View more photos in the "To Beef or Not to Beef" slideshow.
Any food person who has passed through Chianti in the past decade has run across Dario Cecchini. It has become almost mandatory to stop by his family butcher shop in Panzano to pick up a fiorentina to grill in the courtyard of a rental villa, to listen to recorded opera and to try a spoonful of his famous whipped lardo before accepting a glass or two of homemade Chianti poured from an open magnum on the counter. There is olive oil to be tasted, involtini to be sampled, bits of beef tongue to be tried. After a while, you may realize that you have spent most of an afternoon there, dragging bread through Cecchini’s olive oil, or snacking on slices of soppressata, or maybe the tonno di Chianti, oil-preserved pork that does in fact resemble an elevated version of StarKist.
You will have heard Cecchini recite a canto or two of Purgatorio, declaimed in the way Chick Hearn might have done it if he’d spent more time in Tuscany. You will witness the bluff, ruddy butcher signing paraphernalia for Asian tourists, and perhaps meet his American girlfriend, Kim, who occasionally seems to be the only thing standing between Cecchini and an aneurysm. Cecchini is pretty famous by now, the star of Bill Buford’s food memoir, Heat, the hero of Faith Willinger’s guides, a beacon to the Chez Panisse crowd and the inspiration to as many aspiring chefs as Julia Child used to be.
What you will not do is go home with that fiorentina — the oversized T-bone that is Cecchini’s specialty — because you will have forgotten to order it two days in advance, and the butchers may not trust you to cook their very specific cuts for peposo, Spezzatino or even a simple tagliata. A couple of pork chops — sure, but you can get those anywhere. You will instead leave the shop laden with the vacuum-sealed envelopes of herbed salt you will use on everything but breakfast cereal for the next year, and possibly pick up a stash of the shop’s staggeringly good fennel pollen, the crack cocaine of Tuscan seasonings, from a half-concealed display behind the counter. Other establishments in the area do the fiorentina thing, the impassioned-host thing and even the Dante-scholar thing, but it is not for nothing that the Antica Macelleria Cecchini is the Brancacci Chapel of Tuscan meat tourism.
A couple of years ago, Cecchini sensed that travelers might pay for the kind of spontaneous party he was throwing every day anyway, so across the street, he opened Solociccia, an odd hybrid of a restaurant and a butchers’ jam session, where the meat men competed to serve the oddest bits of cow. For 30 euros, you get a half-bottle of Cecchino’s wine and a set menu of as many as 10 courses, usually including the house’s epic version of peposo, tough beef muscles cooked slowly with wine and heroic quantities of black pepper until they become as soft as views of the haze-shrouded Chianti hills. Solociccia is good — toward the end of the meal, Cecchini emerges to bathe in actual applause — but one tended to come away from the experience thinking that the butcher had skirted the issue somehow, that the man renowned for the greatest steaks in Italy was running a restaurant that didn’t actually serve them. (I have known people who planned their vacation around the beefsteak-intensive benefits he occasionally helps to throw in Panzano.)
But this year, the Officina della Bistecca debuted, a restaurant seemingly opened more as an educational institution than anything else, where the tutorials are conducted by beefy men wearing bloody aprons and old-fashioned motorcycle goggles while they grill Cecchini’s beautiful meat out on the terrace. And if you have remembered to reserve a spot, you find the secret door hidden behind a sliding wall, climb upstairs, and emerge into the meatiest dining room on Earth, a room where enormous slabs of flesh are displayed the way that flower arrangements are in Michelin-starred restaurants, charring cattle perfumes the air, and the bowl in front of you contains not butter but glossy billows of whipped, preserved lard.
“The Officina della Bistecca,’’ says the menu, “is a convivial way of answering the question of the perfect way of cooking Her Majesty the Bistecca alla fiorentina.”
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To begin, there is pinzimonio, fresh vegetables served with Cecchini’s local olive oil, vinegar and herbed salt in which to dip them, and then luscious Tuscan white beans to sop up the rest of the vinaigrette. Some steak tartare, then something like steak tartare briefly seared on the grill, what the restaurant calls sushi del Chianti. The grill chef circulates with thick, dripping slices of rib-eye steak, then of leaner Panzanese steak — from the denseness of the grain, my guess is tri-tip, but I do not pretend to understand Tuscan butchery. Smoking-hot baked potatoes are brought out — you split and stuff them with the lardo if you are so inclined. Pretty baked onions. And then the fiorentina itself, thick as an encyclopedia volume, dark red and delicately rimmed with char, not particularly aged but beefy and tinged with fennel and rosemary, a deep taste of the Chianti hills.
Cecchini emerges to receive his applause. “To beef, or not to beef,’’ he begins.
You have the feeling he has used this line before.
Officina della Bistecca: 11 Via XX Luglio, Panzano, Chianti, +39 055 852020 or dariocecchini.com. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. Wine included, but free corkage; 50 euros per person.