Where’s the Beef?
A mini tour of the best butchers in Tuscany.
Celebrity butcher Dario Cecchini.
The classic Tuscan experience features vineyards, lined hills, sundrenched castles, Botticelli masterpieces and encyclopedia-sized cuts of succulent T-bone steak known as bistecca alla fiorentina, or just “fiorentina” for those too hungry to utter a single word more.
Indeed, la fiorentina is an enduring metaphor for the gluttonous excesses of this powerhouse Italian region that amassed untold art and treasure throughout its glorious and often violent past. Today, the beef steak represents a sizeable contribution to the weekly caloric intake of any true-blood Toscano.
Care in preparation is paramount. The steak first submits to a period of maturing, or frollatura (otherwise known as “controlled rotting” to the layman) that lasts anywhere from 10 to 14 days. Put aside at low temperatures, the meat undergoes chemical processes that help soften the tissue. The T-bone steak is then cooked on its side (cut as much as four inches thick) over hot coals to lock in juice and taste. It is served sizzling off the grill with nothing more than a sprinkling of coarse grains of salt sprinkled over and a thread of golden extra virgin olive oil.
La fiorentina is linked to its territory for two reasons. First, Tuscany is the natural habitat of the Chianina cow that gourmands prize most. This powerful and muscular animal originates from the Valdichiana in eastern Tuscany, from which it takes its name, and is one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world.
The second reason for the beef’s overwhelming popularity in Tuscany is the region’s proud proliferation of expert butchers, or macellai, practiced in the most difficult cuts.
In fact, the cult of the butcher is central to Tuscan life and many of its master meatmen have reached celebrity status. A leader in the pack is the eccentric Dario Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti who can reportedly recite Dante’s Divine Comedy in its entirety as he hacks away at gristle and cartilage.
Only a few miles away, in Greve in Chianti, the Antica Macelleria Falorni offers a culinary tour of cured meats, wild boar sausage and salted prosciutto that will warm any epicurean’s heart. Aside from Chianina steak, this butcher is specialized in salami sausages made with cinta senese (a local breed of pig), cinghiale (wild boar) and finocchiona (a pork and fennel seed salami). Another famous norcino (a butcher specialized in cured meats) is Macelleria Marianelli located in Montopoli in Val d’Arno. Around since 1850, Macelleria Frittelli, in San Casciano Val di Pesa also carries the Piemontese breed of cattle for steaks.
If you are looking for the best fiorentina cuts in Florence, try the Antica Macelleria Azzarri near via Tornabuoni. These expert butchers are specialized in beef and lardo di colonnata (cured lard from the Massa-Carrara area). Also in Florence is Macelleria Osvaldo near the Sant’Ambrogio flea market that carries beef, poultry and veal. They sell excellent ready-made meat dishes such as turkey rolled with leeks and pumpkin, beef ribbons with pine nuts, artichoke and cabbage, rabbit stuffed with black olives or duck with truffles.
Monica Larner was a judge at the annual Palio della Bistecca, held in Florence, in which she savored morsels from over a dozen steaks to evaluate a winning entry based on flavor, warmth of the meat, texture, softness and crunchiness of the outside crust.
To read about the hill towns of Tuscany, click here.