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Lessons from Dario Cecchini, the world's most famous butcher

On a visit to L.A., the Italian maestro of meat shares his expertise -- and his considerable personality.

March 12, 2008|By Russ Parsons | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • AT WORK: Dario Cecchini hovers over spalla di maiale  pork steaks cut from the butt, seasoned with fennel pollen, sauted in olive oil and served on Tuscan kale.
AT WORK: Dario Cecchini hovers over spalla di maiale pork steaks cut from… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

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

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