Dario Cecchini is in the beef aging room at Harvey Gussman’s tiny mid-Wilshire butcher shop. With a connoisseur’s eye he inspects the stacks of short loins suspended from the ceiling, carefully examining the color, stroking the surfaces, sniffing. Then a photographer starts taking pictures. Cecchini flashes a maniacal grin, grabs a loin and cradles it like a baby. Then he plants a big kiss on it. If one can be said to ham it up with a piece of beef, Cecchini is doing it. You don’t become the most famous butcher in the world by being shy.
Cecchini’s butcher shop in Panzano, in the Chianti countryside outside of Florence, is a culinary shrine, drawing gastronomic travelers from all over the world. So popular is it that Cecchini has opened two meat-centric restaurants nearby.
A stay at the shop, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, learning traditional Italian meat-cutting was one of the stops on Bill Buford’s Italian food odyssey in his bestselling culinary memoir, “Heat.”
At the 30th anniversary party for Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Cecchini stole the show by reciting Dante cantos while serving his tonno del Chianti -- a delicious re-creation of an old recipe in which pork is slowly cooked and preserved in olive oil in the way tuna normally is.
Cecchini has been featured in countless cookbooks and magazines and even Anthony Bourdain, Mr. Meat himself, took a TV crew to Panzano to shoot him.
But don’t mistake Cecchini for one of those media-manufactured food celebrities adept mainly at cooking up good publicity. He is something much more complex: a rollicking combination that is equal parts artisan, philosopher and showman. At any given moment it’s hard to predict which will come to the surface. The only sure thing is that it won’t be dull.
In a shopping mood
Right now Cecchini is in Guss Meat Co. on the hunt for the perfect piece of meat for bistecca fiorentina -- the classic grilled steak of Tuscany. Bistecca fiorentina is essentially a thick porterhouse steak cut from the small end of the loin. With a dish this simple, the meat is everything.
And he’s definitely liking what he sees. The shop has been one of the finest meat suppliers in Southern California since the ‘40s, when Gussman’s father, Abe, founded it.
Guss sells meat to some of the pickiest cooks in Los Angeles, including such restaurants as Campanile, Table 8, Jar and the dining room at the Peninsula Hotel. It’s where chef Gino Angelini goes to get bistecca for La Terza.(Guss also sells retail if you order a day in advance.)
“Bella, bella,” Cecchini mutters as he inspects the meat. The loins range from 14 to 28 days old. And though most American steak lovers would automatically go for the meat with the most age, Cecchini ultimately decides on a younger cut.
“Fifteen to 20 days is the best to the Italian taste,” he says. “As meat ages, it becomes more tender. But the tenderest meat isn’t necessarily the best. It has to have consistency. There has to be some chewiness to get the flavor out of it. If it’s too tender, there’s no need to chew. You want to find the perfect point where the tenderness and the flavor are at their peaks.”
To be certain, he cuts a small piece from the outside of the loin and tastes it. “The fat has a good quality,” he says. “When I chew it, the fat is light, and it doesn’t stick to my mouth. This is very nice meat.”
But good meat is about more than simple mechanics. “The most important thing is what the animal eats and that it has a good life . . . just like us,” Cecchini says. “My philosophy is that the cow has to have had a really good life with the least suffering possible,” he says. “And every cut has to be cooked using the best cooking method. It’s a matter of respect. If I come back as a cow, I want to have the best butcher.
“I grew up in a family of butchers, and what we ate growing up was what we couldn’t sell in the store. But my mother was a wonderful cook, and my grandmother was a wonderful cook, and we always ate well.”
To honor all of those cuts , Cecchini has started a restaurant in Panzano called SoloCiccio (“Only Meat”), where he serves a five-course fixed menu every night using these lesser-known parts. “We use everything but the moo -- and the steak,” he says.
In fact, Cecchini is downright dismissive of some of the more familiar, expensive cuts. “When people learn all the different ways to cook the different cuts,” he says, “the fillet is the last thing they want. It’s beef for beginners.”
At SoloCiccio, one of the best dishes is made with boiled beef knees dressed with salsa verde. But for a butcher in Chianti, there is no getting away from the pleasures of the bistecca. So his other restaurant, Officina della Bistecca, is set up as a classroom to teach customers how to cook and appreciate steaks.
Right from the start
Every great steak starts out with a great cut of meat. At Gussman’s, Cecchini chooses a loin and takes it to the work table. He changes out of his bright orange hunter’s vest and dons the white coat of his profession. He steels his knife a dozen times to hone the edge and then cuts two mammoth steaks, each about three fingers thick.
“My philosophy is that you have to have the meat the right thickness so the heat will have time to get to the center of the meat and melt the fat.”
He looks at the pair of 2-inch-thick steaks lying on the sheet of butcher paper, gets a mischievous grin and cuts another, even thicker. “And that one is for me.”
The meat selected, he heads for the kitchen. Cecchini is cooking this afternoon at the Rustic Canyon home of Bruce Marder, who is a partner with Cecchini’s friends Marvin and Judy Zeidler in several restaurants, including Capo and Broadway Deli. The home, which Marder shares with his wife, Defne Tabori, is a modern wooden structure stretching along the creek at the base of the canyon. The kitchen is long with plenty of work space -- perfect for Cecchini’s demonstrations and orations.
The first dish he prepares is tartara -- a Tuscan twist on steak tartare. Normally Cecchini prefers to use a tough, lean cut of beef for this, but because Gussman has given him a hunk of fillet as a gift, he can’t refuse it. He trims the meat of any visible fat and cuts it into 1-inch slices. Then he cuts the slices into cubes and then he begins chopping by hand, reducing the meat to a crumbly mixture without turning it into a paste.
He puts the meat in a bowl and adds minced parsley and garlic, pinches of paprika and ground chile and a lot of olive oil. He seasons it with salt and black pepper and a squirt of lemon juice, then tastes and seasons a little more.
Then he spoons a big dollop onto warm crostini. The flavor is subtle, even a little bland at first; then you realize that instead of a big bang of seasoning, what you are tasting are aspects of the meat you might not have noticed before. Cecchini’s fiancee and translator, Kim Wicks, moans and says, “This tastes like home.”
Indeed, Cecchini makes a huge batch of this every morning and sells it throughout the day at his butcher shop. It’s not classically Tuscan, he says, but it could be.
“This is modo mio [my way],” he says. “What I am trying to do is exalt the flavor of the meat without covering it up. The ingredients are Tuscan, but the way I combine them is mine.”
Marder apologizes that he has Meyer lemons, not Italian ones, and Cecchini waves him off. “Garlic, rosemary, thyme, lemons, fennel, these are all profumi di Chianti, but you can find them here too. They’re also profumi di California. It’s the same, yes?
“You don’t need to use Italian lemons. You don’t need to use Italian rosemary. You don’t need to use Italian meat. If you have good ingredients, you can find the balance.”
Next, Cecchini makes spalla di maiale -- pork steaks cut from the butt, seasoned heavily with fennel pollen, sauteed in olive oil and served on a bed of Tuscan kale that has been cooked in the same oil. It is simple and it is elegant -- perfect home cooking.
Then with the meat trimmings from both dishes (a great butcher never wastes a thing), he makes an impromptu dish he calls borbotino -- a kind of hash of scraps and bits. Chopped pieces of beef and pork trim are cooked together; a massive quantity of shallots is sauteed; the two are combined with several beaten eggs. It’s like an Italian version of mom’s casserole of leftovers.
Finally, the big moment arrives. Those monumental steaks, which have been sitting on the counter for five hours, have warmed nearly to room temperature. “You have to get the cold out of the meat for the fibers to relax,” Cecchini says. Ideally, he’d have given them 12 hours.
Without seasoning or oiling the steaks, Cecchini lays them on the grill, and they sizzle happily. Five minutes on one side, then five minutes on the other. The fire is hot enough that it sears a nice crust on the outside but moderate enough to allow the thick steaks to cook through without burning.
Then the master stroke: Cecchini sets the steaks vertically on the grill, resting them on the flat part of the T-bone. It looks like a Stonehenge for beef cultists, but Cecchini explains that it’s so the bone will conduct the heat deep into the center of the meat.
When the steaks are done, he transfers them to a platter, dashes them with coarse salt and drizzles them with very good olive oil. Basta.
After plates of Marder’s ravioli filled with burrata and nettles, the steak is carved, revealing a perfectly medium-rare center. It’s served with caramelized beets and carrots, braised leeks, smashed potatoes and an eggplant and tomato stew made the way Tabori’s mom does in Turkey.
In Tuscany, the accompaniments would almost certainly be simpler: braised white beans, roasted potatoes and whole onions roasted in aluminum foil.
But Cecchini, laughing loudly, drinking wine and chewing beef while he tells stories, doesn’t seem to mind at all. Butchers and philosophers alike take their feasts as they find them.