Monday, October 26, 2009

Il Macellaio di Panzano Comes to Cavallo Point

Thursday, April 6, 2006, turned out to be a wonderful day. Nancy and I had been staying in Bologna with Bark and Kim and were about to depart on an adventure that would take us through Toscana and Umbria before returning to Emilia-Romagna. Plus it would be my first opportunity to drive in Italy.

Bark took us to the Bologna airport early that morning to pick up our rental car, and then waved goodbye with a cheerful “in bocca al lupo” - “good luck” – although the idiomatic meaning - “in the wolf’s mouth” – somehow seemed more appropriate as I acquainted myself with our compact Renault Modus. So we were off heading south from Bologna on the A1 autostrada first climbing through the Apennines mountain range and then descending into Toscana.

It was raining in the Apennines but by the time we neared Firenze we could see patches of blue sky. We skirted the city and continued south through the Chianti region on S222, our goal the small town of Panzano in Chianti and a butcher shop I had read about, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini.

I do not recall how I first heard of Dario Cecchini, the 5th generation proprietor of the shop, but it was probably on Faith Willinger’s website, or that of Judy Witts Francini (Divina Cucina/Over a Tuscan Stove), since both of them have done a good deal to bring Dario to the attention of the world. Later that year Bill Buford would do even more, first with his New Yorker piece “Carnal Knowledge - How I Became a Tuscan Butcher,” and then with the publication of the book from which that New Yorker piece was taken, “Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.” At that time it seemed that Dario was most associated with the famous “bistecca Fiorentina,” a massive, 3-inch thick bone-in steak that was traditionally taken from the Chianina breed of cattle that had been raised in Toscana in the past.

What I had read about the Antica Macelleria Cecchini suggested that we should be prepared for an establishment overrun by tourists clambering for raw meat, but when we arrived in Panzano – which is in fact a very small town - and walked up the hill to the small shop we found we were the only ones there.

We had a brief chat with Dario (my Italian at that point being even more rudimentary than it is today), made a few purchases (I remember most vividly the Finocchiona salami), bought some bread at a nearby bakery, and then headed a bit further south to Castellina in Chianti where we enjoyed an memorable al fresco lunch under sunny skies seated on a wall overlooking the beautiful Tuscan countryside.

Fast forward 3+ years to early last month when I was having a drink with Jayne Reichert from the Cavallo Point cooking school in Sausalito talking about her upcoming trip to Italy. Jayne mentioned that Marin Organic was organizing an event at Cavallo Point the following month to celebrate the publication of Doug Gayeton’s new book, “Slow Life in a Tuscan Town,” which featured photos that Doug had taken during the period he lived in Toscana (he now lives in Petaluma). I had first seen Doug Gayeton’s work handing on the wall at Della Fattoria in Petaluma and had done a post on it in January. However, even more exciting for me was the news that part of the celebration would be a cooking class featuring Dario Cecchini, a picture of whom appeared in Doug’s book (with the appropriate Tuscan saying: “Meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista” – “Better to spend your money at the butcher shop than at the pharmacy”).

We were able to sign up for the class, and yesterday afternoon Alex, Cass and I made the 5-minute drive from our house over to Cavallo Point. It was a beautiful day so we went a bit early so we could grab a drink at Farley’s Bar (in the same building as the cooking school) and enjoy the view from the second floor veranda.

Just after 3:30 they let us into the cooking school’s classroom room where the ingredients were out and ready to go.

We had a chance to meet Dario and his wife, Kim, an American who grew up in the East Bay. Dario spoke only in Italian during the class and Kim did all the translating. I learned that this was only Dario’s second visit to Northern California, the first having been in August 2001 on the occasion of a massive lunch in Berkeley celebrating the 30th anniversary of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse (at which time Dario was described in an article in the New York Times as “an exuberant Tuscan butcher in Technicolor-striped shirt and trousers and (no kidding) purple cowboy boots who recited Canto 5 of Dante's ''Inferno,'' from memory, between courses.”).

After some brief introductions by Helge Hellberg, the Executive Director of Marin Organic, and Kelsey Kerr of the Cavallo Point Cooking School, Dario got started with the food. The official menu for the afternoon consisted of:

~ Burro del Chianti (“Chianti Butter” - a mixture of fresh pork lardo, vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary spread on crostini);

~ Cosimino (a traditional Florentine meatloaf named in honor of Cosimo di Medici, including beef chuck, pork shoulder, garlic, onion, thyme and eggs, formed in a ball and covered with bread crumbs – you can see it in the above picture taken by Doug Gayeton at Dario’s shop – the cannon ball shaped items);

~ Spalla del Agnello al Rosmarino e Pecorino (a deboned lamb shoulder topped with slices of aged Pecorino cheese and minced rosemary); and

~ Sushi del Chianti (a coarsely cut steak tartare with olive oil, sea salt, pepper, chile pepper, garlic, parsley and lemon juice)

However, since he was apparently concerned that might not be sufficient, Dario also prepared for us:

~ A thick beef steak in the style of the classic “bistecca Fiorentina” – seared on the outside and raw at the center;

~ ”Salmon di Chianti” (a butterflied loin of pork seared in a griddle); and

~ Grilled thick cut slices of pork belly.

Almost all of the ingredients were procured from Marin County organic producers, including the pork that was provided by Mark Pasternak from Devils Gulch Ranch who was also at the event.

Dario worked hard throughout the program (as did Kim with the translating!), in particular as both the Burro del Chianti and the Cosimino required a good deal of kneading and the application of much “olio di gomito” (“elbow grease”!).

The results were spectacular!

In addition to the excitement of the food, we enjoyed a brief interlude when smoke from the grilling set off the building’s fire alarm and we all exited to the field in front of the building to await a visit from the Sausalito Fire Department before heading back in to the class room.

The food for our class was paired with some wonderful wines from Sean Thackrey from Bolinas – “Aquila” (produced from Sangiovese grapes), “Orion” (a red blend) and "Andromeda" (a Pinot Noir).

As noted by the New York Times article cited above, Dario is well known for quoting poetry while he works, especially selections from Dante’s Inferno. At the end of the evening I asked him if he was planning to share anything with us. He said that unfortunately we did not have time, and that with the visit by the fire department we had probably been as close to Hell that day as we wanted to go.

This was the second class for Alex, Cass and me at Cavallo Point (our first having been with
Judy Witts Francini in January) and we again had a great time.

As before, this event was very well organized and a credit to Kelsey, Jayne and the rest of the Cavallo Point staff who worked hard behind the scenes to keep everything moving smoothly (even with the break for the fire alarm!).

I should confess that prior to the class I had been concerned that Dario may have become something of a caricature pandering to foreign tourists and adversely affected by his popularity. However, our experience at Cavallo Point showed me that he is a very genuine person with a great deal of passion and charisma. It was a tremendous fun to spend a few hours with him and Kim.

For any who may visit Toscana and have time to stop in Panzano, you should know that Dario has now expanded his operation beyond the original butcher shop. In addition, he now offers meals and three different establishments immediately next to the butcher shop - SoloCiccia (“only meat”), which features a six-course fixed menu focusing on less common cuts of beef, MacDario , Dario’s refined version of a burger joint, and the Officina della Bistecca, a steak only restaurant. Here are a couple of articles featuring SoloCiccia (here and here), here is a video from Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” series featuring a visit to Panzano, and here is a wonderful video taken at the Officina della Bistecca which for me captures Dario’s enthusiasm for his work and the energy level he somehow managed to maintain during the entire program at Cavallo Point. Perhaps there is something to his breakfast of Burro del Chianti and vino rosso!


Simona Carini said...

Great post, Michael, as usual. I have Buford's book, but have not yet read it. I especially like the name of the dish "Sushi del Chianti."

gastronomichael said...

Thanks Simona - our class was a lot of fun, even with the fire drill! I think you would enjoy reading "Heat" - it forever cured me of my thought that it would be interesting to work in a restaurant kitchen sometime! Mike

Unknown said...

It's been one month from now that i'm working for Dario. And it is quiet a great experience each day. I enjoy so much reading your post. Because I think you understand people like me who decides to let their past behind then (i've been working in finance for 5 years, no experience in cooking before). Now I do Mac Dario and Officina. And next purpose, learn butchery. Hope to see you in Panzano. I'll be in the kitchen to host you.

gastronomichael said...

Grazie Nikkho! I hope we will have a chance to visit you in Panzano sometime. Mike

Eleonora Baldwin said...

I posted a comment but it disappeared...

What I said in it was that I too regarded Cecchini as somewhat of a hoax, but this post made me understand that he may not be. Although the vast expansion of the original butcher shop that gave him success makes me wonder a bit.

I need to see him up close to formulate beyond my gut feeling. After all you can't really judge a man from his success (and Zoolander-like headshots) alone.

Great post, you rellay put a lot into it.
I also added how envious I am of where you live, such a stimulating foodie heaven!!


gastronomichael said...

Eleonora: Thank you very much for taking the time to read the post and for your comments. Coming from one of my favorite bloggers that means a lot!

I have to admit that going into the event I had something of the same skepticism that you mentioned. However, although Dario is first and foremost a showman, there is also a warm and genuine human under that facade. I hope you will have a chance to spend some time with him (and his wife, Kim) and form your own opinion.

Finally, coming from someone living in Roma, your comment about the Bay Area being a foodie heaven is high praise indeed. Ciao!


english-help said...

Dear Michael,
i've found your post through internet search. In fact i was looking for Bologna pictures and this is the one!
I just want to make a gift for my husband - a big poster of Bologna - because it's the city where we met...
Can i ask you please for the original size of this panorama. You can contact me by gramzina(@)gmail(.)com

Thank you in advance!