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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

With soul, in the heart of Chianti

September 20, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Panzano, Italy — "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.

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