans. Taglierieni topped with rouget, calamaretti and zucchini. monkfish chunks with artichoke. Lobster alla catalana, an insolence of simplicity served everywhere along the coast with its strips of raw carrots, celery, fennel and bell peppers (and mayo only if you ask) is wildly popular with those who can afford it. Friends who are regulars always share the truffle ravioli, from the menu of the non-fish items that I never look at.
Lorenzo whisks the mayonnaise himself…and, what a shock…in a suit. Photo: Steven Richter
After a couple of tasting evenings stretched out by an extra taste or three from the host as he flies by, the two of us focus on our favorites -- a haunting soup of farro and white beans with calamaretti, mare gratinato (all sorts of small critters crumbed and roasted), bavette (linguini) with seafood and a hit of hot pepper. (I watch the chef cooking this pasta dry in the juice of the seafood in a saute pan. "Like a risotto," Lorenzo says. "If the seafood is fresh enough, you don't even need salt." He agrees that red wines go well with fish, but only certain red wines. The Marquese Pancrazi Tenuta di San. Donato’95 and a lush l990 Chianti from Pecardo get his approval.
Lorenzo circles the two rooms, a bottle of his private stock olive oil in hand, sprinkling it at various tables. Good customers might get his own label oil. For a very special customer he may even offer a bottled of the limited edition --"This is the Chateau d'Yquem of olive oils," he says. I'd skip the no thrill desserts knowing that cookies and freshly-made almond brittle will come anyway. And if you're lucky, he may tell the waiter to bring a half dozen chunks of prime parmesan and the ancient balsamic vinegar -- he carefully dribbles a rivulet or two, then opens yet another big red -- pouring two glasses here, two glasses there, a glass for himself. A rare few seconds of calm before he's dashing off to greet and romance the 11 o'clock arrivals.
So it's good that the Viareggio fish market no longer opens at dawn. So civilized. So Italian. The boats come in to auction their catch starting at 5 p.m. Lorenzo doesn't try to do a noontime meal come July when the Forti crowd hits the sand en masse in itsy bikinis and chunky gold chains, forsaking the rays at 1 p.m. for lunch in seaside trattorias. That gives newly single Lorenzo time for a sail before the five o'clock chase to Viareggio to scout the day’s catch. We're invited to join him. The only restaurateur permitted on the wholesale said of the vast empty cavern, he strides the wet floor, bare-legged in his leather clogs, faded navy polo and Bermuda shorts, like a Don among the common folk, greeting pals. The auctions are quick. He pulls a wad of lira from his pocket and pays cash. His catch is wheeled away to be cleaned and delivered. He selects two boxes of scampi, peeling a handful for himself and us to taste. He looks at his Rolex. The lobsters are late, delayed in holiday traffic. We break for a coffee.
"Simplicity," is the secret, he says. "The product is everything. Fish has 24 charms and it loses one as ever hour passes," he says. A favorite line. (Antonio likes it too.) Lorenzo is getting antsy. He has one more stop and it's almost seven. A cooking class of twenty has booked for 8:30. Finally at 7:20, the truck arrives. Lorenzo paces as the workers unload. At last. He rips open the box to check out the dazed creatures, signs a receipt, nods, then picks up all three boxes, knees buckling under the load, and carries them to his Mercedes. He moves his clothes for the evening out of the trunk and into the car, stuffs each leaking box into a giant baggy and drives off. By the time he gets to the restaurant, the idle rich will already be ordering the spiny creatures he will surrender to the kitchen.
This article appeared in Food Arts, March 1998.
Puccini Corte San Lorenzo 1/3, Lucca 011 39 0583 316116 fax 0583 316031
Trattoria Scintilla Via N. Pisano, 30, Viareggio 011 39 0584 387096
La Dogana Via Sarzanese. Capezzano Pianore 011 39 442 0584 915159
Romano Via Mazzini, 122 Viareggio 011 39 0584 31382
Lorenzo, Via Carducci, 61, Forte dei Marmi. 011 39 0584-84030
Da Antonio Via Florito, 38 Castelnuovo Berardenga011 39 0577 355 321