Lessons Learned Having Lunch With The World’s Most Famous Butcher
As I parked my car, my belly began to rumble. I hadn’t eaten anything since Friday afternoon, almost 24 hours before. No need to waste stomach space when you’re going to visit the world’s most famous butcher, after all.
I was in the small, hilltop village of Panzano in Chianti, in the scenic countryside between Florence and Siena. The region is best known for the Chianti Classico wine, but there is another reason to visit: the butcher shop and two restaurants of Dario Cecchini — a Mecca for meat lovers.
Although he already had a reputation among Italians for his excellent cuts of meat and larger-than-life personality, Dario first became known internationally in 2001. It was the height of the Mad Cow Disease scare, and not a good time for anyone who enjoyed steak. The Italian government had just temporarily banned the sale of meat on the bone. In response, Dario staged a mock funeral in downtown Florence for his dying friend, the famed Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a three-fingers-thick T-bone steak seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, grilled over charcoal, and only served rare. Since that day, many Tuscans had considered him a folk hero for defending their culinary traditions.
I had first learned about Dario a few weeks earlier. A friend and I were sitting in Florence’s Piazza Santo Spirito making dinner plans, when I noted how it had been a while since I last had a good steak. My friend’s expression suddenly turned serious, he looked directly into my eyes, and leaned forward.
“Until you’ve eaten with Dario Cecchini, you’ve never had a good steak,” he stated.
“Who’s Dario?” I asked.
“Only the world’s greatest butcher,” he responded. He then told me about his first pilgrimage to see Dario, of the endless series of dishes, of the communal table filled with laughter, and of meat that melted under the weight of your knife.
We decided to have pizza for dinner.
Now, I was in Panzano. Like most small towns in Tuscany, it was rather unassuming. From a distance, you could barely make out a series of simple, earth-toned buildings nestled on rolling hills, with the occasional cyprus tree sprouting up. Below, endless rows of olive trees and grape vines blanketed the land.
But once you arrived in the center, you got the sense that it housed something special. Driving from the north, you couldn’t miss the parking lot overflowing with cars, many of which had foreign license plates. If you came from the south, you’d see the statue of an angel carrying a bull affixed to a corner building near the entrance to town. This was Ristorante Solociccia, the butcher’s kitchen, where I’d be eating.
Having parked my car a few hundred feet down the road, I made my way back toward the corner, then left onto a side street to the restaurant’s entrance. As I approached, I could hear the instantly recognizable vocals of AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson blasting from somewhere nearby. Above and to the right on the facade was another statue, this time of a giant T-bone, underneath of which was the phrase, “TO BEEF OR NOT TO BEEF.” Below this was a stone relief of a man — I assumed it was Dario despite not knowing what he looked like — holding up a giant cut of meat, as if daring the viewer to take a bite. To the left of the entrance stood a life-size, fiberglass bull decorated with painted alpine flowers.
Across the street, in a red and white horizontally striped building, was Dario’s butcher shop and the source of the music. Hanging within the archway above the door was an antique looking marble sign that read, “ANTICA MACELLERIA CECCHINI.” Directly to the left was another marble plaque, affixed to which was an image of a bright red steak. Below this was an engraving: “REDUCED TO INVALIDITY, [IT] PREFERRED DEATH. IN MEMORY OF THE BISTECCA ALLA FLORENTINE – DISAPPEARED PREMATURELY MARCH 31, 2001.” This was the date the Italian government outlawed the sale of T-bone steaks. Subtlety was apparently not Dario’s specialty.
With only a few minutes to spare before my lunch reservation — something I’d been told was an absolute must on Saturdays — I stepped through the white and red beaded strands hanging from the door frame. I didn’t know what he looked like, but I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the famed butcher. Instead, I found a small room lined with white tile and decorated with framed photos. On the left was a glass counter filled with enormous rolls of sausage, bowls of ground beef and various meat cuts. A bunting of lemons and leafs lined the base. To the right was a large wooden table, partially covered by a white cloth and plates of sausage, cheese and bread. A group of men leaned over the table, inspecting the food. Directly in front of me was the entrance to a walk-in freezer, through the window of which I observed sausages and cuts of meat hanging on hooks. Next to that was a side entrance to Dario’s other restaurant, Officina della Bistecca, a slightly more formal restaurant than Solociccia, specializing in steak.
Just then, a young woman, dressed in a white smock, walked up to me, smiled and offered me a glass of red wine. I gladly accepted, downing it quicker than its quality deserved while nearby speakers played “Back in Black.”
Thanking her, I crossed the street and walked into the restaurant. I gave my name and waited to be seated. I noticed a sign on the wall stating, “ABANDON ALL HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER, FOR YOU ARE NOW IN THE HANDS OF A BUTCHER.”
After a few minutes the host, an older Italian man with thick glasses who introduced himself as Ezio, led me down a set of glass stairs into a small stone room. At the center was a rectangular wooden table surrounded by 10 plastic chairs. Meals at Solociccia are communal, so I was not surprised that two of the chairs were already occupied by a pair of young women. Ezio told me that they would start serving lunch shortly but to enjoy the garden vegetables and olive oil that were on the table.
I introduced myself to the women. They were regular visitors from the nearby town of Greve in Chianti. I asked them what I should expect from the meal. “To eat a lot,” they said.
In front of me was cutlery, a small glass, a coffee cup and a copy of the day’s menu. The front listed the dishes, while the back had a diagram of a cow to illustrate where each plate came from. The entire animal was labeled. A notice below the diagram stated that every part of the animal was used.
Soon Ezio returned, this time with two more guests, both of whom appeared well fed. They sat next to me, and I quickly learned that they were from Bavaria and visiting Tuscany for a week. They decided to drive an hour to Panzano after reading about Ristorante Solociccia in a newspaper article.
A few minutes later Ezio came back carrying a carafe of red wine and pitcher of sparkling water. A young man followed behind, carrying plates of food in his arms. As he sat them down on the table, Ezio explained the dishes. There was broth with muzzle, crostini with spicy meat ragu, batter fried meats and raw meatballs with rosemary (described as “Rosemary up your bum” on the menu). I looked in wonder at the bounty before us, thinking had this been our entire meal, it would have been more than enough.
Wanting to start lightly, I poured myself a coffee cup full of broth (the glass had to be for water and wine, yes?). Its flavor was rich and smooth, like melted butter. I’m normally hesitant to eat undercooked hamburger due to gastrointestinal health concerns, but I figured I would try one of the meatballs. It had a grassy flavor, without any hint of oiliness.
Between bites I chatted with the two Italian women about their favorite places in the Chianti region, taking mental notes all the while. The Germans occasionally joined in to offer up their opinion on anything food related.
After about 15 minutes, Ezio and the young man returned. This time, they both were carrying plates. The smell of meat — fried, boiled and braised — filled the room and I licked my lips. Once again, he listed the dishes: fresh vegetables; garbanzo and white beans; beef roast; boiled beef and vegetable salad; braised meats; homemade focaccia.
As he turned to leave, a group of five middle-aged men wearing backpacks stumbled into the room. One of them muttered something to Ezio in Italian, and at that they were seated. I guess a few more people would be joining us for lunch.
The same man who had spoken to Ezio told us they had come to Tuscany from La Spezia, in northern Italy, for a weekend of drinking and fun. He then pulled a corkscrew and bottle of wine out of his backpack and opened it. “Made by my family. Who wants to try some?” he said. I said yes, and he poured me a glass. It was surprisingly good.
We then began to pass the food around the table. Trying to pace myself, I took only a little bit of everything. I ate the braised meats first. They were so tender that I could cut it with my fork. I then tried the beef roast. This was also excellent. Once again, the meat had a different flavor — more earthy perhaps — than anything I’d ever had before.
I grabbed a small piece of the focaccia and raised it to my mouth, but just as I was about to take a bite a loud noise came from the stairwell. As I looked up, a man I could only assume was Dario swaggered into the room, grinning from ear to ear. He was strong, with large hands well-equipped for cutting meat. His hair was dark brown with small patches of grey on his temples.
He dressed in all white except a vest bearing the colors of the Italian flag, over which he had tied a white apron embroidered with the name of his butcher shop. I noticed a faint blood stain at his waste.
With a loud and hearty voice he welcomed us, arms raised in the air. “Ciao a tutti! Eat well. You are at my house.” I raised my glass to him and soon the others followed. He nodded his head in appreciation, clapped his hands together, and slowly backed out of the room, undoubtedly on the way to greet more guests.
We continued to eat, sharing stories about our travels for another 30 minutes or so, at which time Ezio came back to clear the table. More than half the food still remained, and he admonished us for our lack of appetite.
Shortly thereafter, torte all’olio and espresso was served. The cake was honey-colored on the inside with a golden crust on the outside. I took a bite, closed my eyes and let it melt in my mouth, the rich oil flavor coating my tongue. Silence slowly fell over the table as my fellow lunchmates succumbed to the effects of too much drink and food.
My head had just begun to lean forward when I heard a familiar voice. “Digestivi,” Ezio bellowed. I sat straight up and my eyes opened wide. He set two bottles on the table, the labels for which had worn partially off, and 10 small glasses. Apparently we were to drink our fill.
“Grappa e Cordiale dell’Esercito Italiano,” he said. I had heard of grappa, but never Italian military cordials. Noting the inquisitive look on my face, Ezio told me that Italian soldiers had once been given a regular ration of this liquor, but recent budget cuts had put this on hold. Dario bought the cordials to support a dying tradition; he was now one of the largest purchasers in Italy.
I thanked Ezio for the information and he left. I grabbed a glass and reached for the bottle. Everyone except the Germans looked at me with bewildered expressions. I thought I had committed some sort of social faux pas, but one of the men looked me in the eyes and said, “Forte. Very strong stuff.”
Knowing that I had to drive home to Florence, I poured myself half a shot and quickly downed the brownish liquid. My lips puckered and my eyes squinted as the vile poison passed over my tongue. The others laughed.
Slowly sipped shots of grappa eventually woke everyone at the table and people began to excuse themselves. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I also said goodbye and headed upstairs. An older woman greeted me at the front desk with a receipt and matter-of-factly stated, “Trenta.” Having become accustomed to the inflated prices of Florence, I was somewhat shocked by this, so I looked down at the receipt to confirm the price. I had heard her correctly. The whole meal — wine, meat, dessert, liquor — was only €30.
I told her how exceptional this meal had been, and she smiled in a way that told me she heard this often. She then asked me a question I was not expecting. Would I like to see the kitchen? Taken aback, it took me a second to respond, but I said yes. I followed her through a nearby door, which led directly to a large kitchen filled with surprisingly modern stoves and ovens. Since lunch was finished, it was empty, but I could imagine an army of cooks busily preparing dishes here.
I thanked her and headed towards the front exit. The bright afternoon sun stung my eyes after nearly two hours inside. Wishing to see Dario one more time, I crossed the street and went back to the butcher shop. This time he was there, behind the counter. He was helping a man and his small son select a cut of meat.
When he was done, I approached the counter and told Dario how much I had enjoyed my lunch. I then asked what the secret to his amazing meats was. He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “The secret is to care,” he said in Italian. “Good butchery is just like anything else; if you care, it will show.”
I knew what he meant. If there was one thing I had realized living in Italy, it had been that passion is the secret to excellence. I had seen it in the grand sculptures of Michelangelo, who cared so much for his craft that he refused to remove his artists smock for months at a time. I had seen it in the scarred hands of San Lorenzo’s leatherworkers, who permanently disfigured themselves to create fine belts and wallets. I had seen it at Siena’s Palio horse race, where only those willing to risk death for neighborhood pride could ever hope to taste victory. And I had seen it here, in Panzano.
Italy is famous for its art, fashion and food, but we often overlook the individuals whose energy and passion create such things. Behind every great meal, shoe design or painting is human emotion. This disconnect between product and person is only exacerbated by modern life’s reliance on technology. As I left Dario’s shop and walked back to my car, I smiled and told myself I would not soon forget what I had learned having lunch with the world’s most famous butcher.
Andrew has spent the majority of the past five years traveling and teaching throughout the world. His goal is to help others become the best they can by connecting them to life-altering travel experiences. Take the first step towards fulfilling your own dreams by exploring his website AuthenticTraveling.com.