This is a real meal: A half-pound hamburger made from freshly ground beef and coated with crispy bedcrumbs, oven roasted potatoes, red, ripe tomatoes, sweet onions and special sauces that are as far away from the House of Ronald as you can imagine. This is one of only two meals on offer for lunch at McDario's, one part of the expanding empire of Dario Cecchini, celebrity butcher of Chianti. Dario is the opera loving, Dante-reciting butcher featured in Bill Buford's book Heat, and in every food or travel writer's story who passes through the little town of Panzano, deep in the heart of Chianti wine country.
This is Dario, posing for pictures, which he does often at his shop, holding up two gargantuan steaks. We know them in North America as porterhouse cuts, but these 'babies' are the raw material for something called 'bistecca alla fiorentina', a Tuscan specialty. You just grill these babies on high heat with a little salt and pepper and that's it. They are supposed to come from the Tuscan Chianina breed of cattle, but a few years ago Dario held a funeral for the Chianina…saying the breed no longer supplied the quality necessary for such a cut. He now sources his beef in Spain!
It's always great visiting Dario and his butcher shop and restaurants in Panzano, but the real reason Ramona and I were there was to catch up with my friend Judy Witts Francini, otherwise known as the Tuscan Diva. I met Judy ten years ago on my very first trip to Italy and we stay in touch frequently via social media and whenever I visit Italy or she visits North America. Judy is an ex-pat American who has seized Tuscan life by the horns. I admire her ability to switch seamlessly from English to Italian and back again as she guides tourists through Chianti, Florence, Sicily and more. At the public market in Florence she knows all the vendors by name and her tours leave you with a real sense of the people and the food of the city.
Judy's first self-published cookbook is a real delight. Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen provides any cook of any skill level a perfect introduction to the recipes of Tuscany, all of which are 'Tuscan Husband Approved' by Judy's husband Andrea, who was gracious enough to guide his car for us around the winding roads of Chianti after lunch.
Wherever you find Judy, you will find some sort of fun, and this day was no exception. After lunch at McDario's she announced it was time to head off to Azienda Agricola Casamonte.
Now we're talking pork…and prosciutto made from these Cinta Senese pigs, a very rare breed that the owner at the Azienda, Ray Lamothe has been guarding from extinction by slowly building up the herd from a low of 360 animals in the world at one point. Now on his farm alone, he has over 600 pigs. I'm going to do a full blog on Ray and his products in the future, but we had a fine tour of the farm and his rooms where he ages prosciutto, salamis, bacon, guanciale and more. Later we tasted some of the prosciutto, a little saltier and stronger flavoured than say, prosciutto di Parma, but very tasty all the same.
Pic of the Day: David Rocco is a Food Network host and cookbook author. His show La Dolce Vita is shot in Florence, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see him enjoying a McDario in Panzano, researching a new book and getting some photography done. A bigger surprise was seeing one of his colleagues sit down and realize it was someone I had worked with at CBC Radio years ago! See, everyone comes to Dario's in Panzano.
Anyway, Judy invited David and Co. to join us at Ray's, so I hung over the official photographer's shoulder and grabbed this nice shot of David holding a Cinta Senese piglet. Ray said, 'you can hold him, but he's still asleep. When he wakes up, he will either start squealing, or pee on you.' Luckily for David, the piglet only squealed. We were squealing with delight after our wonderful day with Judy and Andrea and all the rest of the folks we met. On the downside, this was our second last day in Italy.