Is the cuisine of Tuscany and Umbria inferior to the rest of Italy?
Just to get a discussion going:
I have never eaten as well in Tuscany or Umbria as I have eaten in Venice, Milan, Emilia-Romagna, Rome, Campania, and Apulia. (Yet, to be fair, rarely have I had better wine than in Tuscany and Umbria). When I have had a good meal in these two regions, it has been in small trattorias rather than fine dining establishments. I make one exception: Il Cibreo, Via A. del Verrocchino 8r, Florence, where I had an outstanding meal, and paid a pretty penny for it. I ate reasonably well at Le Logge in Siena, and not just because the outstanding wine, which the owner chose for me, made the meal.
Is this also y'all's experience? Or is it just me?
How much do I have to have eaten to be entitled to an opinion?
Before I venture any opinion about what you asked, I will say that I think it is a bit unfair to associate Tuscan cooking solely with the cooking in the orbit of Florence and Siena. That excludes the Maremma and other parts of Tuscany-by-the-sea. Some people (not me) are especially fond of the cooking around Lucca, which really doesn't resemble other parts of Tuscany.
Anyway, I've had individual meals in central Tuscany and in Umbria that I enjoyed more than individual meals in places touted as the best cuisines in Italy (Piemonte, Emilia-Romagna, Puglia), sometimes because I chose poorly in those other regions, but a few times because I was treated to amazing home-cooked meals from accomplished home cooks. I do tend to feel that restaurant menus in the major tourist areas of Tuscany aren't really representing what Tuscans are eating at home (which, if I'm right, I seem to prefer). The discrepancy isn't so wide where I live.
All that said, I instantly rejected the idea of living in central Tuscany or Umbria to large extent because, culturally rewarding as they are, I so much preferred the food in other parts of Italy. I'm not sure that means their cuisines are "inferior", because I have come to feel I would have a hard time living in Piemonte or Parma as well because of the heavy bias toward animal fat in those much-praised cuisines. I sometimes think I favor Italian regions where salt is used freely and disdain those where it is not.
I do think it is fair for people to rank some regions of Italy over others when it comes to food and wine, and not have it all dismissed as "subjective" or "a matter of taste." But in the end -- at least for me -- it really doesn't matter if this or that region comes out on "top" if it means I don't have readily available all the good olive oil and fresh fish I personally like to eat. Greece and Turkey have "inferior" cuisines, but I'd rather eat 3 meals a day in either country than do that in some of the most highly praised food meccas in Italy, where the food is just too rich for me to want it more than once a year or even once every two years.
I think that the answer to your question is somewhat in the question itself. I'll try to explain but please note that I will have to make some broad generalizations. I am sure someone will disagree.
You seem to prefer the so called fine dining vs local establishments. Most Italians (I am one) tend to prefer home food.
In Italy, fine dining does not belong to "a place" it belongs to a fashion. Upscale establishment tend to follow the fashion of the moment, e.g. molecular food, foams, fusion, raw fish, ect. You might have *some* local ingredients in the food they offer but they are mostly focussed on novelty rather than tradition.
This type of cuisine appeals to urban people so you have more chance to find better upscale cooking in cities.
In a rural area like Umbria there is simply no market for modern cuisine. The locals are not interested.
As a consequence upscale places charge you for ambiance but often don't reach above ordinary in the substance of the food. They work too much on the presentation. In my experience exceptions are far and apart.
Home food is the real food in the countryside. We have extraordinary ingredients in Umbria. Some of the best salumi, pecorino and olive oil you can find. Wild boar, truffle, artichokes, wild asparagus, porcini, I can go on and on.
What's the best treatment for these ingredients? Simple country fare. Unsophisticated. The closest you can get to mama's kitchen the better you will eat.
There is no better or worse in Italy, there is a fantastic variety, enjoy it!
I think a case could be made (and I am not necessarily making it!) that traditional Tuscan cuisine (aside from the coastal areas) is fairly one-dimensional. It seems like many of the same items show up on the menus of many Tuscan trattorias. These items include panazella, ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, wild boar ragu, beans, bistecca, pork roast, etc.
Tuscan cuisine has the reputation of being "cucina povera" and very ingredient driven. It certainly does not have the richness (as little or butter or cream is used) that you find in the cuisines of Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna.
Having visited many parts of Italy, I must say I have always felt the dullest food I had was in Tuscany, with the exception of Lucca. In Florence and San Gimignano it seemed like every menu was the same as every other. I cannot agree about Umbria. The food there was much more varied and interesting, and really completely different from that of Tuscany.
If variety in restaurant menus is the test, I can't believe Liguria doesn't rank dead last on everybody's list. Most menus are identical, and I think local Ligurians would complain if they went into a restaurant and didn't find what they expected to find on the menu. Maybe pesto and perfectly fresh fish is such a crowd pleaser, people don't notice the lack of variety in the cuisine. I also think areas like Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy have robust restaurant cultures aimed at elegance and wealth that simply doesn't exist in many other regions of Italy, even regions popular with tourists.
I think the point about whether or not the visitors actually want to eat what the locals eat is a good one. Present company excluded, I think few visitors are willing to completely suspend a diet of beef, chicken and shrimp, and drinking beer while in Italy, even if they are only here for less than two weeks. When I go into the areas of Italy really popular with tourists, I see menus weighted in that direction, even in areas where pork, eggs, beans and squid (and wine) are the traditional norm, and I especially see that in new places opening up -- beer and burgers, shrimp or chicken creations.
sid, it would be great to hear about some of your trips not yet reported (I dont think) like Puglia.
In answer to your question,though its been some years since we've spent much time in Tuscany or Umbria, I dont think the cuisine of these areas is intrinsically inferior. It has a great deal in common with cuisine up and down the boot in the appenine areas, in the focus on handmade pastas, salumi, sheep cheeses, legumes, greens funghi, lamb and pork, etc, and on the coast, simple seafood..The elements are there Just to point to the obvious problem (as in Venice) but I think the crush of tourists and the relative lack of local patrons makes good food experiences more elusive in this region. Also in its simplicity, the food can seem bland at times. It does tend to the austere rather than richness (basically a cucina povera) and it tends to be very traditional.
I think if you think about why you like the food you do, you will have the answer to your question and it will be more a question of taste than out-and-out quality.
Note, I have Giuliano Bugialli's first cookbook at home, which is predominantly tuscan, and Im impressed by the refinement of his dishes. I wonder how many of the trattorias and ristoranti in Tuscany bother to take the care to produce superior food when they can churn it out to the masses. Most likely the best food will not be found in the obvious places like SG and Siena.
re: jen kalb
When Giuliano's first book (The Fine Art of Italian Cooking) came out in 1977, there were still restaurants both in Florence and in the countryside that were serving the dishes that he introduced to the much wider world.
Unfortunately, that is not the case today as far as we know. There are one or two places east of Livorno that once in a great while serve a dish or two of food like that and the same thing with one or two places around Poppi. Our favorite trattoria in Florence periodically has one or two dishes, but in general, in the restaurants we go to in Tuscany, there is a dearth of Giuliano type dishes.