The landscape surrounding Panazno-in-Chianti
|The spread at Dario Cecchini's Solociccia|
For part of this trip I was traveling with my friends Cosimo and Rebecca with whom, the year before, I had visited Dario Cecchini's amazing "restaurant" Solociccia (translated: Meat ONLY) located across the street from his now legendary butcher shop, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano-In-Chianti, about halfway between Florence and Siena. (Here is my report from Solociccia in 2009 where I encountered Henry Winkler: click here.) For this 2010 trip we decided to try one of Dario's other ventures into food service, his Officina della Bistecca (translated: Beefsteak Workshop), which was located atop the butcher shop overlooking the astonishing Chianti landscape surrounding the little village of Panzano. Like Solociccia, the menu at the Officina was only MEAT, but this time, the concentration was on different kinds of steak, and only from the fabled Tuscan breed of cow, the Chianina, which was once headed for extinction, but now making a healthy (if ending up on the supper table of well-to-do Italians and tourists is healthy!!!) comeback.
|Dario Cecchini in the doorway |
of his butcher shop
The Officina is offered a few nights per week, plus Sunday afternoon which was the time slot we chose. So late on a gray Sunday morning, we grabbed a bus from Florence to Panzano—just a few miles as the crow flies—but an hour, at least, by bus negotiating the winding roads meandering through the Chianti hillsides. Upon arriving, maybe 45 minutes early, we entered the butcher shop which has turned into a rather animated and amusing meeting spot for locals and tourists alike, most of whom are there to eat in one of Dario's meat palaces. The first thing that happens as you enter the shop is someone hands you a glass, then fills it with ruby red Chianti, smiling broadly with a distinctly small town welcome. Yeah, Baby, this is the way to live!
|The free Sunday spread at Dario's Antica Macelleria|
Strategically placed around the shop are offerings of Dario's craft, a bit of lardo (cured pork fat) which is eaten on bread, a tub of Dario's "Chianti Tuna" which is pork meat cured in the way Italians do tuna...laced with salt, olive oil and delicious. It would be quite easy to make an entire meal of the goodies offered for free in the shop, not to mention get quite a buzz off the vino gratis, but that would detract from the feast to come. Oh god, had we known what was in store, we would have avoided ALL the freebies (except maybe the wine!) and held out for the Officina. But...that is practically impossible...the temptation to graze, if not gorge, is just too strong!
Anyway, around 1:00pm, we were summoned to ascend a back staircase up to the dining hall which was already full of boisterous Italians (are there any other kind?) seated at two long tables, maybe 40 people in all. Most of them, it turns out, were there as a group from the seaside city of Livorno, out for a day in the hills to drink and eat.
|The dining hall of the Officina della Bistecca in Panzano|
There were bottles of red wine scattered around the table, along with bottles of mineral water, all included with the meal. We brought a couple of bottles of better wine, I think one was a Brunello di Montalcino, since the house wines, though fine, don't match the level of food at Dario's places. Soon, a stocky fellow appeared with a board stacked high with steaks which he presented to us before carrying them out to the wood-fired grills on the patio just outside the dining room.
|Steaks on their way to the grill|
Not long after, food began arriving—and it would continue arriving for the next two hours! First up was a plate of what Dario calls "Chianti Sushi" which is chopped raw beef, or carne cruda. Needless to say, it was delicious, light, fresh and almost refreshing, especially in comparison to what was to come later.
In the meantime, the stocky dude kept lugging more boards laden with more steaks, chops and who knows what. I was curious to see the cooking process, so I followed him out to the grill to observe his technique. The fire was hot, but not across the entire grill, so he was able to move the meats around to adjust the cooking speed for each one. But it was not just one grill, but two large ones, each divided into four or five grilling areas, and each grill was also height-adjustable to help with the temperature control. Very impressive. And remember, he was using wood, not charcoal.
|Steaks on the Officina grill: to the left, the Costata,|
to the right, the Bistecca Panzanese
As the meat cooked, the level of conversation rose incrementally in anticipation of the arrival of the guests of honor, the Cecchini Selected Steaks. There were three different steaks served at this monumental meal, though each arrived pre-sliced on generously portioned plates which were passed around the tables—no entire slabs were served. First was a Costata alla Fiorentina which is basically a bone-in rib eye—exquisite, bloody rare and unforgettable. Next was a special cut Dario calls the Bistecca Panzanese (Panzano Steak) which is a muscle taken from the heart of the cow's thigh—European butchers are far more expert at extracting the tender muscles from their sides of beef, and this was no exception. It was tender, beefy flavored and totally unobtainable from the standard American butcher counter. Lastly the Grill Master brought in the legendary Bistecca Fiorentina, a three to four pound porterhouse, cooked very rare, al sangue.
|Dario Cecchini presenting the Costata alla Fiorentina|
Let's just say that this experience is not likely to be replicated in any other restaurant anywhere because there is no other butcher anywhere like Dario. He is world famous. He is totally nuts. He is totally full of passion for his craft. He loves jazz and classical and plays both on an old tube amp in his butcher shop. He loves Dante, and recites it from memory in the shop.
He loves tradition and has researched the meats of his part of Chianti and their history. He knows his stuff. He's charming and when he speaks, as he does at every meal, he DEMANDS your attention, and you give it willingly. He presents each cut of meat with a bit of poetry, dramatic to say the least, but he totally enhances the dining experience. You know you are in the presence of a Master.
Ok, there is a bit more than meat at this litte repast. The table is punctuated with vases of raw vegetables—pinzimonio—including celery, fennel and artichokes, to be dipped in olive oil. Platters full of roasted potatoes and bowls of white cannellini beans were also kept to overflowing—the potatoes were frosted with small scoops of Dario's whipped pork fat, his burro del Chianti (Chianti butter), just to up the ante even more. Bread was plentiful. The wine flowed faster as the food parade continued.
|Officina guest singing a Carnaval song from Livorno|
As the meats slowed down, the crowd became even more animated. Turns out the Livornese were part of a Carnaval group...their city is famous for its version of this annual festivity...and when they discovered I worked with Brazilian carnaval, they began singing traditional carnaval songs from their town, some of which were imported, to be sure, from Rio. The effect was transcendent. Rare. Wow!
Room for dessert? Well, sure! A delicious, but simple olive oil cake was passed around the tables along with coffee and glasses of several types of after-dinner liqueurs including one called Elisir di China which has nothing to do with Asia, but is the Italian word for quinine...it's derived from the bark of a tree grown in Peru!
|Elisir di China being poured at the end of the beef orgy|
Three hours after we started, we began to wind down, pay our checks and head back into the butcher shop where bottles of Elisir were purchased, more free wine consumed. Somehow Cosimo, Rebecca and I stumbled back to our bus stop, struggled onto the next one back to Florence and all three of us slept the entire way back.
I cannot urge you strongly enough to make the effort to experience one of Dario's repasts. The price is fair, fifty Euros, about seventy five bucks, but well worth it for this level of quality, the amount of food, and the sheer pleasure of the experience. It will surely be one of the most memorable meals of your existence. It will be too much to eat in one sitting, but you will obediently eat everything, well past your normal limits. But you will NEVER have another meal like this, directed by a character like Dario. You will thank me later. I promise.
Here are more photos of the Macelleria and the Officina:
|Costata alla Fiorentina—Bone-in Ribeye|
|Sushi del Chiani/Carne Cruda|
|Costata alla Fiorentina sliced for serving|
|The Bistecca Panzanese being sliced|
|The Grill Master with a finished Bistecca Fiorentina|
|Serving the Fiorentina...|
|The olive oil cake which closed out the feasting|
|Master Butcher Dario Cecchini|