Our anniversary trip through Umbria and Tuscany was a whirlwind of food, beautiful scenery, several churches, and more food. The weather was dreadful, cold and overcast with occasional thunderstorms and hail, but it did little to dampen our tour of the Italian countryside in our little rented Fiat convertible – the top down at the slightest glimpse of sunshine. We had no itinerary, just a three page list of restaurants recommended to us by the people who generously offered us their home to stay in…and so we began and ate our way through the list.
While I found Rome to be coy and disclose itself to tourists discreetly, this region of Italy throws itself at your feet like it’s saucy little sister. Every turn offers a new view to oooh and aaah over and the people are welcoming (if not enthusiastic about it all the time). Three-wheeler putt-putt vans charge around the perilous corners and in spite of the apparent lack of anything needing to happen pronto, Italian drivers nearly push you off their road in their zeal to get wherever it is they’re going. Perhaps it’s just all of the espresso they’re drinking at the little bars that dot the backroads and highways. There’s always a new fortified hill town on the horizon, a sweet-smelling olive grove to zoom past, a new meal to be savored.
I’m starting my food tour with the star of our trip (with a few more entries on my other adventures to follow soon), Mr. Dario Cecchini, the world’s first and maybe only, celebrity butcher. You may have heard of this mythical man butchering meat high atop a hill in Tuscany’s Chianti region – Mario Batali apprenticed with him and Bill Buford dedicated a chapter to him in his book Heat (or you can read his New Yorker article here). My experience was less hands on and more stuffing of my face. Dario’s empire is built upon the work of eight generations of Cecchini butchers in the Antica Macellini Cecchini (the Ancient Cecchini Butcher Shop). Upon entering the unassuming shopfront you immediately notice the juxtaposition of the Victorian green tiles and diagram of beef cuts predominantly displayed, and you just know that this will be no ordinary experience. AC/DC is blasting through the sound system and a young man with curly hair approached me with an oversized bottle of Chianti and a stack of shot glasses. Wine in hand you are urged to try the house made salamis and little crostini slathered in whipped lard. Meanwhile, Dario holds court on his elevated platform behind the counter, shaking hands and gesturing wildly. When he deftly slices his salami it’s with a flourish, when he is introduced to you everything is “fantastico!”, when he chops up his roasted pig it’s with oversized strokes. Everything about this gentlemen in his red pants and matching vest (and yes, there’s a scarf tied jauntily around his neck) is huge! At one point there had to be 100 people crammed into his little shop, munching on the snacks and drinking wine. I stood in the corner watching and occasionally would catch the eye of someone else who gave me a nod or a wink as if to say, “isn’t this the coolest place ever?” When it got too crowded, Dario went over to his stereo, turned up the volume on the AC/DC and the room quickly thinned out.
At promptly 1pm, we were shown to the back of the shop, went through a hidden sliding door and upstairs to a long thin room with one table that seats about 25. This is Officina Della Bistecca, the most exclusive of Dario’s restaurants, where for 50 Euros you eat your way through five courses of beef. We were seated right in the middle – a giant platter of raw beef in front of us with a protective screen cage, large bowls of raw vegetables dotting the table and an enormous fireplace with grills being heated. Our master of ceremony for this portion of our day was Angelo who with a grand flourish removed the screened cover from over the meat and began grilling. We didn’t have to wait long for the five courses of beef to start, at this point it was all about pacing ourselves. First came a beef tartar with strips of lemon zest and a generous glug of bright green olive oil on top (it’s his own brand – it has his photograph in profile like an antique cameo on the label). Scatter a little bit of Dario’s homemade salt (I don’t know what’s in it but I bought some and plan to put it on everything from now on), perhaps a little more olive oil and it was delicious.
Seated next to us were Amanda and Glen, from New York City and on their second meal here at Officina della Bistecca – Glen claimed this was his favorite restaurant of all time and had to come back. Across the way Ulrike and Uwe from Cologne, Germany. Part of the magic of this meal, our anniversary celebration by the way, is getting to meet the others around you. The wine flows and stories are exchanged and you trade suggestions of what else to visit on your trip. Perhaps not a meal for the timid (really in any way because the food and the hosts are just as bold) but a really fun way to meet your fellow travellers. Next course, the Brustico or seared beef and then a bone-in rib eye that came with a bowl of Tuscan white beans in olive oil and herbs. The waitress served everything family style, generously forking over as much as you’d like cooked to the doneness you prefer (well, rare and rarer). And then there was a little outburst from our chef, Angelo. I missed much of it because I couldn’t find my camera but in the video here you get a small taste of the pomp as he placed the famous Bistecca Fiorentina on the grill. Before that came though, another steak, this time the Bistecca Panzanese, most like a tenderloin and deliciously tender and moist. A warning to those of you who are squeamish, the beef does come mostly rare, but I urge you to eat it the way it comes – this is how you can truly taste the delicious flavor in the beef. This is Chianina beef, particular to this area and notable because of its huge size, bred for plowing the steep hills of the vineyards of Chianti. If you’re not a rare meat eater, this is the one place you should at least try.
The oversized bottle of Chianti at our section of the table was finished (another was promptly brought) and I thought there was no way I could eat another bite of anything, but the piece de resistance was yet to come. Chef Angelo had built up a good sweat by this time, carving through steak after steak after steak, all the while his tongue poking out of his mouth with concentration. A baked potato was given to everyone and bowls full of the Burro del Chianti – Dario’s delicious whipped lard mixed with his special salt seasoning mix. I’ll never eat another baked potato again! And now the platters full of the Fiorentina steak were being passed around, and what flavor this 4 inch wide t-bone delivered. The heat coming from the grills was getting hotter, or maybe it was just the oil beginning to clog my arteries in combination with the endless flow of wine. My darling husband kept eating and eating, but I finally had to give in. Coffee with a little piece of olive oil cake (little golden raisins mixed in and a pine nut and sugar crust on top) capped off the meal – well at least it did for me. For others it seemed the bottles of grappa and Italian Military Spirits (whatever they may be) were the dessert of choice. Either way, the volume in the room now competed with the AC/DC downstairs. Some guests were gnawing on the bones from the Fiorentina and raucous “chin chin!” created a noisy chorus.
Then, as soon as it started, the meal was over. On the way out I stocked up on Dario’s special salt mix, olive oil, mustard, fennel pollen, some salami and a small tub of that decadent spiced lardo like I was at the gift shop of the ultimate beef museum. We bid adieu to our dining companions promising to look each other up, bracing ourselves for the cold of the outside world. But as luck would have it, the sun was shining (although we did have to push the accumulated hail off our windshield) and we promptly put down the top of our convertible and turned up the stereo, full of beef, singing at top volume.
Antica Macelleria Cecchini
Via XX Luglio, 11
Panzano in Chianti
t: +39 055 852176
Note: Two days later we drove the 2 and a half hours back to Panzano because it was just that good. The weather cooperated and we were able to snag a place outside at the Dario D.O.C restaurant where you order off the menu. I got his burger – there’s no bun, just a huge patty of well-seasoned minced beef rolled in a little polenta before it’s grilled. On the verge of being a steak tartare, it’s divine when eaten with the lightly pickled red onions that accompany it and the house mustard.