Shortly before we left for our trip to Italy, Chester was watching an episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain visited Dario Cecchini, owner of the butcher shop Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti. Dario, whose family has been in the business for more than 250 years, has an encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for traditional Tuscan cuisine, particularly when it comes to the proper way to prepare Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine grilled steak).
On Sunday afternoons, Dario celebrates this and other classic dishes with his “Officina Della Bistecca” menu, a family-style luncheon on the second floor of the butcher shop, which features beef prepared five different ways. If you have been following along for any length of time, you know that Chester has never met a piece of steak that he hasn’t liked. So, when we discovered that Panzano was only about an hour away from our home base near San Gimignano, we immediately made a reservation.
The drive was much more complicated than we had anticipated. We traveled up and down hills and through winding roads and I spent most of the ride trying to contain my carsickness and praying for a gas station to materialize, since we were dangerously close to running out of fuel at one point. Luckily, one did, but by the time we finally made it to Panzano we were nearly 30 minutes late for the 1:00 p.m. seating. We almost scrapped our plans to go to Dario’s, thinking we were too late. Fortunately, Dario’s wife, Kim, who handles reservations totally understood the reasons for our delay and showed us to our places table.
We were seated with a really nice group of people, including an American couple who spends part of their year in Tuscany (she is an art teacher) and a Brazilian couple who had been enjoying a month-long stay in the area, and the conversations with them made the afternoon even more enjoyable. The atmosphere in the dining room was very homey and festive throughout the afternoon, with everyone laughing, being loud and passing jugs of wine back and forth across the table.
In addition to the five beef dishes, the menu includes bread and raw vegetables (which become highly addictive when dipped in olive oil, seasoned with a generous helping of the salt/pepper/garlic blend bearing Dario’s name), white beans and baked potatoes, Chianti “butter,” (which is actually lardo, or pork fat.) dessert, red wine, grappa and military spirits, and coffee. At 50 euros per person (right now, about $62), the pricing is far less than what you would pay for a similar experience in Philly, and the quality of the beef was far superior to the best cut of steak I’ve had here at home. All of the preparations were grilled to medium rare, seasoned with salt and pepper and doused with a bit of olive oil. This simple preparations allows the flavor of the meat to really come through.
I don’t eat red meat often, and on the occasion where the odd craving for it strikes me, I can barely ever finish a steak when I order it in a restaurant or when Chester cooks it at home. At Dario’s, I had seconds (and, occasionally, thirds) of everything. It was just that good. My favorite dishes were the beef tartar, which was finished with just a bit of lemon (I overheard one of the waiters referring to this dish as “Chianti sushi”) and the Panzanese steak, which is a cut from the rump of the cow that Dario helped popularize. I was surprised at how tender and flavorful it was.
Dario stopped by to expertly dismantle a cut of beef, fresh off the grill. As you can see from this video Chester shot, Dario is quite the showman, quoting Dante as he demonstrates some crazy knife skills.
Olive oil cake was the perfect finish to this meal. I must try to recreate it at home, although I know I’ll never be able to achieve the perfect balance of sweetness and crunchy top crust that this version had. I stayed away from the spirits and grappa, though, but can verify that they did make everyone, really, uh, spirited (including one of our table mates, who got into his car after lunch for a three hour drive to the Milan airport. Here’s hoping that he made it!).
If you plan to check out Officina Della Bistecca, you can also reserve your place on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Or, you could just visit the shop itself, where you will likely find the crowds spilling out on to the sidewalk and enjoying free wine and samples of food. Dario will likely be there as well, entertaining everyone while covered in blood and wielding a frightening looking saw, like so: