The Etruscan coast promises a weekend of blue seas, beautiful shores, and a seriously delicious, local fish stew.
Warmer days and longer nights have finally arrived. In Tuscany, it seems like everyone is heading to the coast for a weekend in search of blue sea, beautiful shores, and a bit of relaxation. One of the most appreciated Tuscan seaside destinations is the Etruscan coast. Here, the port city of Livorno and nearby towns offer prime beachside getaways on the Etruscan coast. And why should the weekend end so soon? Bring the flavor of the sea home with a hearty seafood dish, cacciucco.
Popular beachside getaways on the Etruscan coast
You won’t be short on choices for a seaside destination in Maremma. The free beach of Baratti is a quiet oasis with a huge, shadowy, welcoming pinewood. If you didn’t pack a lunch, head to the kiosk for panini made with the best local charcuterie and cheese. The beach is located within the archaeological park of Populonia and Baratti, which is also well worth a visit: rich in history and breathtaking views over the gulf, it is enjoyable both for kids and grown-ups.
In Castiglioncello, the beaches are smaller and a bit crowded during the high season, but elegant and with a distinct “Dolce Vita” taste. Just down the shore is Quercianella, with a clear blue sea that make it the ideal place to go snorkeling.
Suvereto and Castagneto Carducci are small medieval towns where you can spend a few hours getting lost in the back alleys or simply sitting in a café with a glass of good local wine. In the summer, Suvereto has a full program of events, from its annual Mediaeval Festival to the Italy-wide wine event Calici di Stelle on the night of St. Lawrence, August 10.
If you are on the coast to celebrate a special occasion and are up to some excellent seafood, San Vincenzo is the town to visit. It has a long culinary tradition and a timeless love for local fish such as palamita, bonito fish, and other kinds of pesce azzurro, like mackerels, sardines, and anchovies.
Get off the beaten path in Livorno
While the above beaches are more popular destinations for seaside getaways on the Etruscan Coast, Livorno is rarely included into touristic itineraries. Yet, it has undeniable charm and quite a lot to offer, especially for a food and wine lover.
Don’t expect the standard “look” that most tourists equate with other beautiful Tuscan cities. It has neither the renaissance charm of Florence nor the elegant look of Lucca. You don’t breathe in history here as you do among the red brick buildings of Siena. Instead, Livorno is unique and authentic, a real port town living in a symbiotic relationship with the sea.
Liberty, or Art Nouveau, houses and villas are placed side by side next to austere Fascist and modern architecture built in the ‘60s after the heavy bombings of World War II. The Terrazza Mascagni is one of the most evocative locations in Livorno: a seaside promenade where people of every age stroll throughout the day. Its black and white tiles resemble a huge chessboard, thus playing with space and perspective and pulling you towards the sea.
Markets in Livorno are lively and the best place to buy fresh ingredients. The Mercato delle Vettovaglie, also known as Mercato Centrale or Coperto, was built at the end of the 19th century, a majestic iron and glass building with Neoclassical and Liberty elements. Nowadays, it’s the second largest covered market in Europe after the Spanish Boqueria in Barcelona and the heart of the town.
Not far from Mercato Centrale opens Piazza Cavallotti, where you can enjoy another lively food market. Visit this market for the freshest seasonal fruit and vegetables, to eavesdrop recipes from the nonne queueing at the stalls or to buy a frate, a fried doughnut sprinkled with sugar, from the frateria on the corner.
Don’t leave Livorno without trying the local ponce, a drink made with hot coffee and cheap rum with a curl of lemon zest. It mimics the English punch, but the addition of coffee inspires an extra, energetic zest. Ponce is often taken after a meal. I suggest you stop at Civili, a quaint traditional bar where they know how to prepare it well.
The tastiest fish stew you’ll ever meet
To perfectly understand Livorno and its attitude, you must taste one of its most traditional dishes, cacciucco. It’s a melting pot of flavors, just like Livorno is a mix of people and traditions. Cacciucco is a hearty fish soup with endless variations, one for each household along the coast. An “official” recipe for cacciucco livornese doesn’t really exist. Today, as in the past, it’s made with what the season has to offer.
The base of the dish does not change, however: the small, humble fish left at the bottom of fishermen’s nests after selling the catch of the day. Too bony to sell, too precious to throw away. Made into cacciucco, these pesce azzurro become a thick, deep-flavored soup, usually served on toasted bread previously rubbed with garlic. The stale bread, another staple ingredient of the Tuscan cuisine, would quickly absorb the thick fish broth, becoming the best part of the dish.
Though there’s no “official” recipe for cacciucco, here are some rules to guide you.
1. Always use garlic and sage, traditionally used not only for their flavor but also for their antiseptic properties.
2. Tomato paste has a more reasonable explanation in the structure of the recipe: it was way easier to have it on board than fresh ripe tomatoes.
3. Chili pepper is required as well, simply because the Livornese people love it.
4. As for the seafood, the saying goes that you should have at least as many varieties of fish as the letter “c” in the word cacciucco: never less than five. Avoid expensive fish, prawns, or mussels, and instead opt for bony fish, cheap but flavorful.
Recipe for Cacciucco Livornese
The following recipe was given to me by Maruska, a woman I met at the market in Livorno who works at the fishmonger.
As she recommends, invite some friends over, as cacciucco is meant to be shared: it represents companionship, warmth, and comfort. And as with all complete Italian meals, it’s best if served with wine. Don’t be shy about pairing red wine with fish, as a heartier dish such as cacciucco is an excellent complement to red Bolgheri DOC straight from the shores of Maremma.
Ingredients for 4 people
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves of garlic
- A few sage leaves
- Red chili flakes
- 50 gr of tomato paste
- 1 ladleful of fish stock or warm water
- ½ glass of red wine
- 300 gr of cleaned cuttlefish, cleaned and cut into strips
- 500 gr of baby octopus, cleaned and cut into strips
- 400 gr of smooth-hound
- 400 gr of mixed bony fish (tub gurnard, sea-robin, rockfish…)
- 8 cicale (mantis shrimp)
- 4 slices of stale bread
- Cover the bottom of a large pan with olive oil and sauté the finely chopped garlic with sage and chili pepper. Add the cleaned baby octopus. Cook on low flame for about 15 minutes. Add the cleaned cuttlefish and stir to mix and gain flavor with the octopus. Now mix the tomato paste with water or fish stock and pour into the pot along with wine.
- Cook on low flame for about 20 minutes and check it often to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. If it gets too dry, add some more water or fish stock. Season with salt as needed.
- Add the small, bony fish and the smooth-hound by laying them on top of the soup to steam. Next, add the mantis shrimp and cover with a lid. Cook for about 10 minutes, then set aside.
- Add a slice of grilled bread rubbed with garlic on the bottom of each bowl. Spoon the soup onto the bread, arrange some pieces of fish on top, and finish with the mantis shrimp. Serve hot.