It was one of those days when life on the barbecue trail didn’t seem so glamorous. When my destination seemed to recede with each passing kilometer. When the "just another 20 minutes" turned into hour after hour.
My wife, Barbara, and I had come to Tuscany to sample bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak). But here we were driving away from Florence, indeed, leaving Tuscany for Umbria. The winding roads and scenic hilltop towns I associate with Tuscany gave way to a roadway clogged with diesel belching trucks and a city crowded with traffic. It seemed an inauspicious start to a quest for a disappearing regional dish.
Yet our destination had come recommended by a highly reliable source. Italian food and wine expert Burton Anderson had mentioned the Villa Roncalli in the sort of conspiratorial whisper that foodies reserve for their personal favorite haunts. "He’s one of the last people in Tuscany that serves real Chianina beef," explained Anderson. "I think you’ll find his grilling techniques of interest."
We pulled off a crowded road into a long tree-shaded driveway. At the end rose a tall, yellow building with green shutters and brick-colored trim-the Villa Roncalli, formerly a seventeenth century hunting lodge. We stowed our scepticism long enough to check into a simple room with the gorgeous linens and bathroom fixtures we’d come to associate with even the most modest lodgings in Italy.
The dining room opened at 8 p.m., and we were there. The setting certainly looked promising: a large square chamber with a half dozen elegantly set tables. A huge bronze chandelier hung from a dizzyingly high-domed ceiling. An equally monumental mahogany breakfront filled with wine bottles lined the back wall. A waist-high fireplace stood in one corner, but much to my dismay, there was nary a fire in sight.
Because of anti-pollution measures, many restaurants in Florence have given up cooking over the traditional oak fire. But here in the countryside? Well, I couldn’t imagine why the Villa Roncalli’s fireplace was still cold and bare.
A handsome young woman in a starched, immaculately white, floor-length apron made a majestic entrance. Maria Luisa Leocastre is the owner’s daughter, dining room manager, and chef. "If we wouldn’t mind," she explained, "the kitchen would like to prepare for us a menu degustazione." (They give out menus, but everyone has the degustazione.) Of course we wouldn’t mind, I said, but, I noted that I would like to try a bistecca alla fiorentina.
In gradual succession we were served a delicate salad of ortie (wild greens) and shaved Parmesan cheese a squash blossom filled with velvety ricotta and herbs and a tiny square of fish cooked in a crust of paper-thin sliced potatoes. There was an exquisite soup made from beans and tiny clams. There was an exquisitely creamy barley risotto. The only thing missing was the beef.
Then at 10:30 p.m., just when I’d completely despaired of ever having my bistecca, Maria’s father, Angelo Leocastre, made his appearance. Pressed denim shirt. Pleated wool pants. Alligator belt and leather shoes. He looked less like a grill master than an executive on vacation. Angelo dumped a few handfuls of oak on the stone slab floor of the fireplace and with a flourish ignited it with a blowtorch. He switched on a device that looked like a giant hair blower and within minutes the coals blazed red.
A true bistecca turns out to be a cross between a T-bone steak and a porterhouse. (It’s cut closer to the center of the steer than a North American T-bone, so it includes a full circle of the tenderloin.) The steak Angelo showed me was two fingers thick and as dark red as the local Sagranito wine that filled my glass. He tossed it on a square grill that had legs to hold it over the fire.
"Veloce, veloce (fast, fast)," Angelo said, passionately explaining the secret to great bistecca alla fiorentina. The key is high heat. Using local oak and a blower to stoke the coals, he claims he can achieve a temperature of 900°F. Within minutes, the outside of the meat had seared to a golden-brown crust. The inside remained moist and sanguine. I noted with interest that Angelo seasoned the meat-a huge sprinkle of salt and white pepper from separate stone bowls-only after he had turned it.
I timed the cooking with a stop watch: exactly 6 minutes per side. Angelo transferred the steak to a platter and basted it generously with olive oil. Generous? I’d say he poured half a cup of green-gold oil over the steak. The aroma generated when the fragrant oil hit the hot meat made my mouth water and my taste buds quake.
There are people who maintain that a steak is a steak is a steak. They haven’t tasted Angelo’s bistecca. To say it cuts like butter wouldn’t do justice to its extraordinary tenderness. As for the flavor, I’ve simply never had beef like it. Somehow, Angelo has achieved the sort of complexity and depth of flavor you would get by aging a Parmesan cheese for three years or a red wine for a couple of decades. It’s rich, sonorous, complex, and full-flavored, without being heavy or gamy. It’s beef the way it was meant to be eaten before the industrialization of cattle raising.
Angelo waved away a plate of vegetables the waitress had brought. "When you eat fiorentina, fiorentina is all you eat. The only suitable vegetable is wine," Angelo said with a wink. With it we drank fishbowl-size glasses of a dark red, cedary Santoroso wine. Amazingly enough, considering all the food we’d eaten, with Angelo’s help we managed to finish the bistecca. The T-bone went to Angelo’s waist-high mastif, "Tiny."
Angelo’s eyes lit with passion as he described the animal that supplies his bistecca. The Chianina is a huge, snow-white, one-and-a-half-ton steer that owes its extraordinary flavor to a diet of corn, beans, and barley. It’s not an animal that lends itself to industrial production, explained Angelo. It takes too long to reach maturity and the "yield" is not efficient.
Angelo knows, perhaps, ten farmers who still raise it. "A labor of love," he said. The future for Chianina does not look particularly promising. "Some day, all our meat will come from Argentina or France," he winced noticeably. "Then there will be no more fiorentina."
After dinner, we followed Angelo into an outbuilding that serves as his studio, where we learned the final secrets of his extraordinary bistecca. It’s here he ages the beef for 30 days at around 33°F. It will lose about 15 percent of its weight in the process. We admired the prosciutti and sausages hanging from the rafters-all homemade and aged for three years. "We make everything from scratch here," Angelo said with pride.
As the nights turn cool and darkness comes earlier, many of us will forsake our barbecue grills. But this is precisely the sort of weather a Tuscan cherishes for grilling. In Tuscany, grilling is generally done indoors in a fireplace. There’s even a special grate with legs at each corner for holding the meat over a pile of coals.
I can’t think of a more compelling reason to keep the fire in your grill burning all autumn or winter long.
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