Oh, Fiorentina!

Tuscany’s signature dish is the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thick, succulent porterhouse steak done over the coals. Depending upon how thick it is, there are a number of ways to present it.

A Thinner Fiorentina at Table

A Thinner Fiorentina at Table

Meat cuts and their names varied so much from place to place in Italy a century ago that Pellegrino Artusi introduces Bistecca alla Fiorentina in his classic book, La Scienza in Cucina, with:

“Our word bistecca derives from the English beef-steak, which means beef rib. It’s simply a slice of meat a finger to a finger-and-a-half thick, with its bone, cut from the short loin of a heifer. The butchers of Florence call both newborns and animals up to two years old veal; could the latter talk, many would tell you they’re no longer maidens, having had their husbands and perhaps some children too.

“This dish, excellent because it’s wholesome, invigorating, and tasty, has not yet spread throughout Italy, perhaps because in many provinces butchers work almost exclusively with old and draft animals. In this case, they use the filet, which is the tenderest part, and incorrectly call a round of filet cooked over the coals a steak.”

As a dish, the Bistecca alla Fiorentina is now known throughout Italy. The steak pictured above is a normal-sized Bistecca alla Fiorentina of the sort you or I might find in an Italian supermarket, just off the coals and steaming at table. Those in the English-speaking world would consider it a T-Bone or Porterhouse steak.

A Thinner Fiorentina Cut Up

A Thinner Fiorentina Cut Up

And here is what it looks like cut up into portions: To do so you cut the filet and contre-filet into several pieces, and leave a little flesh about the bone. Those who prefer tenderer meat will take the filet, and those who prefer a little more flavor will take the contre-filet, while the bone is a delight to gnaw upon.

Artusi’s instructions for preparing a Bistecca alla Fiorentina:

“Set it to cook over hot coals just as it came from the animal, or, at the most, wash it and pat it dry. Turn it several times, season it with salt and pepper when it’s done, and serve it topped with a pat of butter. The steak shouldn’t be overly cooked, because the beauty of the dish lies in the juice that flows from the meat when it’s cut. If you salt it before cooking it, the fire will dry it out, and if you baste it with oil or something else, as many do, it will taste greasy and be nauseating.”

The technique hasn’t changed much since Artusi set it down a century ago, but now people no longer add the pat of butter. If anything, they serve a their Fiorentina with lemon wedges.

Thick Bistecche alla Fiorentina

Thick Bistecche alla Fiorentina

The steak shown in the two previous pictures is a standard steak of the sort one now finds in the meat sections of Italian supermarkets; they’re 1 to 1 1/2 inches (2.5-4 cm) thick and weigh 2-3 pounds (1 to 1.5 k).

If you visit a good butcher, however, you’ll find the whole side of the animal (ribs, short loin, and sirloin) in a single piece in the display case, and will be able to ask the butcher to cut your steak much thicker if you want, especially if the beef is Chianina beef, which are very large animals.

The steaks pictured here were cut by Dario Cecchini, a master butcher who express delivers steaks and other cuts all over the world from his shop in Panzano in Chianti.

Thick Bistecche alla On the Grill

Thick Bistecche alla On the Grill

Dario Cecchini is both a fine butcher and an excellent cook, so it was only natural that a reporter should ask him how to cook a steak when the EEU rescinded the ban on selling steaks with the bone attached.

His instructions:

Hot coals, from hardwood, and the grill about 4 inches above them. Set the steak on it and let it cook until the top becomes shiny. Flip it, cook it a few minutes more…

Thick Fiorentine, Stood Vertically

Thick Fiorentine, Stood Vertically

…And stand it upright on the bone on the grill for a few minutes to drive heat in from below as well. As for how done, Dario says rare; the best way to judge the doneness of a steak is by feel (quick course here), and if you want it more done that’s your choice.

Note: This shot is out of sequence, from the grill in our den. Italian butchers often trim some of the bone from a thick steak on the theory that if it’s bone you won’t be eating it and therefore won’t want to pay for it. Do not have the bone trimmed if you plan to stand the steak up, because it won’t stand upright if you do. These steaks were each a bit more than 2 1/2 pounds (1.2 k).

Cutting up a Thick Fiorentina To Serve It

Cutting up a Thick Fiorentina To Serve It

A thinner Fiorentina doesn’t offer that many options for cutting it up; though you can slice it fairly thinly across the grain, obtaining what is called a tagliata in Italian (some people sprinkle shredded arugola, and perhaps Parmigiano shavings over a tagliata, though I’m not a great fan of the practice), traditionalists simply cut the meat as pictured previously, at the most laying grilled mushroom caps over the pieces.

With a steak of the sort Dario Cecchini prepared here, cutting the meat up across the grain makes much more sense if you are serving a large party of people. Begin by trimming the filet and contre-filet from the bone (note how rare the meat is) and then slice the pieces crosswise into half-inch (1 cm) slices.

A thick Fiorentina: Wonderfully Rare in the Middle

A thick Fiorentina: Wonderfully Rare in the Middle

A sprinkling of marine salt, a drizzle of olive oil over the slices, and they’re ready! What with? Chianti Classico, and I drank Villa Cafaggio’s 1999 Riserva. A fine pairing indeed!

A more detailed discussion of cooking a Bistecca alla Fiorentina.


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Categories: Beef & Veal Steaks, Braciole, and More, Illustrated Recipes And More, Tuscan Meat Recipes

Author:Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Italy boasts an astonishing number of varietals, denominations, and wines, and tremendous changes are sweeping the land. New wines are being created, new DOCs are being introduced, and the existing denominations are overhauling their regulations both to reflect the practices adopted by their member wineries and to favor improvements in quality. Even the most staid and stolid region can flower seemingly overnight, emerging with exciting new wines and wineries that require rewriting the enological maps and rethinking one's positions. And, of course, recipes too, because cuisine and wine are closely intertwined and it's difficult to imagine one without the other.


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