Tuscany is world-famous for its culinary flavors. “Farm fresh to table” here is not a late-20th-century idea that took hold to become a well-marketed way to savor the best of what nature has to offer. In Tuscany, the most delicious experiences have been a part of the culture for thousands of years, whether it means fresh vegetables picked minutes before eating from your mineral-rich orto, the vegetable and berry garden attached to your home, or the freshest of grass-fed, free-range protein that is a honor to partake in. Or the most succulent fruit, whether they be figs, apricots, pears, apples, cherries and so much more, all of which taste like nature’s candy with zero intervention. And what if there was a Tuscan spirit capable of taking all of nature’s most perfect gifts, bringing them into your home, making them even more beautiful (if that is even possible) and then engaging your household in one of Tuscany’s eternal traditions: sharing nature’s bounty with family and friends. The Tuscan spirit who is able to do all this is a tender, clever, warm and entertaining bear of a man, a creative culinary genius who seems to have emerged as a force of nature directly from the gentle hills of Tuscany themselves. He is Stefano Frassineti and to partake in his gifts is to understand and be an intrinsic part of why Tuscany’s culinary and cultural delights are as world-famous as they are. Stefano’s own words betray a gentle humility for such an accomplished individual.
“My story really is a very simple one. I was born in Rufina, a simple Tuscan town in the Valdisieve, where my children who work with me, Andrea and Allegra, were also born. In the mid-80s, I began learning the craft of cooking in Londa, and from 1993 to 2003 I had Osteria La Casellina in the Rufina hills, where I presented my style of honest Tuscan cookery. For a number of years after that, I experimented with flavors and styles in Romagna, after which I returned to my roots in Pontassieve, just at the tip of Florence, where since 2008 I have had my restaurant Toscani da Sempre (Tuscans since Forever!). In 2014, I had the idea of creating Cookstock, which celebrated local cookery and this led to a collaboration with the renowned Tuscan winery, Ruffino, which appointed me as chef of their Chianti eatery Le Tre Rane (The Three Frogs). That’s where I have been since.”
During pandemic times, Stefano created the Cappuccetto Rosso service, whereby the restaurant would put together meal kits with locally sourced ingredients, which included detailed recipe instructions (and even a cheerful poem to lift spirits!) to prepare a chef-quality meal at home. This engaged patrons not only in the act of eating a well-prepared meal, but also taking part in the meal’s preparation, learning and understanding the art of fine food and giving a way for families to do things together while remaining safe in a protected environment. While Stefano insisted that he wasn’t thinking ahead during those difficult times and that he remained in the present to support both his customers and his own staff, there was a hint of what would be next once the world opened up once again.
One of those ideas is Cuochi a Casa, an arm of his current restaurant business that features “cooks at home”. This is no basic catering service, with food prepared earlier in the day, or even the day before in a restaurant kitchen, packed and then brought to a home, warmed and plated before serving to a family at their own table. In fact, the idea is to bring Tuscany’s freshest ingredients into someone’s home, along with staff, and prepare a meal in a home kitchen, where family members can observe, ask questions about the process, even use their own china and glassware (or have Stefano rent them if they prefer) to create an ambience worthy of the finest dining experience with the best produce right at home.
Having received an invitation to such an experience beginning with the arrival of Stefano’s team, I was excited to take part in what was certain to be a thrilling event. Family and guests were called for 7.30pm for an aperitivo on the terrace overlooking Florence on a warm May evening, but for Stefano and his staff the evening started at 4.30 in the afternoon. Stefano, his two adult children, Andrea and Allegra, and his remarkable sous-chef Gianmarco Meacci arrived with a number of large boxes. Two were filled with kitchen utensils, well-seasoned pots and pans, wooden spoons and spices. Two more were brimming with fresh ingredients, from vegetables picked from Stefano’s garden only several hours before to meat sourced that very morning; potatoes (not in plastic netting, but free as if they just emerged from the earth); ingredients for cod quenelles; fire-roasted eggplant; fresh ricotta; olive oil (not from market, but in a green bottle with the golden elixir clearly bottled in one’s own backyard); Arborio rice in a paper bag; fresh strawberries of unequal sizes, clearly not mass cultivated; cream; elements for meringues and meatballs, and more. Organized, beautiful, fresh and, most notably, each element in its purest form. There were no mixes, bottled affairs and pre-fabricated assemblies; just elements of the freshest kind, Plus, salt and pepper, of course.
The cooking begins with making a broth for the risotto, one of the dishes at dinner. Gianmarco tells me that to create such a stock nothing but vegetables and the smallest amount of salt should be used. Celery, carrots, onions and radish, whatever is in the garden, boil and then reduce to allow the broth to steep. This will be used in the preparation of the risotto 20 minutes before serving. The elements of the risotto are prepared: zucchini in fine sections, crispy pancetta, dried garden onions, pine nuts. Create a base with olive oil and onions; reduce onions. Remove and use the oil to crisp the pancetta. Remove and caramelize the zucchini. Remove and flavor the pine nuts. Each element takes on the flavors of the previous tenants of the oil. The result is rich and deep. Twenty minutes before serving, use the oil to brown the rice. Use the now rich broth, ladle by ladle, to create a luscious golden risotto, stirring and adding broth as needed. Don’t throw in armfuls of cheese or anything else. Allow the pure ingredients to speak for themselves. So it goes for every magnificent dish prepared.
One can ask questions and learn. Stefano and Gianmarco are only too happy to share their own pride in how they conjure up such magnificent culinary experiences. If there are food allergies, they will happily accommodate whatever is needed, working with the ingredients that everyone can share or making something special if need be. The menu is suggested and reviewed in advance. Part of the fun is choosing a menu and then finding out how it is made, plated and served. Stefano will even join the table from his chef’s lair and share details for all the guests to enjoy. You might wish to choose your own wines or have Stefano provide fabulous wines from the winery where he mostly works. The menu we experienced was stunning: fresh baked ricotta (“it must be the freshest”) with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and paprika, served with a subtle roasted eggplant sauce and really good olive oil to begin. Then came cod quenelles, accompanied by a delicately flavored garden-fresh vegetable medley. That vegetable risotto. Steak filet and wine sauce that melts in the mouth, accompanied by perfectly roasted crispy potatoes. Last but not least, dessert came in the form of a Marengo, a fluffy frozen cream dessert topped with mouth-watering crispy meringue and fresh strawberries with only a hint of citric acid and sugar. Every single dish was remarkable.
This sublime culinary experience was made even more pronounced by the fact that all 18 guests of various international backgrounds—Florentine, French, Serbian, Canadian and American—remained around the table, talking, sharing, experiencing and laughing for many more hours than anyone might have expected as they luxuriated in Stefano’s beautiful creations. We all changed seats not by design, but naturally, in order to experience one another’s stories, taking advantage of the opportunity to meet everyone at this warm gathering. As the evening went on and night fell, the candlelight would flicker in the smiling eyes of all those gathered there, as they shared the love of everything we were experiencing together. Tuscans forever indeed!