A burger joint in Tuscany could be a recipe for disaster, writes Kamin Mohammadi, but Italy's best butcher is on hand.
When I moved to Tuscany as a teetotal vegetarian, I had little idea what an anomaly I would be. In a region famed for the quality of its wine and the tenderness of its steak, I soon learned that to eschew Florence's eponymous dish, the bistecca fiorentina, was to commit a culinary sin almost as grave as drinking cappuccino in the afternoon. And in Italy there are no transgressions more serious than culinary ones.
Meat is so central to the Tuscan psyche that people here routinely address each other as "ciccio" (piece of meat). In order to be taken seriously by my Florentine friends, I was soon obliged to sample some steak, which had to be washed down with a sip of red wine. It was so good that, after a decade of avoiding meat, I was suddenly hooked on the tender, juicy taste.
But it took a butcher to properly convert me, although Dario Cecchini is no ordinary butcher. He is known as the best in Italy, which probably makes him the best butcher in the world. Cecchini's passion for meat and the traditions of his homeland have not only made him famous globally but also persuaded him to open restaurants to extol the virtues not just of bistecca fiorentina but other, lesser-known, cuts of meat and dishes.
His shop, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini, is an old-fashioned butcher's in Panzano-in-Chianti. Halfway between Florence and Siena, Panzano is vintage, idyllic Chianti country: a stone town perched high on a ridge where the remains of a medieval castle overlook rolling green hills punctuated by groves of olive trees and rows of cypresses. For seven days a week Cecchini presides, joking with customers as he dispenses cuts of meat, advises on cooking methods and shares recipes that sometimes date from the Renaissance.
Cecchini is a resolutely Tuscan character with a booming voice and large, expressive hands, given to quoting Dante as the mood takes him although he does this less now that tourists turn up expecting him to recite poetry with each cut. Nonetheless, a marble bust of the great poet sits in the shop and he is not shy about linking his own talents with meat to the Renaissance artists' skill with marble, paint and words.
As with the Renaissance masters, Cecchini's talent is in distilling traditional arts into something new. In his most recent venture, he has brought his passion and innovation to fast food. Last year, in a room above his shop, Cecchini opened a fast-food joint, Mac Dario, to prove that just because food is fast, it doesn't have to lose any quality. Two lunch menus are available. The basic €10 ($18.20) option gets you a massive burger with roast potatoes, vegetables and red wine, not to mention being serenaded by the staff. The second, €20menu features four meat specialities: meatloaf, Chianti sushi (steak tartare), roast pork and "Chianti tuna" (a marinated pork dish).
Cecchini is the eighth generation to enter the trade there have been butchers in the family for 250 years. His education started in the family home opposite the macelleria where, with both parents busy at work, his grandmother was his main influence. "Most of my taste memories are from her," he explains. "She was a great cook and it was from my family that I learned how to use other cuts of meat, not just the bistecca. Nothing was ever wasted."
His own career as a butcher began when he was 20 and his father died (his mother died when he was 16). He abandoned university to return to Panzano and take over the business. But it was his theatrical approach that got him noticed. He became a local celebrity when, at the height of the mad cow crisis in 2001, he held a funeral for the bistecca, afterwards auctioning off the last legal pieces of meat to the highest bidder.
But celebrity or not, what keeps people coming back is the excellence of his meat and the recipes he doles out. Cecchini's zeal for good meat is not bound by tradition, either he doesn't use the Chianina beef usually favoured in Tuscany but instead has a supplier in Catalonia. He explains: "I don't follow breeds. I want the highest quality meat available at a reasonable price. The most important thing is that the animal should have had a happy life." Thirty years' experience means he can instantly tell how an animal was raised simply by looking at the meat.
Cecchini's first restaurant, SoloCiccia (Only Flesh), which opened in 2006 in a building opposite his butcher's shop, is still going strong. The surprisingly contemporary interior houses just a handful of communal tables where, for €30, a six-course feast celebrates every possible cut of meat except the bistecca. Again, there's nothing fancy here, just good meat cooked to perfection. The roast beef is tender and pink and the Florentine Eyeballs are delicious and not as scary as they sound tender meatballs with a sprig of rosemary in the middle. Red wine from Cecchini's own vineyard flows and by the time the man himself appears to tell stories and make sure all is well, it feels like the jolliest of dinner parties. Each time I visit, I seem to acquire new friends and a pocketful of phone numbers.
Cecchini's other restaurant, Officina della Bistecca, which shares the same space as Mac Dario and is open only at night, is dedicated to the perfect bistecca. Served rare with just a drizzle of olive oil, this T-bone is the quintessential steak and, again, prices are reasonable, tables communal and the atmosphere fun and friendly.
"The most important thing, when someone comes here, is that I give them a taste of happiness," Cecchini says.
And with that, he slices up another bit of happiness for another devoted customer.
Panzano-in-Chianti is between Florence and Sienna along Route 222, the "Chiantigiana" highway through the Chianti wine area. The SITA bus trip from Florence takes an hour. Antica Macelleria Cecchini is at via XX Luglio 11, Panzano-in-Chianti. Phone +39055852020, see dariocecchini.com. Fagiolari is a bed & breakfast 1½kilometres from Panzano with double rooms from €95 a night. Phone +39 055 852 351, see fagiolari.it.
- Guardian News & Media