Tutti al Mare! Tuscans at the Beach
This year, Italians finally are planning to return to their beloved beaches with the hope that tourists will follow. Though many of us are still not comfortable making the trip to Italy, at least we can reflect on vacations past while imbibing in its local flavors, enhanced by its colorful customs. Italians absolutely love beach life and are most likely the sexiest and most fashionable beachgoers in the world.
La Versilia is a very unique stretch of Tuscan Mediterranean coast backed by the Apuan Alps. It is best known for its golden beaches, nightlife, art communities, and surf-n-turf – Mare e Monti – cuisine. But to fully enjoy the Italian beach culture you need to know its unspoken rules. After all, you do not want to look like a tourist on an Italian beach!
Zucchini Grigliati e Burrata
Smokey grilled zucchini ribbons, soft burrata cheese, parsley breadcrumbs and saba
Risotto Gamberetti e Bietola
Imported vialone nano rice, shrimp, Swiss chard and parmesan
Scaloppine di Pollo ai Funghi
Chicken breast scaloppini with white wine reduction, wild mushrooms, and fresh herbs
Tuscan donuts filled with vanilla cream and dusted with sugar
Chef's Travel Notes
With 5000 miles of coastline, Italy has the most beaches in Europe. Nowhere in Italy are you more than two hours from a beach. Italians absolutely love beach life and are, most likely, the sexiest and most fashionable beachgoers in the world. But, in order to fully enjoy the Italian beach culture, you should know the unspoken rules.
Growing up on Long Island, there was no beach culture per se. You got in the car with your towel, umbrella and picnic lunch and drove to Jones Beach. You didn’t worry about making a “bella figura,” or good impression, paramount to all Italians. Where you go and how you look is an important status symbol. After all, you do not want to look like a tourist on an Italian beach.
A “bagno” or beach club, usually a small family-run business, offers a structured and well-organized beach experience. They can be chic or family oriented with amenities such as changing cabins / cabine, lounge chairs / sdrai, and beach umbrellas / ombrelloni. Some will offer waiter service (alcohol is allowed) and many Italians choose their “bagno” based on its restaurant and lunch menu.
It has always amazed me that in a country where no one will stand in a line or drive in a lane, the beaches are beautifully manicured with precisely aligned rows of striped umbrellas and recliners. Position is everything at the “bagno” – the closer to the water, the more expensive the rental fee and the better to watch people as they promenade along the shore. Another thing to remember is to always make eye contact with your lounge-chair neighbors. The “bagno” will be your home for as long as you are at the beach. Many reserve their place for a month at a time, returning to the exact same chair year after year.
Italian women are always stylish, even at the beach. Women of all ages wear two-piece bathing suits (see beautiful Nonne in bikinis) and Italian men wear fitted trunks or even Speedos. You will never see them in long baggy shorts and logo t-shirts. They will usually arrive early and stay on the beach until about noon or 1pm when they all retreat to the closest restaurant or go home for a lunch and a “pisolino,” returning around 4pm when the sun is not as strong.
“La Dolce Vita” or the Italian art of living their best life is evident in the tradition of vacationing at BOTH the beach AND in the mountains. My mother-in-law would spend a month at each every summer. Even back in the day, she would go to the shore to bask in the vitamin D-rich sunlight for her compromised spine and to breathe in the beneficial saline sea air. After which, she would travel up to the mountains to enjoy long relaxing walks in the cleanest Alpine air and cleanse with the renowned medicinal spring waters.
Every summer, we would try to go as often as we could to the Tuscan beaches of La Versilia, a stretch of land along the coast between the Mediterranean Sea and Apuan Alps. It has a distinctly international flavor and is known for its golden beaches, night life and art culture. Michelangelo first worked the stunning white marble from Carrara and now Fernando Botero, renowned Colombian sculptor, resides in the artist community of Pietrasanta.
Because of Versilia’s location, its cuisine mixes flavors of the sea and the mountains (they are only a 10-minute drive apart). Our menu this week highlights both, while recalling the quickly prepared dishes found at our favorite bagno in Viareggio. Vegetables play an important role in Tuscan cuisine and our Zucchini sulla Brace is an example of a grilled vegetable appetizer you would find quickly prepared and served at the beach. The addition of cold, creamy burrata cheese and fruity saba (a condiment made from grape must) to the smoky zucchini ribbons makes for a flavorful start.
Risotto con Gamberi e Bietola is a specialty from Lido di Camaiore. Risotto with shrimp and Swiss chard mixes the flavors of the sea and the mountains. Tuscans are passionate about mushrooms and search its wooded areas for them starting in late summer. Porcini, the best and most flavorful, are hard to find outside of Italy so we are using a combination of cremini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms for our Scaloppine di Pollo ai Funghi, chicken scaloppini with wild mushrooms.
“BOMBOLONI, BOMBOLONI CALDI” – “donuts, hot donuts” is what the peddlers would call out as they walked along the beach and is what every Italian child remembers joyfully devouring as their afternoon snack / merenda. When I asked my daughter, Olivia, what she thought I should serve to complete our beach menu, she didn’t hesitate to respond with great nostalgia, “bomboloni, cream- filled bomboloni!”
Tuscans drink red wine all year, except possibly at the beach, where cold crisp local wines are de rigueur. Vernaccia di San Gimignano has been considered one of Italy’s finest white wines since the Renaissance when Dante Alighieri mentioned it in his Divine Comedy. San Gimignano, the famed Medieval ‘Town of Towers’ is a stone’s throw from the beach and is home to this full-bodied white, with heady floral bouquet, dry persistent flavors and characteristic bitter aftertaste, perfect for our Mare e Monti – surf-and-turf menu.
This year, Italians finally are planning to return to their beloved beaches with the hope that tourists will follow. Though many of us are still not comfortable making the trip to Italy, at least we can reflect on vacations past while imbibing in its local flavors, enhanced by its colorful customs.
Tutti al mare!