“Have you seen the rules?” the most famous butcher in Italy asks, his clear blue eyes twinkling. “They’re terrible!” he roars, “like Guantanamo!”
We’re in Antica Macelleria Cecchini, his centuries-old marble butcher shop in Panzano, a village in the heart of the Chianti Classico wine region. Dario Cecchini reaches for a piece of paper on a shelf behind the counter.
“Here,” he says, not giving me time to read the sheet before he begins to recite the rules in the same stentorian voice he uses to declaim Dante, which he is wont to do in the shop, on the street, anywhere at all.
“Solo ciccio!” he tells me. “Only meat!” That’s not only rule No. 1 for the restaurant Cecchini opened two months ago just across the street (Via Chiantigiana, the main drag that runs through Chianti); Solociccio is also the name of the restaurant. “Non e ristorante!” Cecchini almost shouts. OK, what is it then?
Solociccio is an extension of the butcher shop, he explains, where you will eat as if you were at the house of a butcher. “We cook the recipes of my family, a butcher’s family. You will eat very traditional things, things you can’t find anywhere else in Tuscany.” (“We” includes Simonetta Cascierri, his cook.)
“I am a butcher for 35 years, the last of an old butcher family that goes back 250 years in Panzano. And when people taste one of my family’s dishes, they taste my soul, the soul of an artigiano [craftsman].”
Whatever the place is, I’m more than ready. My husband and I have driven more than five hours to get to this meal.
Back to the rules, which are also posted on the door of Solociccio. You eat five courses of meat, with no choices, but with two vegetables and bread. You eat at a communal table.
There are just two seatings, at 7 and 9 p.m. And as the rules put it so nicely, “All of the above is to be had for 30 euros [about $39], and nearly 2 hours at our table, at the end of which you will turn your chair to the next guests.”
But Solociccio’s most interesting rule is listed almost as an afterthought. In fact, it is: Cecchini didn’t come up with it until three weeks in, but it was already a subject of discussion among the 70 winemakers in Panzano.
I heard it from Giovanni Manetti of the famous Fontodi estate just down the road. “Not only can you bring wine, you must bring wine!”
A place where you bring your own bottle? And there’s no corkage fee? Unheard of in Italy.
Meanwhile, Cecchini, who was profiled in Bill Buford’s recent book, “Heat,"has gleefully heaped a slice of Tuscany’s traditional unsalted bread with what he calls burro di Chianti -- Chianti butter -- and watches as I take a bite. Just as I suspected, this fluffy white stuff is lardo, fresh pork fat.
Cecchini explains, aided by pantomime, that he works it on a marble table, then beats it by hand with rosemary, garlic, sea salt, lots of black pepper and a dash of vinegar.
I love it, but what’s it doing to my arteries? Cecchini, however, may be the greatest argument for carnivorism: He’s a vital, impressive specimen of Tuscan manhood who looks far younger than his 51 years. And his cholesterol, he volunteers, is perfect -- perfetto!
He leaps behind the counter to cut some chops for a customer, using a medieval-looking cleaver to whack through the bone in a quick, percussive rhythm.
By early evening, my husband and I are hanging out with the rest of Panzano in the miniscule town square having an aperitif at one of the tables belonging to Enoteca Baldi, one of the two excellent wine shops in the village, and taking in the scene.
A silver Maserati filled with fancy Florentines glides by, followed by a tiny, three-wheeled truck with a huge black dog in the back that barks at everything in sight. Senior citizens gossip on one bench, their heads leaning together the better to hear. Teenagers with spiky hair and distressed jeans check out the girls at another. From my seat, I can see both the butcher shop and the entrance to Solociccio across the street. As 7 approaches, Cecchini is out front chatting up some newcomers.
Just before 9, we head over. From the street, you can see into one of the dining rooms: People are passing platters, eating, laughing, drinking wine, the very picture of conviviality.
The kitchen’s huge glass window offers a view too, and in front, two elderly ladies have brought out chairs and are sitting watching the cook and her helpers. In a small village like Panzano, this is better than TV.
At long last we enter and take our assigned place at the end of a massive, 2-inch-thick handmade oak table filled with Italians and some British and New Zealanders, all of whom live in Tuscany.
At the top of the night’s menu is written: “Leave behind every hope, oh you who enter: You are in the hands of a butcher.” We surely are.
We are also inside a butcher’s dream. It took Italian artisans four years to renovate and construct Solociccio’s dramatic contemporary space, three floors linked by hand-set stone walls and a glass staircase.
The four dining rooms each contains a single table that seats 10 to 14; they’re left bare, and the tableware is simple and rustic.
Let the wine flow
Everyone’s pouring their own wine -- we’ve brought bottles of Flaccianello from Fontodi and the single-vineyard Rancia Chianti from Felsina; others are pouring Salvioni Brunello di Montalcino, Castello di Ama Chianti, all Tuscan. The talk moves back and forth between Italian and English, haltingly at first, then as everyone becomes comfortable, it doesn’t seem to matter what language you speak. Everything has a warm glow and we feel like we’ve been lucky to have been invited to a swell party.
The trio of antipasti begins with delicious, tender cubes of head cheese with chickpeas and slivered red onions. Then a platter of crostini inzuppate -- slices of bread soaked in the fiery sugo or meat sauce Cecchino calls fiammi d’inverno (flames of winter). And finally, balls of raw beef marinated in lemon, olive oil and garlic, barely seared on one side and stuck with a branch of rosemary. It’s the same meat Cecchino sells in the butcher shop as “Tuscan sushi,” and it’s absolutely dreamy.
The next thing I know I’m eating something called tenerumi. It’s wonderful: little bits of meat and tendon with a great variety of texture, topped with a piquant salsa verde. Tenerumi turns out to be the cow’s knee, a cut that wouldn’t exactly fly out the shop door, so traditionally the butcher’s family has eaten it.
Everyone eats everything at our table, no hesitations, no dietary scruples. We understand that by using every part of the beef, Cecchini -- along with all the members of his profession -- gives respect to the animal that has given its life so we can eat.
At the butcher shop, there’s so much demand for true Chianina beef, the Tuscan breed that has almost disappeared from this valley as vines have supplanted other crops, that Cecchini has a long waiting list for it.
Meanwhile, who anymore has the time to braise the cuts that take four or even eight hours to transform into something sublime? The butcher does.
Cecchini’s stracotto is one of those cuts. The recipe, he tells me, commemorates La Lidia, an old woman from the village. She didn’t leave a painting or a building behind, he says, but she did leave this recipe.
It’s a massive piece of beef that looks like a section of a tree trunk lying in the pan, shaggy with onions that get darker and darker as it cooks, until the sauce is mahogany in color. As served here tonight, it is something monumental. Everything goes into the sauce, which seems to hold the very soul of the beef.
For brasato al midollo, Cecchini bones a beef shank, removing the marrow, which he lays in the shank’s cavity, then rolls it back up again with sea salt, pepper and rosemary. A couple of pounds of peeled whole shallots then go into the pot and it’s braised, slowly, until the shallots are completely soft and the beef marrow melts away, lending all its richness to the sauce.
Toward the end, some vin santo, the amber holy wine made from dried white grapes, is poured over. Stupendous. When my husband can’t contain himself any longer and tells Cecchini the brasato is insanely good, the butcher leans down, and with his huge hands, grabs my husband’s head like a pumpkin and kisses the top of it.
The two vegetables are roasted sweet red peppers with a tremendous depth of flavor, and boiled cannellini beans with some peppery Tuscan olive oil to drizzle over, simple as could be, but great.
In good company
Though the food is extraordinary and undeniably soulful, this evening is about much more than that. The very act of serving dishes family style and passing the plates around the table has worn away any awkwardness among strangers. For this night, for this moment, we’re all friends. We’re all family. Cecchini moves from room to room, beaming like a proud papa.
Soon there’s espresso -- not from a fancy machine, but made in the familiar stovetop espresso pot used in every traditional home. And then Cascierri offers squares of moist olive oil cake topped with sugar and pine nuts.
And lastly, a parade of digestivi just added to the menu last week when a guest brought some for Cecchino to try: bitter chino (quinine), anise that’s fortissimo. I don’t make it to the grappa, but others do.
Well past 11, we get up from the table, reluctantly, and say goodnight and goodbye to our newfound friends. It’s been an extraordinary couple of hours. Cecchino’s right -- this isn’t a restaurant; it’s much more.
We spent an evening sitting down with 10 strangers and all is right with the world. We’ve dared to put ourselves in the hands of a butcher, and come away humbled.