Follow me in this guide to all the must-try dishes of Sienese cuisine.
Siena is known all over the world for being a city rich in art, history and for being part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites; but that is not all. Within it, you can find incredible food and wine, made of genuine and simple ingredients.
Its geographical position has certainly played an important role in the formation of its culinary tradition: Siena is, in fact, surrounded by hilly landscapes, rich in vineyards, olive groves and cultivated fields, from which all the main ingredients of Sienese cuisine come.
These landscapes are, therefore, not only an attraction for the eyes, but also constitute the source of the gastronomic richness of this land. Moreover, the city is located between two incredibly important areas, known worldwide: the Chianti hills, where the namesake wine is produced, and the Crete Senesi, famous for their white truffles.
Basically, Sienese cuisine is based on local ingredients, of excellent quality and that, wisely combined, are able to offer unique flavours. This is why it is particularly appreciated by travellers who are in the city and who often take home some typical foods instead of a postcard. Pici, Pecorino di Pienza (a sheep cheese) and wines are just some of the souvenirs most chosen by tourists to remind them of the area.
Hungry already? Then follow me, because in this article I will take you through typical trattorias, farms, and street food to discover what to eat in Siena, so that you can enjoy all the best of the typical Siena food specialities. 👇
What to eat in Siena?
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This guide is for all those travellers who, as soon as they arrive in a place, want to start tasting its products before even seeing it. And I’ll tell you all about the best typical Siena foods, from their origins to their preparation to some lesser-known curiosities.
1. To start, some appetisers
Among the typical Sienese dishes used as appetisers, the most famous are undoubtedly the crostini. Prepared with the excellent Tuscan PDO bread, completely salt-free, and sprinkled with various sauces and patés.
The most popular version is undoubtedly the black crostino, prepared with a mass, halfway between a ragù and a paté, made with chicken livers, anchovies and capers. Although this preparation is widespread throughout Tuscany, the Sienese variant adds – or uses exclusively – skinned veal spleen.
Also based on the excellent Tuscan PDO bread is bruschetta, known here as “fettunta”. In its original version, it consisted only of a slice of toasted bread, a garlic rub, some excellent Tuscan olive oil, salt and pepper. This excellent quality bread lends itself very well to being toasted over the fire, becoming crispy on the outside and soft on the inside; creating a very simple recipe but perfectly capable of enhances the goodness of its ingredients.
Finally, while eating your starters, remember to taste the excellent local cured meats and cheeses, such as finocchiona PGI, buristo (boneless boiled pig’s head, then mixed with lard and blood) and finochiatta (capocollo with wild fennel seeds). The latter is listed as a traditional food product (PAT).
This typical Sienese first course is rooted in the simplicity of peasant recipes: it is made with just flour, water and a pinch of salt. Similar to enlarged spaghetti, this pasta shape is made entirely by hand, without being drawn by a machine. In fact, the name comes from the movement of the hands, which “appiciano” (pinch) the pasta by pulling it, so as to obtain the elongated shape.
The classic condiment for pici is all’aglione sauce (“big garlic sauce”), a tomato sauce made by adding this particular kind of garlic that grows in the lands between Siena and Arezzo. Other widely used sauces are wild boar ragout, duck ragout, hare ragout, cacio e pepe and Chianina white ragout.
Mentioned even by Boccaccio in his Decameron (fourteenth-century Italian writer and his most famous work), these thick strips of pasta spread throughout Italy from Tuscany. Influenced by their proximity to Emilia, the home of fresh pasta, pappardelle originated in the eastern part of the region and are still prepared according to centuries-old family traditions. Always hand-rolled with a rolling pin, pappardelle are seasoned with meat sauces, first and foremost hare; or with the precious truffles, black or the Sienese white, producted in the Crete Senesi area.
Known as malfatti (“badly done”) within Sienese cuisine, this particular first course stems from the “throw nothing away” mentality of yesteryear. In fact, they were born when, during the preparation of ricotta and spinach ravioli, some filling was left over and someone decided not to throw it away.
Made into spheres and quickly dipped in flour, gnudi were invented; so called precisely because they are “naked” ravioli (without their pasta covering layer).
They are generally dressed with butter and sage, meat sauce or simple tomato sauce.
5. The Sienese ribollita
Among the typical dishes of Siena, the most famous is certainly ribollita (“boiled twice”), a soup made with vegetables, such as the ever- present black cabbage, pulses – usually cannellini beans – and stale bread. This recipe, which seems to have been invented in the Sienese countryside, takes its name from its particular preparation, which is rather long but simple.
In ancient times, farmers used to prepare a huge quantity of vegetables soup for Friday, the “lean” day accordind to Catholicism, and, the next day, boil what would be left over, also adding dry bread from the day before. This double cooking gave its name to this recipe, a favourite with locals and tourists alike.
6. The tagliata
Now that it is time for the main course, I want to tell you about the most famous meat dish in all of Italy: tagliata.
The first official traces of this dish come from Pisa, where, in 1973, Chef Sergio Lorenzi created this recipe of disarming simplicity: sirloin of Chianina beef, grilled rare and cut into cross slices. In the original version, it is served with cannellini beans and an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil, lemon and salt.
Actually, the paternity of this dish is not entirely certain. In fact, there are several accounts that attribute its origin to a noblewoman from Arezzo who, having broken her wrist falling off a horse, was forced to order her meat “pre-cut”.
Still others claim that the recipe derives from the Maremma shepherds‘ habit of cooking large pieces of meat and slicing them later. What we can be sure of is that the fame of this recipe today is such that it has become a symbol of Tuscan cuisine, flanking the classic Florentine steak.
But why is it so important for Siena? – you may be wondering – All this success would not have been possible without the Chianina breed of cattle, bred right in the Siena area!
7. The arista di cinta senese
The “arista di cinta senese” is one of the typical dishes that best represents the excellence of the territory. It is made exclusively with pork meat belonging to the Cinta Senese breed; so called because of the white girdle made on the neck by the pigs’ coat.
These animals, which originate from the Sienese Montagnola, are still reared in the wild or semi-wild state and this has led to it being given the PDO denomination. The name “arista” derives from the cut of meat used, comprising the entire back up to and including the loin; but, more generally, today it indicates the method of preparation of the meat itself: roasted in the oven.
8. Sienese-style tripe
As you may have already guessed, in Sienese cuisine nothing is wasted, not even the bovine intestine. This typical dish is distinguished from other versions of tripe in Italy by the addition of crumbled sausages, which give it a richer and more characteristic flavour. To finish the preparation, a handful of pecorino cheese from the Crete Senesi, typical of the Val d’Orcia area, cannot be missing.
9. The scottiglia
Another poor dish, part of the typical Sienese cuisine, is scottiglia. This recipe, also known as “cacciucco di carne”, uses pork, chicken, turkey, rabbit and occasionally lamb. Everything is cooked in a casserole dish together with red wine and the result is a meat soup, deep red in colour, flavoursome and aromatic.
10. The Chianina Meat
The Chianina is a breed of cattle, reared in the provinces of Siena and Arezzo, that owes its name to the Val di Chiana, the area from which it began to spread. Known since the Etruscans, it was only bred for labour; while now its characteristics are so appreciated that it has become an exclusively beef breed.
Over the years, it has increasingly become part of Tuscan gastronomic tradition, so much so that today it has become the basis of the Florentine steak and is the type of meat most often served in Sienese restaurants.
11. The ciaccino
And for your moments of hunger during the day, here is the ciaccino, a low but perfectly leavened focaccia. This schiacciata is the undisputed queen of Sienese street food and its most famous filling is cooked ham and mozzarella: a snack you absolutely must try.
Among the typical Siena foods, panforte is certainly one of the best known. Prepared since the year one thousand, this Christmas cake has come down to us in two versions. The first, the “original” one consists of a mass of orange peel, citron, melon, almonds and spices, including pepper. The presence of the latter ingredient caused this type of panforte to spread under the name “black panforte” or “panpepato senese”.
On the occasion of Queen Margherita‘s visit in 1879, a more delicate panforte was created, without melon, without pepper and sprinkled with white icing sugar: thus Panforte Margherita, known today as “white”, was created.
Although these almond flour biscuits are dedicated to the Christmas season, there is nothing to stop you from trying their goodness throughout the year. Made from a marzipan enriched with orange zest and vanilla, these grain-of-rice-shaped sweets are placed on a sheet of wafer before baking and, once baked, are sprinkled with plenty of icing sugar.
Legend has it that their shape resembles a pair of oriental shoes, with which the knight Ricciardetto della Gherardesca returned to his castle after taking part in a crusade. The name comes from these particular shoes with a curled toe. I recommend you try them together with an excellent Moscadello di Montalcino DOC.
14. Cantucci and vin santo
And like any self-respecting end of a meal, cantucci, here in Tuscany, can never be missed! This type of elongated almond biscuit has been produced in this land since time immemorial and is naturally paired with vin santo, a raisin wine.
A small curiosity about the history of vin santo: legend has it that a Sienese Franciscan friar used to cure soldiers with a few sips of this wine. It was not long before the rumour spread that this wine had miraculous properties.
15. Other sweets: copate, cavallucci, pan co’ santi
And finally, among the typical Siena food specialities, remember to try some extra sweets, such as copate, cavallucci and pan co’ santi. The former are nothing more than a version of Christmas nougat made in a round shape and with a smaller thickness. These small almond discs were invented by the nuns of Siena who, stealing the recipe from each other, gradually perfected it.
Cavallucci, biscuits made with honey, candied fruit, aniseed and walnuts, owe their name to the fact that they were offered in taverns to passing horse drivers and were widespread in Tuscany as far back as the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent (15th-century lord of florence). Today they are mainly produced in Siena.
Lastly, pan co’ santi is nothing more than a type of bread, more or less sweet, enriched with walnuts, raisins soaked in vin santo and pepper. Prepared on the occasion of All Saints’ Day, it can be either paired with roasts or used as a dessert, depending on the flavour obtained. Tradition dictates that the accompanying wine should be new vin santo and the first racking from the last harvest, which is sour and incomplete.
Enjoy Siena Wines
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And now, like any self-respecting holiday in Tuscany, you cannot miss a taste of the excellent local wine, a symbol of Italian excellence around the world.
First and foremost, try the Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG, a red wine produced exclusively in the province of Siena; whose hilly areas offer the perfect climate for growing Sangiovese grapes. Also worth trying are the wines of Montalcino, such as Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – considered, together with Barolo, the wine with the greatest ageing capacity in Italy – and Rosso di Montalcino DOC.
Perfect for pairing with the above-mentioned meats, but also with selections of mature cheeses, is Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG which, with its intense and aromatic bouquet, can hold its own with even the tastiest dishes of Sienese cuisine.
If you think wine can only be appreciated by drinking it, then Orcia DOC is just what you need to change your mind. In fact, the landscape where Sangiovese – the grape variety mainly used for production – is cultivated has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making the Val d’Orcia the most beautiful countryside in the world.
And finally, for white wine lovers, Tuscany is certainly not unprepared: two examples are Val d’Arbia DOC, excellent for an aperitif, and Vernaccia, a DOCG from the municipality of San Gimignano. But, of course, the most important must-drink of all is, without a doubt, vin santo! Whether alone or accompanied by home-made cantucci, you cannot leave Siena without first trying a sip.
Events to taste typical Sienese dishes
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We have come to the end of this guide, but before I let you go, I want to give you one last piece of advice.
The city’s contrade (districts), the challengers of the Palio di Siena, organise a whole series of events during the summer that allow you to come into direct contact with the flavours and spirit of typical Sienese cuisine.
Some examples are:
- the “alla piana” gastronomic fair, organised by the contrada del Nicchio between July and August;
- the “Bao Bello Chef”, organised in mid-July by the contrada del Bruco;
- the “gastronomic week”, organised in mid-July by the contrada Tartuca;
- the “Mangiabevi”, organised in the contrada della Torre, also in mid-July;
- the “Sagra del braciere”, held in the contrada della Selva at the end of August.
And now that you know what to eat in Siena, what are you waiting for? Book your next holiday in Tuscany now and add some special food & wine tasting experiences or a fun cooking class to your stay!
Remember that with Italia Delight you have the possibility of creating the right food and wine trip for your every need! 😍
Cover photo: matteo-kutufa-unsplash
Featured photo: antonio-ristallo-unsplash