Una Vita diVino: The Butcher from Panzano
Panzano, Tuscany – If I were to make a list of Italy’s top ten culinary personalities, Dario Cecchini of the Antica MacelleriaCecchini would be included. From his small shop, this larger than life butcher has successfully articulated and implemented a philosophy that is the basis for a modern day meat eaters’ manifesto.
Back in the mid 1990s I rented a farmhouse in Panzano-in-Chianti south of Florence with a group of friends. We were collectively writing a Time Out guide to Tuscany and wanted to establish a direct feed into the Chianti culinary scene. On my first grocery shopping expedition in this sleepy hilltop town, friendly neighbors directed me to Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop recognized by the broad white and red stripes painted across its façade.
The quality of his product and his heavily Tuscan-accented, poetry-laced soliloquies – impeccably delivered to the hammering sounds of a meat cleaver hacking through cartilage and bone – had already earned him a steady following of meat enthusiasts. Over the years, I have witnessed his meteoric rise to fame. Today, he is Italy’s number one celebrity butcher. His meat enterprise extends far beyond the chopping block. He has various restaurant areas all specialized in meat at different price points. His Dario Doc, SoloCiccino, SoloCiccia and Officina menus range from 10 to 50 euros. He also heads a butcher school with “butcher for a day” classes for aspiring meat carvers from around the world. His shop offers a large selection of meat products, marinades, spices and gourmet cook books. Visit on any day of the week and large groups of tourists from Scandinavia, America and Asia nibble on wild boar salami and cheese accompanied by red wine that Cecchini offers his guests upon arrival.
On my latest trip to taste and score the upcoming vintages from Chianti Classico, I happily feasted on his new creation, the MacDario hamburger now served at his Slow Food-inspired fast food joint Dario Doc. My article Chianti Classico: The Making of a Dream Team can be seen here.
When I met Dario Cecchini twenty years ago, he had already been nicknamed the “poet butcher” because it was said that he could recite all verses of Inferno from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy from memory. Gilded statues of angles engulfed in flames were placed behind the glass meat display. His specialties were voluptuous cuts of Chianina beef, encyclopedia-sized T-bone steaks (bistecca alla fiorentina) and porchetta wrapped in crunchy roasted pork skin. In family hands for two hundred years, the Antica Macelleria had already gained favorable review as a roadside pit stop for hard core hedonists and gluttons traveling along the beautifully panoramic via Chiantigiana (route 222) that cuts through the Chianti Classico wine region.
Ironically, a ban on beef would spark the Dario Cecchini success story. In the late 1990s, Europe was paralyzed by an outbreak of Mad Cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). The European Union banned beef imports from the United Kingdom and later banned the sales of T-bone steaks. Nowhere did the ban hit harder than Tuscany, an Italian region obsessed with its beloved bistecca alla fiorentina.
By this point, I worked for BusinessWeek magazine and was assigned to write a story on how Italians were trying other meats like ostrich and kangaroo as replacements for beef during the Mad Cow outbreak. This assignment would lead me straight back to my old neighborhood butcher in Panzano.
Dario Cecchini had suddenly become the loudest voice promoting the safety of Italian beef and opposing the ban on T-bone steaks. In protest, he famously staged a funeral procession dedicated to the bistecca alla fiorentina in front of Parliament in Rome. A marble plaque outside his shop pays homage to the death of the beefsteak. These colorful antics catapulted him into the limelight and the Poet Butcher had become intrinsically linked to one of Italy’s most celebrated culinary specialties. Dario Cecchini had become the face of Italian beef during those difficult Mad Cow years. International media descended on Panzano: The scene was surreal with CNN and other networks’ satellite trucks vying for parking space in the tiny main square across from the butcher shop.
Dario Cecchini is a skilled communicator. His message is delivered with a healthy dose of Tuscany wit padded between vibrant charisma, exaggerated gesturing, photogenic posing and old fashion common sense. His mantra is viva la ciccia, or “long-live meat.” Ciccia is a Tuscan word that is more accurately translated as “flesh” or “meat fat” and it can also affectionately be used to describe a sensual, buxom inamorata. It arouses all imaginable carnal associations that are central to Cecchini’s messaging.
On an empirical level, Cecchini is concerned with sustainable meat practices and the “whole cow” approach is central to his manifesto. No part of the precious Chianina animal will go unused. His philosophical tenets include sustainability and a chilometro zero (farm-to-table) sourcing. He often gives speeches on humane butchering and how to better respect the animals we eat. His American-born wife Kim Wicks helps with public relations.
Beef from Chianina cows - native to this part of Tuscany –
is a local obsession. One of the oldest breeds of cattle, Chianina also ranks
among the heaviest and tallest. The meat is air-dried to add succulence and
intensity of flavor.
The slabs of beef used to make a bistecca alla fiorentina are so thick, the meat is cooked in a
vertical position on the grill. It is served rigorously al sangue (rare) with thick kernels of salt and generous pours of
freshly harvested olive oil. Dario Cecchini sources his meat from none other
than Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi (who makes the legendary wines Flaccianello della Pieve and Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Sorbo). Fontodi’s
Giovanni Manetti is one of the most important breeders of Chianina in the area.
The meat goes to Cecchini and the manure is used for fertilizing his
Viva la ciccia!
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