Eating out in Italy: Elba Island and the Tuscan Archipelago

isola d’elba patresi lighthouse at punta polveraia
isola d’elba patresi lighthouse at punta polveraia

Author: Bob McCormack

Lying in a broad arch off Tuscany’s coast in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Tuscan Archipelago is Europe’s largest protected marine park. The archipelago encompasses seven main islands and several smaller islets stretching from Gorgona in the north (almost on the same latitude as Florence) to Giannutri in the south vith Capraia, Elba, Pianosa, Montecristo, and Giglio in betweeen.

Most of the islands are accessible to tourists, with the exceptions of Montecristo, which is open only to marine research scientists, and Gorgona, home only to a large prison. By far the largest and best known is Elba, which is linked to Piombino on the mainland by regular hydrofoil and ferry services. Famous as the place where Napoleon was briefly exiled before his final defeat at Waterloo, it has lovely beaches, campsites shaded by pines and, last but not least, a flavorful and tasty traditional fare.

The food of the Tuscan Archipelago is characterized by the simplicity of the ingredients and the wide variety of recipes, due to the isolation of the various communities over the centuries. Each island has incorporated different influences in its typical cuisine. This is particularly evident in the larger islands such as Elba, where traditional cooking offers differences and variations from one area to the next. There is the Savoy cabbage of Portoferraio, the potato, egg and onion soup of Capoliveri, the stuffed sardines of Marciana and the ‘guruglione (a spanish influenced vegetable soup) of Rio Marina.

Fish is certainly the king of cooking in the Tuscan Archipelago: from boiled octopus to ‘zerri’, a delicious variety of local fish served fried, roasted, marinated, in soups or in stews. The archipelago’s tastiest seafood recipes include spaghetti with spider crab or fresh tuna sauce, anchovies with pesto, stuffed squid, squid with chard and the ubiquitous ‘cacciucco’ (a variation on the famous fish soup from Livorno).

Elba cuisine offers some great soups in the Tuscan tradition. The most popular recipes are made with ‘cavolo nero’ and beans or with fresh chard and egg. This was traditionally prepared by the island’s farmers for the ‘Lombards’, a generic term used for the seasonal labourers. As well as squid, Capraia is known for its sammule (wild garlic) and wild asparagus fritters. Specialties from the island of Giglio include ‘coniglio alla cacciatora’ (wild rabbit cooked in a spicy tomato sauce), ‘baccalà in agrodolce’ (salt cod in a sweet and sour sauce) and ‘tonnina salata’ (fresh tuna immersed in salted water and then placed in brine).

All of the tasty dishes mentioned above are almost always accompanied by some local wine. Despite the decrease of the vineyard area over the last years, Elban grapes manage to produce an array of fine wines, which for some years now have been given the D.O.C. certification label (the Italian equivalent of the French A.O.C.). Among the most renowned are Elba Bianco (white), Elba Rosso (red), Rosato (rosè), Moscato and Aleatico, both of which are sweet dessert wines.

Speaking of dessert wines, it is only natural to mention a popular Elba Island treat called ‘Schiaccia Briaca’ (literally ‘drunk cake’, where the cake is drunk with Aleatico). Schiaccia Briaca is made with kneading flour, wine, sultanas and dried nuts. Except from the wine, many of the same ingredients can be found also in the ‘panficato’, coming from Giglio Island.

Being a popular travel destination, the islands of the Tuscan Archipelago are fille with restaurants and other eateries, even though most of the establishments are open from late spring to early autumn only. Many of the archipelago’s restaurants offer a variety of traditional dishes and the quality is generally good. Before entering a place, however, it is always a good idea to take a look at the price list displayed outside of the premise. Smaller islands tend to be more expensive than mainland Italy and the Tuscan Archipekago makes no exception to this rule.

If you are on a tight budget, attending one of the many food festivals held throughout the year is an excellent way to taste some of the local specialties spending only a few euros. Among the several celebrations taking place periodically, the traditional ‘Squid Festival’ held on November in Capraia deserves a special mention. The festival begins with a squid fishing contest and continues the following day with all the fished squids cooked and eaten on the spot.

This article is part of a series covering the most important italian travel destinations and regional cuisines. You can search for related articles about eating out in Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples and Venice.

About the author:

Born in the USA, but happily ensconced in the Island of Elba since 2001, Bob McCormack is a freelance writer with a very special passion for food and wine. His travel articles and Elba Islands hotels and restaurants reviews have appeared in numerous national and international publications.

Where to stay in Elba Island

There are numerous high quality hotels, villas, apartments and agriturismi (Farm stays) available, check them out and make a reservation here.