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.)