Top tables: Officina della Bistecca

Dining at Officina della Bistecca will send you down a rabbit hole of unrivalled carnivorous proportions, washed down with generous servings of red wine, art and poetry. Lee Osborne lived to tell the tale

As balmy nights in Tuscany go, it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind when a bunch of us menswear nerds, who were attending the recent summer rendition of Pitti Uomo, decided to break with tradition and swap dinner in our beloved Florence and head for the hills of nearby Chianti. As Pitti veterans, we’ve come to expect cauldron-like heat and golden-hour glows you can set your watch to, but the meteorological Gods clearly hadn’t got the memo as our minibus snaked its way towards Panzano – exactly halfway between Florence and Sienna – with windscreen wipers at frenzied full tilt. The meat sweats we’d been dreading clearly wouldn’t have a chance to materialise. The silver lining of course was that we were dining at Dario Cecchini’s esteemed hostelry for those of a carnivorous persuasion, and thankfully, dining inside as opposed to alfresco on a terrace overlooking cypress-fringed, manicured hills. You dine at 8pm sharp but be sure to arrive early so as not to miss the scene-setting aperitivo shots of wine and the most moreish crostini smothered with unexpectedly delicious lashings of lard (yes, you read that correctly) as hors d’oeuvres.

While you come here for the meat, the back story is worthy of note. You see, Dario, the larger-than-life character in front of you today, great raconteur that he is, all twinkly-eyed and sporting a handlebar moustache crafted during lockdown, had set his heart on becoming a veterinarian and inadvertently became one of the world’s most famous butchers instead. While he admits to having the most idyllic of childhoods, mainly trailing in his father’s wake from a tender age, visiting neighbourhood beef herds to purchase the best meat he could for his butchery, he says ultimately it failed to prepare him for adulthood. His teenage years were fraught with tragedy. First losing his beloved mother, which he describes as like ‘falling out of paradise, and slowly entering the hell of cancer’. Then, only a year into veterinary college in Pisa, being told his father had passed away too. It was an incredibly tough realisation overnight, that, if he was to take over the family business himself, he would no longer be the one that saves the animals, but ‘someone who, instead, kills them’. He also had no formal butchery training, so felt as though he was constantly playing catch-up. His amateurish attempts at slicing beef meant he would often cut his own fingers which he’d subsequently bandage and be embarrassed about, and he could never seem to rid the image of the dead cow from his mind. But with the help and wisdom of his late father’s friend Orlando, Dario began to view his work in a completely different light: ‘When an animal is born, we must try to give it the best life possible, and when the animal dies by our hand, we must try to respect the gift of the animal.’ Dario had never thought of it this way before, that the butcher has a path in life, not detached from the animals, but working alongside them. ‘The next day I put on the butcher’s apron, and I never took it off again.’ 

As things began to improve for the business, it didn’t take Dario long to realise he had another conundrum to contend with: people were only really interested in eating steaks and fillets. Dario is from the Fergus Henderson nose-to-tail school of thought, with a fundamental desire to coax customers out of their comfort zones and to start appreciating eating every part of the animal – the offal, the heads, the snouts – like he used to as a child and this is something that, quite simply, has become his USP. 

Nor do his dreams for the business stop there. ‘He wants you to taste the quintessence of this beef,’ says Iranian-American chef, Samin Nosrat of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat book fame. ‘Every drop of terroir, every blade of grass the cow is eating, you can absolutely taste the care that he has for the animals.’

After he opened the restaurant, life slowly started to return. The taste of his grandmother’s food, his dad’s tradition, and mum’s love of celebration, it was all there. ‘It felt as if my family had kept on living.’ His mum would be so proud of the conviviality the close-knit, communal-style dining has created: our party of 30 took up most of the long table in one of Officina’s long, narrow dining rooms and those on the fringes, that made up the numbers, would, by the end of the evening, become long-lost friends. The atmosphere was electric, fuelled by processions of waiters and waitresses delivering endless plates and topping up glasses and Dario’s musical interludes on a Tuscan-style vuvuzela and his now legendary recitals of Dante’s Inferno – there’s a verse for every juncture in his own life, from love to crisis, and the energy associated with the celebration of life. 

You would have to say the €50 per head tasting menu, including free-flowing wine, must rank as one of the bargains of the century. What might best be described as a festival of red meat kicks off with a plate of Chianti crudo (beef tartare) drizzled with fresh lemons, followed by Carpaccio di Culo (seared rump carpaccio); Tagli Cecchini (Cecchini signature cuts); Bistecca Panzanese (steak from the village) and if you’ve still got room, the Costata o Bistecca Fiorentina (Bone in Rib or Bistecca Fiorentina). Thankfully I was sporting linen lounge pants with an adjustable waistband which coped admirably with the excesses. 

One thing you really must do to fully appreciate the hospitality, is leave your wine snobbery at the door and not be at all perturbed by the plentiful supply of what appear nowadays as rather old-hat Chianti bottles, those tear-shaped vessels, partially covered with close-fitting straw baskets. They say don’t judge a book by its cover and while Sassicaia it ain’t, Vino di Vittorio is divine, believe me. You’d be foolish to pay for a bottle with a fancier label on this occasion: smooth, silky and served in Carne Diem-emblazoned goldfish-bowl glasses, it is the perfect partner to every course. The presence of sides like fagioli all’ extra vergine (Tuscan beans with extra virgin olive oil), Pinzimonio dell’orto (vegetables to dip in extra virgin olive oil) and Patate al cartoccio (jacket potatoes) felt almost apologetic in their appearance on the table, given the voluminous bloodied flesh taking centre stage. Caffè alla moka e torta all’ olio (olive oil cake followed by coffee) and Grappa Cecchini brought it all to a glorious close. There is a vegetarian menu but honestly, and no offence intended, bringing a veggie here would feel wrong. Needless to say, the bus journey back to Florence was as raucous as you’d imagine.

Antica Macelleria CECCHINI, Via XX Luglio, 11, 50022 Panzano in Chianti, FI, Italy;


Lee Osborne is creative director of Secret Trips

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