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To Tuscan butcher, meat is what matters

Seventy lucky souls experience dish after dish in a three-hour feast with a repetitive theme.

By MARGO HAMMOND
Published September 21, 2005


NEW YORK - A towering figure with dark, spiky hair, a wide smile and a face as red as the bandana around his neck, Dario Cecchini was belting out verses from The Divine Comedy in Italian when I arrived for the cooking demonstration. It was at the Culinary Loft, a room on the fifth floor of a brick building on lower Broadway.

The chef was wearing a spotless butcher's smock emblazoned with the logo of his family business: Antica Macelleria Cecchini. The family shop is in Panzano, the highest hill town in Italy's Chianti region between Sienna and Florence. Cecchinis have been slaughtering, portioning, hanging, chopping, grinding and squeezing meat into sausage casings for more than 250 years.

Standing next to the eighth-generation butcher was Bill Buford, the former fiction editor of the New Yorker. He had brought Cecchini to New York to prepare a feast, dubbed Cucina Toscana, for the annual New Yorker festival. Buford was working on Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (due out, according to amazon.com, in 2006). To research the book, he had worked as Cecchini's apprentice in his Panzano butcher shop.

For $75, the 70 souls who were lucky enough to get a coveted seat at the banquet were promised a meal of Tuscan specialties, including wine. No one warned us that to a Tuscan butcher, "Tuscan specialties" means meat, meat and more meat.

"Dario doesn't like the color green," Buford admitted later, apologizing for the lack of leafy salads on the menu. "He's an advocate of brown."

Or rather red, as in slabs of beef and pork. The menu - which took three hours to consume - included salsiccie all'aglio, pork sausage served with rare beans from Sorana that were said to be Puccini's preferred payment for his operas; arista, the trunk of the pig, cut in half and boned; polpettone, meatballs made from the pig's shank the size of Mike Tyson's fist; and bistecca alla Fiorentina, a "three-finger cut" T-bone steak.

Even the Tonno del Chianti on the menu wasn't tuna - its literal translation - but pork that had the "texture of tuna," explained Cecchini. "Burro del Chianti" was simply lard with olive oil, used like butter in Chianti. The latter was spread on a bruschetta and washed down with a 2001 Fontodi Chianti Classico. Or not. Even the most carnivore among us was not able to finish everything.

All of the ingredients - save the Chianti, the olive oil and the Sorana beans - were local, including the black pig from an organic farm in upstate New York, killed only the night before.

As Madame Butterfly played on the sound system, we devoured the fleshy feast while getting a crash course in the decidely nonvegetarian traditions of cucina Toscana. Our five round tables faced the kitchen. A mirror, hung over the work table at center stage, gave us a bird's eye view of Cecchini's preparations, which involved various applications of kosher salt, garlic, ground pepper, red wine, vinegar and rosemary. The meatballs were mixed with red onions, garlic, salt and dried thyme and then rolled in bread.

Sometime between the aristo and the bistecca, a few of us began to cough, noting that the room had become rather smokey. Minutes later, two New York City firefighters climbed an open window in the back of the room. The room's fire alarm had been triggered by the cooking frenzy, ironically enough, just at the moment when the opera on the intercom was playing the Star-Spangled Banner. After reassuring themselves that it was a false alarm, the firefighters left, but not before Cecchini offered them a slab of meat. They declined.

We finished with dessert. No, not a meat pie, but schiacciata dell'uva, a Tuscan specialty made with crushed Concord grapes, topped off with a 1995 Fontodi Vin Santo and an espresso.

After all, even a Tuscan butcher can't live by meat alone.

Several food events are being offered at this year's New Yorker festival, Friday through Sunday. Calvin Trillin is giving his annual gastronomical tour of Chinatown while Joel Eckerson and Scott Gutstein will be talking with Burkhard Bilger, author of a New Yorker article about the life of short-order cooks in Las Vegas, over breakfast at Galaxy Global Eatery in the West Village. And there will be a High Rollers dinner with champion high-stakes poker players at Gallagher's Steak House.

For more information, go to http://festival.newyorker.com

- Margo Hammond can be reached by e-mail at hammond@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 20, 2005, 10:38:03]


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