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What wine to pair with my Tuscan steak?

Some tips on what wine to pair with the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina!

Author of a Tuscan Odyssey, Lee Cooper is guest posting for us, giving us some tips on what wine to pair with the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina!
“Life is too short to drink bad wine.” A proverb that is also my metaphor for life. My name is Lee Cooper, originally from the UK, but with a Neapolitan Grandmother, I came to live in Tuscany in 2001 and for three years lived on a working farm in Greve-in-Chianti. It was here that I caught the wine ‘bug’. However, one of the real joys of Tuscan wines is pairing them with the countless wonderful Tuscan dishes. The ultimate treat for Florentines is Bistecca alla Fiorentina. I think it deserves a good wine. Foreigners would choose a full bodied Brunello or Chianti Classico riserva, but the locals will say that a simple Chianti Classico is the perfect match. The steak is the star here and the wine is the supporting actor.
The question is whether you’re happy with a Philip Seymour Hoffman or you would prefer a George Clooney! For the easy to get, firm favorites, I would go with Frescobaldi’s Nippozano riserva or Banfi’s Cum Laude or Rosso di Montalcino. It also kind of depends on the year. Last year I loved Tenuta di Capezzana from Carmignano and before that, Rietine’s 2004 Chianti Classico riserva. Going up in price and quality, Felsina’s Rancia riserva is always good, as is Castello di Ama and Castello Brolio. I agree that Brunellos can be a little too structured and over powering for Bistecca, but Vino Nobile is a good match as it’s from the same region as the Chiannina beef. I like the Gattavecchi riserva, but maybe my ultimate match up and would be with Poliziano’s Asinone.

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Florence’s most iconic dish is, without a doubt, bistecca alla fiorentina: an enormous porterhouse steak, minimally seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled and served bloody rare. It’s a showstopper, for sure. But it’s not for everyone, or for every occasion. Less well-known, but just as worthy, are the simple roasts served in the city’s cozy trattorias, in family-run restaurants in the countryside and in home kitchens throughout the Italian region of Tuscany.

During a visit to Florence last summer, I was reminded of just how appealing a roast — beef, pork, veal — can be, thinly sliced and adorned only with pan drippings. My jet-lagged family and I followed my friend Emiko Davies on a hot day in late July as she ducked through a doorway beneath a green-and-white-striped awning. Davies, a longtime resident of the city and author of the cookbook “Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence,” was taking us to Trattoria Mario, one of her favorite spots for traditional Florentine food.

Although it was barely lunchtime, the place was already packed with a mix of locals and intrepid tourists sitting elbow to elbow at communal tables. The menu, handwritten (in Italian only) on butcher paper and taped to the wall, listed the day’s selections. Seeing that we weren’t quite ready to face a bloody bistecca, Davies instead ordered several platters of sliced roasts to share, plus traditional sides of roasted potatoes and stewed cannellini beans. The food, like the trattoria itself, was no-frills: no special sauces, no fancy garnishes, no clever twists on classics. But, also like Mario’s, it was genuine, and really, really good. Especially those roasts, all juicy and tender and succulent — just what you want a good roast to be. We polished them off.

A few days later, another roast stole the show. This one, a turkey breast, was the centerpiece of a luncheon prepared by my friend Giulia Scarpaleggia, a food writer who shares recipes and snippets of life in the Tuscan countryside on her blog, Juls’ Kitchen. She served it sliced and cold, with a tonnato (tuna and mayonnaise) sauce on the side. Even without the dollop of sauce, the turkey was tender and rich, with meaty flavor.

Weeks after we had returned home and gone back to our usual habit of grilling steaks and chops, I was still thinking about those roasts. With winter in full swing, I decided it was time to crack the code on how to make them.

Simply prepared roasts have a long history in Tuscan cuisine. Arista di maiale, a bone-in pork loin roast seasoned simply with herbs, garlic and white wine, dates to at least the 15th century, when it was served at an assembly of bishops in Florence. “Rosbiffe,” the Italian adaptation of roast beef, is a more recent import, arriving in the 1800s with a large British expatriate community that settled in Florence. Pellegrino Artusi, author of the famous 19th century cookbook “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”), lived in Florence for most of his life and devoted an entire chapter to roasts. “Roasting preserves the nutritional qualities of meat better than any other method of cooking, and the meat is also easier to digest,” Artusi wrote.

The success of a roast depends on the quality of the meat, says Andrea Falaschi, Davies’ butcher in San Miniato, not far west of Florence. “Our recipes aren’t complicated,” he says. “Simplicity is our strength; it’s the beauty of our cuisine. But we start with the best primary ingredients.”

Florence is famous for its Chianina beef, says Davies, which comes from an ancient breed of cattle raised in Tuscany and in parts of Umbria, Lazio and Abruzzo. One of the world’s largest breeds, Chianina are known for the creamy white color of their hide and their lean, flavorful meat. The region’s best pork, she says, comes from Cinta Senese pigs, a slow-growing heirloom breed prized for its fatty meat: “Whenever you eat anything made with Cinta Senese, you can tell, because it has a richness and juiciness to it that comes from that amazing layer of fat.”

Davies, who tested recipes for her book in her native Australia, says she used Berkshire pork, a heritage breed that originated in England and has characteristics similar to those of Cinta Senese, to make her arista di maiale. The breed has been raised in the United States since the 1800s and in recent years has become more widely available, including at local butcher shops such as the Organic Butcher of McLean and Red Apron Butcher in the District and Virginia. It is noticeably fattier and juicier than standard mass-produced pork, which is bred for leanness. Arista, with its rack of rib bones, makes an impressive roast for very little effort. For that reason, it took the place of turkey this year at our Thanksgiving table, and it might make an encore performance next year.

As for “rosbiffe,” it is possible to buy U.S.-raised Chianina beef, but it is not easy to find at retail markets. Grass-fed beef, which is available at many farmers markets and supermarkets, makes a good substitute. It is leaner and not as buttery-soft as typical beef raised on grain, with a more pronounced beefy flavor. Because of its leanness, it is best cooked slowly at a moderately low temperature.

Dave Burton, a butcher, offers an alternative for those willing to splurge a bit: Wagyu roast beef. Derived from a Japanese cattle breed, Wagyu is richly marbled with fat. However, the whole-muscle cuts typically used for roast beef, such as top round and eye round, are not as fatty. Wagyu eye of round makes an especially good roast beef, Burton says, because it gives a typically lean cut, one that’s prone to dryness, just enough fat to ensure a good roast. At $12.99 a pound, it isn’t cheap, but it is certainly less costly than prime rib or tenderloin.

Veal is more complicated; it is more expensive and less popular in the States than in Italy. Italian veal is older — more like young beef — and is rosier in color and tastier than the young milk-fed veal sold here. Many Americans are put off by the poor, cramped conditions in which veal calves are raised. But it is getting easier to find humanely raised veal that is more like what is sold in Italy.

If you are not tired of turkey, try roasting a boneless turkey breast. Scarpaleggia’s turkey roast sold me on this less-expensive alternative to veal or pork. You can buy a butterflied boneless breast to roll and tie yourself, or look for one that it is already tied in mesh; some Whole Foods Markets stock them on the weekends (best to call in advance). Once you’ve chosen your roast, follow a few simple steps (see sidebar below), and within a couple of hours you’ll have a beautiful Tuscan-style roast at your table. All that’s left is to open a bottle of Chianti.

TIPS FOR ROASTS

I consulted with Tuscan cookbook authors Giulia Scarpaleggia and Emiko Davies, as well as Davies’ Florentine butcher, Andrea Falaschi, and David Burton, a butcher at the Organic Butcher in McLean, to compile this list of tips for successfully making a Tuscan-style roast:

• Make sure the meat is at room temperature.

• Tie the meat with kitchen string. (I tie at 1-inch intervals.) This will ensure even cooking, plus it makes for a more attractive roast that slices neatly. If the roast is encased in plastic mesh, discard it for cooking and tie the roast with kitchen twine. If the mesh is cotton, it can stay in place.

• Season with a mixture of fresh — not dried — herbs, plus salt and pepper. Rub the seasoning all over the meat (think of it as a massage), making sure to coat it evenly.

• Choose the right roasting pan or pot. Many Tuscans cook their roasts in a pot on the stove top, in a method (oddly) known as arrosto morto, or “dead roast.” Choose a heavy-bottomed pot into which the roast fits snugly, so any juices that accumulate during cooking don’t evaporate, but is not crowded. For oven roasting, select a hefty roasting pan, a ceramic baking dish or an ovenproof skillet. Again, be sure the roast fits snugly in the pan but is not crowded. A roasting rack is optional; it promotes even cooking, but pan drippings tend to evaporate more quickly, especially in a hot oven.

• Sear the meat. Most roasts benefit from an initial browning on the surface to enhance flavor and create a crust. This is easily done on the stove top in a little hot oil or fat. Turn the meat to brown it on all sides. (The exception here is the accompanying recipe for the pork, which is browned in the oven at the end of roasting to crisp the skin.)

• Roast at a low to moderately low temperature: low heat for the stove top and anywhere from 275 to 350 degrees in the oven. That will allow the roast to cook properly and evenly without becoming tough.

• Let the roast rest for 15 minutes before serving; it helps redistribute the juices and makes for a juicier roast.

• Slice the meat thinly, arrange the slices overlapping on a warmed serving platter and spoon the pan juice on top. (Again, the exception here is the pork, which can be either cut into thick chops or removed from the bones and sliced thinly.)

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What distinguishes an Italian meal?

Although Italy was not united under one law and considered a single country until 1861, its cuisine has long since been an element uniting all of Italy’s regions together by taking pride in its respect for good, fresh, simple ingredients. When we commonly think of Italian food, we think of pasta, olive oil and lots of fresh vegetables, which does in fact make up the base of this mediterranean diet, stemming from ancient Etruscan, Greek and Roman cultures. Other common ingredients that we often consider staples such as the tomato, potato or bell pepper were not introduced until much later but, nonetheless, have earned a special spot in the Italian pantry.

Italian cuisine is much like their language – there is a national language that every region speaks but every region has their own dialect that they speak between one another. You will see this same phenomenon in food. As you travel through Italy, you will notice how each region has specific dishes and ingredients that they are best known for, yet there are basic ingredients such as pasta, cheese and olive oil that all of Italy uses.

The Basics for Tuscany

Tuscan outdoor market

Like all Italian cuisine, Tuscan cooking is based upon using the most fresh and simple ingredients of the season including many legumes, cheeses, vegetables and fruits. Typical dishes are based upon what Tuscans find fresh and local at the market that week, making them often very easy to prepare and involving few ingredients. Although the food may be simple, it is rich in flavor, very hearty and quite filling. All meals are served accompanied by the regional bread: a white, plain, unsalted loaf. This tradition dates back to the 16th century when there was a tax put on salt, changing the way locals thought about baking bread. This old tradition of unsalted bread has carried on and now marks Tuscan bread apart from other regions in Italy. It may seem flavorless at first but its real job is to soak up all the leftover juices left on your place, giving it all the flavor it needs and leaving your bread basket empty at the end of the meal.

The bread is also flavored by using a variety of ingredients for crostini such as crostini di fegatini (liver paté) or the simple and delicious fettunta, a grilled slice of bread with garlic, olive oil and salt. The fettunta is a great way to take your hand at olive oil tasting too – there is nothing better than unsalted bread to truly indulge in the pure flavor of local olive oil, which is the base for all Tuscan dishes. Other appetizers that you will commonly come across are wooden cutting boards covered with cured meats which include prosciutto, lard from “Colonnata” and different types of sausages, all cured for long periods of time creating distinct, rich flavors. A wonderful place to get a taste of Tuscan bread and different crostoni is at Fuori Porta, a wonderful restaurant in the area of San Niccolò, just before heading up to Piazzale Michelangelo with great outdoor seating and a long wine menu. They are famous for their crostoni, which is a larger version of a crostini topped with either set ingredients or with whatever you please such as roasted ham, mozzarella, fresh tomatos and porcini mushrooms.

Primi or Pasta Dishes

pappa pomodoro

Also stemming from history, many Tuscan dishes were invented based on the principle of “waste not” such as ribollita – a tuscan vegetable and bread soup – and pappa al pomodoro – a tomato and bread soup (in the photo above). Both use stale bread as the base that is flavored with a variety of vegetables and legumes. Ribollita, traditionally a poor-man’s food, is hearty and thickened with the leftover bread, cannellini beans and inexpensive vegetables that you can often find year-round such as onions, carrots, celery, kale and cabbage. Pappa al pomodoro is another very traditional dish made simply with the day old bread, tomatoes, olive oil and sometimes a hint of garlic, depending on the recipe. As simple as these dishes sound, they are flavorful enough to have become a favorite among locals and also among tourists throughout the decades. Other first course dishes in Tuscany are simple pastas such as pappardelle alla lepre o al sugo di cinghiale, a fresh, egg noodle pasta with either a hare or wild boar sauce.

Another common dish coming from this principle is Trippa and Lampredotto, particularly in Florence. It is served both as street food as well as in five star restaurants. Trippa is the cow’s stomach lining which is often tenderized by stewing it in a tomato sauce for a long period or served marinated as a salad. Lampredotto is served mostly as street food, which you can find at one of the many food kiosks throughout the city or in the markets during lunch time, and is also made from the stomach and served as a sandwich with a green parsley sauce and the juice from the broth in which it was cooked. Both of these are very typical Florentine foods but do take to only a certain crowd. If you are feeling experimental and love trying new things, either stop off at the indoor food market of San Lorenzo at Nerbone or at the Kiosk that you will find in Piazza dei Ciompi outside of the other food market, Sant’Ambrogio. Another option is to sit down at Trattoria da Rocco inside the Sant’Ambrogio market, where they serve up steaming plates of Tuscan classics including trippa, but don’t expect to linger as this place likes to keep things moving and get people fed and on their way. It is certainly, though, one of the most authentic places to sample a variety of local dishes without breaking the bank.

Secondi or Main Course

fiorentina steak

Of course, we cannot talk about Tuscan cuisine and forget to mention the famous steak that comes from Valdarno and Mugello called “bistecca alla fiorentina”. The Tuscan steak, which comes from a special cow breed, the Chianina, is served very rare alongside roasted potatoes and beans. It can be found at most Tuscan restaurants throughout the region but some are better than others. If you truly want to experience a grand meat meal, head to Dario Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti, who is famous for his steaks. In Florence, some of the best known restaurants for a Florentine steak are the Cinghiale Bianco, located in the Oltrarno or Trattoria 13 Gobbi, near Santa Maria Novella. The bistecca is cut and served based on how many people there are at the table and, to show off as well as have you approve the size of the steak, they will typically come and show you the steak before they cook it.

Tuscany is also known for its wild game such as wild boar, hares, pheasants and other birds. They are often tenderized in a stew such as cinghiale in umido (stewed wild boar), roasted such as faraona arrosto (roasted guinea-fowl) or served as a sauce over pasta, as mentioned above. Cinghiale is definitely the most foreign to travelers and often most well liked as it is rich in flavor but not too gamey tasting. You can often find this dish at many Tuscan restaurants such as the Trattoria del Carmine in Florence. My personal favorite is Trattoria Casalinga just off the Santo Spirito piazza. Their menu is full of classic Tuscan dishes that are always well prepared and it is one of the few old restaurants that has not inflated its prices with increased popularity. Because of this, you will want to make sure to call ahead and reserve or else you will find yourself waiting for an hour!

Contorni or Side Dishes

side dish Tuscan food

Tuscan side dishes don’t vary too much from other regions but you can be sure to always find beans and some kind of hearty green vegetable sauteed in olive oil on the menu. You will often see sauteed spinach or chicory in olive oil and garlic, which they do very well – you will never have guessed you are eating a vegetable! You will also always find side salads, roasted potatoes and when in season, artichokes prepared in various methods, grilled mixed vegetables such as eggplant and fried zucchini flowers in the summer months.

Dolce or Dessert

Tuscan desserts
Tuscany isn’t famous for their desserts and meals are generally finished with a simple piece of fruit or bowl of fresh berries when in season. After all, having just packed in all those courses, it may be hard to find room for a rich dessert. This being said, the most traditional dessert comes from a nearby town just 20 minutes north of Florence, Prato. Plates of cantucci, small hard, almond flavored cookies, are served alongside the Vinsanto wine for dipping. Between the sweet wine and the crunchy cookie, the pairing is unbeatable and a nice, light way to finish a Tuscan meal. If you are a dessert lover, head to Trattoria Camillo where you will not only find very good Tuscan food but also very good deserts that change regularily. Of course, we cannot mention an Italian meal without mentioning coffee. Meals are always closed with an espresso no matter what the hour.

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