I’ve met some influential people in my life, but I was truly moved and inspired when last week I had the honor of attending a demonstration by Dario Cecchini, the world’s greatest butcher. The demo was held at the Italian Culinary Academy at the International Culinary Center in New York City. Dario lives and works in a small town in Tuscany called Panzano in Chianti. He has a butcher shop called Antica Macelleria Cecchini, as well as, three restaurants (Solo Ciccia, Officina della Bistecca & Dario +). He was visiting America on a goodwill mission to introduce the dying art of butchery to a new generation of American chefs.
David Levi, Guy Arnone, Faith Willinger and Dario Cecchini (L to R)
Dario entered the packed theater to a standing ovation. He was joined on “stage” by his wife Kim, Italian culinary authority and translator Faith Willinger and two of Dario’s protégés Guy Arnone (a butcher at New York’s Eataly) & David Levi (a school teacher who will be studying with Dario this spring). Before Dario started breaking down the very large cow leg, he told the audience a little bit about himself. He said that he has been a butcher for 42 years, 36 of those years by himself. The profession is inherited and has been passed down from father to son for generations. His shop was his inheritance from his father. He said that he loves his work. He also said that it is important to work with happiness and passion. For him, this is a strange but carnivorous passion for meat. He also said that when you die all you have left is your work.
Dario is a firm believer in giving back to society. He does not only want to share his techniques but also his inspiration and passion. He said that “you only have what you’re capable of giving.” What a poignant phrase! We should all try to live by these words. Tis better to give than receive. Dario wants to start a school for butchers in Panzano to teach this disappearing trade.
Dario begins butchering the cow’s leg
Dario turned his talk to animals and meat. He said that animals need to live well, eat well, have a sane death and a butcher who knows what he’s doing. Dario said we all need to be responsible carnivores and respect each cut of meat. We need to remember that each part of the animal is great for what it is. Each piece of meat has a soul; and its own exceptional destiny, even the secondary cuts. He said that you can make hamburgers out of the whole beast but that is a lazy thing to do. At his restaurant, Solo Ciccia, Dario said that he serves the cuts of meat that the butchers used to eat in the past. These cuts were the secondary ones, not the filet mignon or T-bone steak.
The cow’s leg was calling for Dario to begin his dissection. He began to methodically break down this impressive piece of meat. As he was working, he talked about this particular cut. He said that the beef was acquired through Mario Batali and Eataly. It was the thigh and leg of a female cow. He said that female cows have fattier and gentler meat. He said that it is important to smell the meat. It should smell fresh and clean. He also said that when cooking meat it is imperative to bring the meat up to room temperature inside and out before cooking it. This makes for evenly cooked meat. It also prevents the outside of the meat from cooking too fast and drying out before the inside is cooked through.
As he was deboning the thigh and leg, Dario gave a recipe for this piece of meat. He said it was a dish they made for Christmas. They would take the deboned thigh and stuff it with bone marrow, rosemary, salt and pepper. The meat would be rolled, tied up and roasted in a very hot oven. A simple and unpretentious recipe from the Butcher of Panzano!
Dario turned his conversation to Tuscany and in particular his area of Chianti. He said that the only acceptable type of olive oil is Tuscan olive oil. And that when he says olive oil what he means is extra virgin olive oil. No other oil will do! He also talked a bit about his Profumo del Chianti, which is his proprietary blend of salt and herbs. He said that since his area of Tuscany is a distance from the sea, salt was extremely expensive. So the people would cut the salt with dried herbs. Dario has carried on this tradition. He said that a real artisan uses what’s available in his area.
From the thigh and leg, Dario fabricated a piece of meat that he said Italians use for roast beef. He said that Italian roast beef is a simple and flavorful dish. His recipe for this dish was to start off by getting the oven extremely hot. Roast the beef in the oven for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, the roast is to be removed from the oven and dressed with salt and lots of olive oil. From there, the roast needs to rest for at least 25 minutes before it is to be carved and eaten.
Dario fabricated a few steaks from the heart of the leg that he affectionately calls the Panzanese steak. This was a cut of meat that he helped to introduce to the world. This is no T-bone; in fact, according to many it’s even better. Dario’s preparation for this steak is cooking it over an extremely hot grill. When finished, it’s sprinkled with salt and a heavy handed drizzle of olive oil.
Dario is also famous for his Chianti sushi, which is pretty much his version of steak tartar. Dario made this preparation for the audience to sample. He took a piece of meat and using one of those 40 some odd blade tenderizers, he turned the whole piece of meat into little chunks of “chop” meat. He dressed the meat with olive oil, salt, black pepper, chili pepper, garlic, parsley and lemon juice. Once he was done a large platter of this “sushi” was passed around and quickly devoured by the audience with crusty pieces of artisanal Tuscan style bread and washed down with a small glass of Chianti that was produced near Panzano. That right there was a grand slam of flavor and excitement.
This concluded the afternoon’s demonstration, but it was just the beginning of Dario’s evening. He was on his way to Mario Batali’s and Joe and Lidia Bastianich’s Del Posto restaurant on New York City’s West Side. There Dario was creating a head to tail, whole beast dinner. Now that was a dinner I wish I was able to attend. From what I’ve heard it was tremendously successful and gluttonous. Dario was also heading up to Boston, where he would be doing another butchering demonstration.
Before leaving the theater, I had the honor of meeting the Dante of Meat. Shaking Dario’s hand was like shaking the hand of Michelangelo. He was so down to earth and genuine in his disposition. I asked if I could take a picture with him. He happily obliged and with a big arm around my back he pulled me toward him and stuck up his thumb in his trademark pose. I thanked him for the picture and for sharing some of his know-how with us. As I walked to my car, I let this once in a lifetime experience sink into my brain. I’ve always respected my food and where it comes from, but after watching Dario perform his art, I have a deeper appreciation and respect for the food that I consume. I hope to one day visit the Butcher of Panzano on his home turf in Tuscany. And what would be an even bigger thrill would be to actually take a class or be able to study under his tutelage in butchery. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Hey, and if you can put in a good word for me that would be really appreciated!
Living to eat,