When I decided to go on The Chopping Block's Cook Like a Tuscan tour this year, one of the most anticipated moments for me was a visit to Dario Cecchini's butcher shop and restaurant in Panzano in the heart of Tuscany.
I was first introduced to Dario through my favorite show, Top Chef when he was featured in an episode in season 16 which took place in Kentucky. In episode seven, the 8th-generation butcher broke down a whole cow for the contestants who then drew knives to determine what cut they would cook. Though the contestants disappointed Dario as well as the judges in their cook of the meat, it was clear that this charismatic man's approach to food was different. He didn't want a tiny portion of beef seared and covered in foam to mask its flavor - he wanted a steak served with the bone in it!
Dario is now known as the most famous butcher in the world and has an episode of Chef's Table on Netflix devoted to him. I would highly recommend watching it to get a better sense of who this man who has as much respect for the meat from the cow's knee as the prized tenderloin is. He doesn't call himself a chef, but rather a "butcher who cooks."
Antica Macelleria Cecchini is Dario's butcher shop, and he also owns three restaurants and a food truck whose menus together utilize every part of the animal. The 68-year-old still unloads the meat truck every morning and stays late in the evening ensuring his guests are well taken care of and entertained.
People come from all over the world to make the pilgrimage to Panzano, which is a small hilltop town halfway between Florence and Sienna in the heart of Chianti. But before he was a butcher, Dario wanted to be a veterinarian. He actually studied at university for one year but when his father suddenly got sick and passed away, he was expected to continue his family's butcher shop which has been in business for 250 years.
He admits to having a hard time with his new career at first because he wanted to save the animals, not kill them. But once he realized that he could raise animals humanely and pay homage to them by respecting their lives and making sure every single part of the animal is used, he became at peace with his new lifestyle.
But first, he needed to educate people that there is more to a cow than just steak.
Dario grew up eating the parts of the cow the customers didn't want. His grandmother cooked legs, snouts, and tails. He didn't have his first steak until he was 18-years-old and while he said it was nice, it didn't hold a candle to the other dishes his Nonna made.
So Dario opened his restaurants to teach people how to eat and have respect for the entire animal. And it's working! Restaurants these days utilize different cuts of meat and people are open to trying his food because it's downright delicious.
Dario does few butchery classes these days, but our Cook Like a Tuscan group organized by Onward Travel is one of the few groups who still gets to experience this personalized class. I knew the day was off to a great start when we were greeted at 10am at the butcher shop by Dario, his wife Kim and staff with a piece of crostini with lard (known as "Chianti Butter") and a glass of Chianti.
We moved upstairs for a private lesson in butchering a quarter of a cow. The butcher shop and restaurants go through around 40 sides of beef per week, which is about 20 cows. Dario has spent almost 50 years as a butcher and his passion for his craft is inspiring. His two lead butchers helped to break down the quarter, identifying the different cuts of meat as they went, and translated by Kim. They are all true masters of their craft and watching them transform that piece of meat into individual cuts was like watching artists at work.
We were taught how Dario treats each cut of meat, which is pretty different from other ways I've seen other chefs use them. For example, he debones the shank and fills it with bone marrow. He calls this turning the "ugly duckling" cut of beef shank into a "beautiful swan."
First, the shank is deboned which is impressive to see in itself.
The bone is sliced in half, and the shank is then stuffed with the marrow from the bone and rosemary.
This tied shank will be placed in a large pot with lots of shallots. It's cooked covered for 2 hours before vin santo (Tuscany's sweet dessert wine) is added and then cooked for another hour. Once the beef is fall apart tender, it's sliced across the grain and served with shallots and the pan juices.
I love that all of Dario's recipes call for "quanto basta" which translates to "as much as is enough." Cooking is not an exact science for him but rather about using simple techniques that focus on flavor.
During the class, we learned how to make the famous "Sushi del Chianti" which is beef tartare using the leanest part of the top round. Each of us got a turn tenderizing the beef.
With simple ingredients from animals who are treated ethically, you don’t need much more than some lemon, salt and quality olive oil to make a dish worth remembering. You can tell by the look on my face that I am eagerly awaiting tasting this dish!
When the two-hour class concluded, we had the opportunity to shop in the butcher shop, and I brought home some fun artwork as well as some of Dario's famous Perfumo del Chianti herb salt blend (many of my friends were the lucky recipients of this salt when I returned). I even managed to squeeze in a fan girl moment with the legend himself!
Then we headed to the street to wait to be seated at the restaurant armed with more Chianti. I ran into another chef I recognized from Top Chef Masters, Naomi Pomeroy of Portland who was leading a tour group of her own (note they did not get a personalized class with Dario!). We giggled through a selfie outside.
When we sat down at a large communal table upstairs, I was excited to see more Chianti on the table. This was the only place we had Chianti that was served in the old-school straw-covered bottles, but it was fitting considering the rustic and fun atmosphere of the restaurant.
The wood-fired grill was fired up and ready with the meat resting at room temperature.
Just one chef would grill and slice all of the meats for the entire restaurant's seating.
What proceeded was a multi-course meal of beef. Yes, just beef. and I honestly lost track of how many courses there were. There was some crudité on the table, but they mostly went untouched so we could all focus going into a full-on meat coma. All of the meat was served grilled with no sauce, just that famous salt on the table. With quality of meat like this, you just need the meat and fire to make it excellent. Just when you thought you couldn't take another bite, the server would come by and convince you to eat more.
The meat was served rare, but if you like yours more done, the server was happy to throw it back on the grill for a few minutes. At some point, we were also served white beans in olive oil and roasted potatoes which were delicious, but I barely had room to eat more than a bite of each.
I did make room for the famous olive oil cake which of all of the dishes served at Dario's restaurants is the most requested recipe. That's served with vin santo, the sweet dessert wine of Tuscany.
This meal was one I will remember for the rest of my life. It was not only delicious, decadent and truly an entertaining show, but it was the culmination of a day renewing my love of beef and understanding and respecting where it comes from.
Experience this amazing lesson in not only butchery but respect for animals when we travel to Tuscany once again for two Cook Like a Tuscan tours in October 2024. It will change your perspective on food and have you shouting "Carne Diem!"