The steak is cut from the loin, just below the rib cage and above the round or rump (depending on which side of the pond you come from!). The higher cuts, nearer to the rib cage also contain the fillet, whereas the lower cuts do not. The Bistecca alla Fiorentina refers to both cuts, which are known as bistecca nel filetto and bistecca nella costola respectively. This already creates some confusion, as a Bistecca alla Fiorentina outside Tuscany normally specifically refers to the bistecca nel filetto only; when ordering in Florence some tense moments may occur upon presentation of the dish.
Once cut, the steak has the classic T-shape (of the T-bone steak from Anglo-Saxon cuisine). The bistecca nel filetto will generally be the less high cut and the bistecca nella costola the higher one; in Florence we like to measure our steaks in terms of fingers, and a good steak should be between 3 and 4 fingers high. It may weigh anything between 800g and 1.2kg. Most restaurants will be very happy to show the steak they have selected for you before cooking it.
The difference in taste? There is no doubt about it, that the bistecca nel filetto is preferred by non-Tuscans, as they are anxious about getting what they believe is the “real deal”. The filetto is generally smooth, butter-like and almost melts in the mouth. Yet the muscle further down the spine that works harder is generally more robust than the fillet, it’s marbled with fat and is generally considered by those in the know as more flavoursome! If there are four of you at dinner, you might order both and note the difference.
Let’s take a quick glance at how this abundance of meat affects your body. Coming in at something like 150 kcal per 100g, it’s not disastrous by any means. But the problem is the sheer quantity. All restaurants find it entirely acceptable for two or even three people to share one steak. And your internal organs might appreciate the sharing factor, too!
Traditionally the meat for a Bistecca alla Fiorentina comes from a Tuscan breed of cattle called the Chianina, and whilst that is often still the case, several other breeds are used, too. The most important factor by far is the period that the beef is left to hang before being butchered. For a good Bistecca alla Fiorentina that should be between 15 and 21 days (compared to the 48 hours allowed for much of our supermarket meat).
Cooking a Bistecca alla Fiorentina is definitely an art. The steak should always be cooked from room temperature and never from the fridge. A high temperature is required and the steak is cooked for just 3–5 minutes on each side, turning it once, with no condiments. The outside of the steak should be almost charred, with distinct grill lines from having been over live charcoal coals (no gas or electric hobs will do here!) and the inside will be very rare and only warm, certainly not piping hot. Just a light shower of salt before serving is perfect. Pepper, olive oil and other things are generally signs of a less than perfect steak.
If you are not happy with a very rare steak, it’s probably best not to order a Bistecca alla Fiorentina. In order to get the inside well cooked, the outside will be as tough as old boots and possibly crunchy, too!