Probably Not the Beef

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So you’re standing outside a restaurant in Italy. Its PR machine has been humming for months, no, make that years. The restaurant has been featured on Chef’s Table, in Food and Wine, who knows where else.  

You’re standing outside enjoying a glass of their Tuscan wine, actually a third or fourth glass. It’s a small glass, of a light swill, and it’s free! While you wait for the starting gun at 1:00 p.m. you enjoy crostini with lard, crostini with olive oil, slices of house salami, and all the free wine you can drink. 

img_7608.jpg  Just then a van pulls up.  The doors roll open. Half a dozen American men pile out with a distinctive “let’s eat us some meat” swagger.  

Set down your glass.  Turn and run, don’t walk, RUN in the other direction.  

We should have done that. Really really should have done that.

I’m talking about Dario Cecchini’s Antica Macelleria. I first read about it in a 2006 article, “Carnal Knowledge,” in the New Yorker.  Bill Buford expressed an idea I endorse 100 percent: “The commonplace about Italian cooking is that it’s very simple; in practice, the simplicity needs to be learned, and the best way to learn it is to go to Italy and see it firsthand.” I learned the cooking (and eating) firsthand from my wife and my mother-in-law and her friends back home, and from my wife’s relatives and friends here in San Marino and Romagna.

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In the article Buford recounts how he inveigles his way into Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop. He called him on the phone.

“Signor Cecchini,” he said, “I am a friend of Mario Batali.”

“Accidenti!” Cecchini declared. Which means something like “You’re shitting me!”

At the time Batali was becoming a big deal. Perhaps Cecchini reasoned that he too could become a big deal.  Which he did. With big-deal-ness comes fame and temptation (Batali) and, if the PR machine does its job, tidal waves of tourists and the possibility, maybe the inevitability, of compromise in value and quality. In an August 2017 article in Bracciami Ancora, it was clear some damage had been done, “Dario Cecchini: Il Mito e’ Finito.” The end of the myth. I wish I had read the article. But then, I really should have known better.

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For me an article of faith about travel in Italy: Don’t order steak.  Of course there are exceptions. Just like on any piece of bad steak you’ll find a couple good bites.  Antica Macelleria confirmed this first principle, cemented it in my mind. 

We had driven into Panzano from Greve the night before and found the butcher shop. It was 5:00 p.m., well past the lunch crowd, hours before the dinner crowd. No one was around. Giulia greeted us, described the lunch and dinner upstairs, gave us the names of some restaurants she knew in Greve, Castellina, and Panzano.  Next day we came to see an Agritour house in Panzano and said, Well, what the hell.

Entering the restaurant from the parking lot in back, you see the long table and the fireplace grill. The meat will be cooked over the grill.  Five courses of the famous beef. The cook asked us: Are you here for the hamburger? Hamburger, I thought. What is this? No, I said, we wanted to big beef.  

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When we sat, the table was half full, mostly people from Brazil. (The American men had all opted for the hamburger, in another sala.)  No Italians, I’m pretty sure. We ate crudo, carpaccio, beef ribs, the Panzano steak, and the Florentine steak. The first two are raw, only the first of which I could chew.  (It was ground beef, so of course I could chew it.) The rest of the courses were cooked over the fire, flavorful but sinewy. At one point my wife asked for a better knife. A laser might have come in handy. At the top of my plate the pile of gristle I had chewed and expectorated accumulated.  

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Thank God for the tuscan beans. And for the potatoes. We left deluded and possibly, just possibly, a little bit smarter. 

The next day we sought out a place above Greve.  We had five recommendations from a person showing us properties for a trip I’m planning. In the direction of Badia a Passignano we made our way to La Cantinetta di Rignana.  

Up in the hills.  Off the paved road. Five km of dirt road to get there.  

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Right, we’re talking about an old country house on the top of a hill. It was our best meal in two days of eating in Tuscany.  (Thank you, Oliva.) 

There was, of course, a lot of meat on the menu.  

We passed on the meat, starting with sheep’s milk cheese and pears, and bread and lard, then mezzelune di ricotta e tartufo al tartufo fresco (half moons filled with ricotta and truffle with shaved truffle on top) and tortelli di radicchio rosso and ricotta con gorgonzola di capra, noci e pancetta (those last ingredients–goat’s milk gorgonzola, nuts, and bacon). Followed by four of the vegetables on the menu. 

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It was a terrific meal in a terrific place. Another time I might have tried some meats, cinghiale in umido (stewed boar), peposo all’impruneta (stewed peppery beef), coniglio ripieno di filetto di maiale tartufato (roasted rabbit stuffed with pork fillet and truffle). Lots of manzo on the menu.  That’s the beef. I’ll take mine stewed, please.  A long cook to cook the toughness out of it.

Of mango there was, of course, the grill: fillets, steaks, tagliatas. I am always tempted by the talgliata.  Tagliata sale grosso e aceto balsamico (cut steak with course salt and balsamic), tagliata pepe verde e rosmarino cut steak with green pepper and rosemary).  

All so tempting.  But no, probably not the beef, not this time. 

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