Need tips on where to eat in Tuscany? Best person to ask—Debi Mazar. Yes, she of Goodfellas, Entourage, and the upcoming Lovelace. Though she is a native New Yorker, Mazar divides time between Brooklyn and Italy with her husband, Tuscan native Gabriele Corcos, and their two daughters. In addition to running the popular cooking website Under The Tuscan Gun, Mazar and Corcos host Cooking Channel's Extra Virgin, set to go into its third season. Here, they both share secrets of enjoying their second home.
What are some of your best tips for the first-timer traveling to Tuscany?
Gabriele Corcos: Drive. The great thing about Tuscany is you move for about 30 miles and the landscape completely changes. 80 miles from Florence are the Tuscan Alps, where all the marble comes from and you have wonderful heritage foods. It's completely different from Siena, for example, where the hills are very sexy and everything is soft hay and fields.
Debi Mazar: And when driving around, I always try and look for artisanal handmade things. There is so much handwork still done there. They still make beautiful textiles, paintings, fine handmade clothing, accessories, and jewelry. That is hard to find in the US.
What are your tips to find the best food along the way?
GC: Depending what time of the week, in the smaller villages, you have local markets in the main square. These are not really the farmers markets; these vendors sell everything from underwear to roasted chicken to cheese. Those are the guys who can tell you where to find even more stuff than what they bring to the square.
DM: You can even get a decent meal when you are on the autostrade. If you need to pull over on the highway, the food at those gas stations is incredible! And then you have porchetta stands on the side of the road. You can also pop in your local inoteca where it's specifically designed for somebody who is looking for a good bottle of wine. They often know where the good restaurants are. It is so hard to go wrong. Just pull into a little town and park and look for that small little place. Oh, and a good tip is to notice where the construction workers are buying their sandwiches!
GC: You know the famous black and white picture of the Italian workers on the Empire State Building all sitting with sandwiches? In Italy, it is still the same. In Italy, on all of the scaffoldings, you see the workers sitting with their Moretti beer and mortadella and mozzarella sandwiches. There's no mayo, no oil, no salt and pepper—it is about those two ingredients and for them, it is probably the most beautiful moment of the day. There is something to envy about that simplicity where you can appreciate life and enjoy life with the simplest and cheapest ingredients you can find, and it still makes for a beautiful experience.
How do you decide which restaurant to choose in some of the larger towns?
GC: Always go for the smaller restaurant instead of going for the famous name. Always look for the "corner shop," the unassuming place where all the locals are eating. It is a different approach. The small establishment is not about the ego of the chef or luring the tourist with something new or something special. It is more about doing it for the beauty of doing it. For those establishments, it's not about impressing you with the menu, it's about enjoying what they do. Here in New York it is all about the menu and the chefs. In Italy it is about the ingredients. It's not about the chef; it is more about the tradition and heritage and not the splashiness.
What are some of your favorite food souvenirs to bring back?
DM: Olive oil. We have amazing olive oil that comes from our property. It's green and spicy. To buy a bottle of oil here in the US is so expensive, it's offensive! Sometimes we'll have Gabriele's mom ship a big can of it. Oh, and when I was pregnant, she asked what we wanted, and she brought us huge wheels of Parmesan reggiano and bresaola. You can get these things in the US, but when it comes from Italy it always has a better taste. And honey. I love the honey that comes from there. We use it a lot to make risotto and things.
GC: The honey is amazing! We discovered this guy who has a nomadic bee farm. He moves all of his bee hives throughout Italy, including the islands and the Alps, all throughout the year to follow the seasons and the flowers. He does 40 different kinds of honey, so wherever he moves, he has different flavors. We have a real appreciation for that kind of lifestyle.
Extra Virgin Season 3 debuts Wednesday, Nov. 7, 9:30pm ET/PT on the Cooking Channel.
Photo credits: Tuscany via Shutterstock