Despite all my good intentions to zuppapoloooza! as soon as I hit terra firma here in Italy, there sadly was no zuppa in the ‘polooza of this Sunday. Instead there was a road trip to a famous macelleria, an Italian butcher shop. Destination: M with a capital E - A - T. This is no ordinary butcher shop, oh no, this is a full five course meat tasting-- yes MEAT TASTING-- at the butcher’s restaurant across the street from the macelleria. Who could say no to that?
Dario Cecchini and his beautiful shop in Panzano, Chianti, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, were made even more famous in Bill Buford’s 2006 book Heat, becoming arguably the most celebrated butchery in Italy-- if not to Italians, then certainly to Americans. I knew about Dario (I call him Dario because we’re that close despite us not actually knowing each other or sharing a common language in which to communicate) because I read Buford’s book; unfortunately I never got to the part that related to Dario because I was kind of irritated with Bill Buford as soon as he stopped talking about Mario Batali and started talking about Bill Buford. He’s about as fun as searing your hands while preparing short ribs in a blazing kitchen. Instead of being a wild boar, which I love and have not stopped eating as a ragu since I got here (cinghiale!), he’s simply a bore which is simply intolerable.
So we set out on our quest for carne.
Bossy and I hadn’t been able to make the bluetooth between our iPhones and the car work, so, much to her delight and to my horror, we had pretty much been listening to the Lucio Batisti CD she’d had in the rental car since my arrival in Bologna a week ago. Bossy belts her some tunes. Seriously belts the tunes, and to be fair it’s much more fun to have a driver that is actually enjoying driving in a foreign land than one who doesn’t, so I was inclined to allow her this. But I was much happier when she suggested we burn a CD from her iTunes to travel to Dario’s, and I think we managed to navigate the gray area between our musical tastes with a lot of respect for each other; only once did we approach some hurt feelings when “discussing” someone’s appreciation of country music-- I’ll let you guess who that might be. Here’s a hint: it’s not the one of us from Texas.
So we fired up the slightly dented, slightly underpowered Cinquecento and we wound our way to the A-1 about two hours before our reservation, Michelin map in my lap despite my inability to actually read it when the car is in motion. At this point I am supremely confident in both Bossy’s uncanny ability to get us safely to our destination despite the almost ironic signage on the Umbrian landscape and to do so in the time frame we’ve set for ourselves-- even though that time frame was twenty minutes less than suggested by our friend Morty Goldstein who clearly padded his time estimation knowing Bossy’s inclination for “unplanned diversion”. Though I still say that girl could find her way to a good restaurant in the Sahara, blind, drunk and without the help of GPS. And she would be singing cheesy 70s love songs the whole way, the way I imagine it.
“Sick kid! Sick kid on the side of the road!” She pointed like she was showing me some exciting, exotic animal in a zoo to a semi-parked car, doors akimbo with a blonde headed kid staggering as her dad lead her away from what looked to be a pool of vomit next to the open car door.
“What a sweet dad, but that will take me a whole day to get over,” as she popped a hard candy in her mouth to stave off gagging.
To which I replied, “Is this the part where I tell you just how car sick I get and you tell me how windy the road to Panzano is?”
There was some blinking of the eyes, and what I think was a very forced grin from the driver’s side of the Fiat and I wondered just how windy, indeed, the road to Panzano would be.
The CDs we burned for the adventure turned out to be a great boon, though it was a little maddening that the set up in iTunes alphabetized the songs by author... Annie to Aretha to Clash to Elvis (sadly the first one and not Costello one) to Fleetwood. By the time we were singing M’s and N’s we had exited the A-1 through a shoddy little industrial town whose name sounds like “Fellini”, according to our friend Morty, at the base of a mountain. As we started our uphill, side to side movement so did the bile at the back of my throat, and I was glad I had the songs to focus on.
“How are you doing?” Bossy asked me, and I nodded, gave her the thumbs up and sang OMD, trying to get the technicolor vision of the roadside puking incident out of my head (“Sick kid!”). And just as I thought I might actually throw up, the words every non-map-reading, almost projectile vomiting, meat seeking, foreign co-pilot in a foreign mountain town longs to hear: “Oh shit. We had three bars of gas but now we have, like, one. And that happened in maybe three minutes.”
The bright side: something other than vomit to focus on.
At one point Bossy wondered out loud just what would we actually do if we did, indeed, run out of gas. Who would we call on the Italian cell phone? Did we have cell service? Could we siphon gas off from someone else’s tank? Are there gas stations at the top of the mountain and how in the hell could a fuel truck actually make it up there? And even though I thought I still might throw up, the only, and I mean ONLY, thing I could concentrate on was making our reservation and burying my face in some strange unknown braise. Which I know sounds a little ridiculous since, as Bossy just said to me, right now, as I’m writing this, “Who wants to throw up and still eat braised meat?”
The granddaughter of a rancher, that’s who. I can throw up through my regulator and still enjoy a SCUBA dive and I can wind through the mountains of Chianti, coast in and park on fumes, green as a pea, and still eat a side of beef because that’s how I roll. Does that sound too self important? Well it might if we were talking about anything other than the ability to be sick and still want to eat a cow.
We walked into the macelleria and it was like a Beatles mob scene from 1963-- firstly, the Italian music blaring over the speakers made me long, long, long for the days of my Lucio Batisti-belting best friend. But mostly the shop was brim full of twittering gawkers of all provenance snapping away shots of Dario preparing a porchetta, sprinkling it with what was either flour or salt, layering on bushels of rosemary, rolling it up and literally tying it with one hand behind his back. I grabbed some Chianti from a table that had whipped lardo crostinis and some other unidentified munchies for the tourists, aimed my iphone at a pig shaped lardo, a statue of a bull/ man/ satyr/ something, threw back the Chianti and walked out on to the street where a dozen men stood waiting for their wives who were still squealing inside--just like the animals hanging from hooks inside the locker once did. It was a bit overwhelming for me. Bossy was able to speak with Dario’s fiancé, Kim, whom she had met previously in the states at a party that was thrown in Dario’s honor by a restauranteur Bossy has written cookbooks with (the famous restauranteur cooked her famous burgers for the famous butcher), and Kim let Bossy know that there was, indeed, a gas station just 3 km away.
“Wow, Kim. You just helped me enjoy my lunch a whole lot more!” she said as I was bolting out the door.
The lunch itself was in complete contrast to the melee inside the shop-- we were in a bright, minimal room with a large round farm table that sat directly in front of a window looking out to what seemed to me Italy in its entirety. Absolutely breathtaking. Bossy and I were the second couple (uhh pair, duo?) to arrive, the first being an older couple from Florence. “Can’t you tell just how elegant they are?” she asked as we sat down, right before popping right back up from her seat again to order some cuts from Dario for us to braise later in Panicale. “Scuzzi.”
And I sat there. And I just kind of smiled and nodded, happy to impose my piss-poor Italian on anyone, which is, so far, limited to names of towns, types of animals I have eaten and “where?”. And of course I felt like the American tourist who wears fanny packs and straps her passport in a little plastic case across her chest and has no interest in learning anything about the language and answers everyone with a forceful “Thank you!” which is actually not the case at all. But I was convinced, absolutely convinced that they were somehow making fun of me, just like I am when I get a pedicure at home. Bossy suggested that perhaps my paranoia was motivated by hunger.
The rest of our tablemates started wandering in--a Canadian woman living in London with her English husband who spoke about as many words over lunch as I did in Italian, an Italian man and woman that removed bits of their biker gear before sitting directly to my left, and the last two, about a half an hour late, a stylish couple from Florence, the young woman of which translated the holes in the almost exclusively Italian conversation to me when Bossy was speaking with someone else. I was amazed at what I was able to pick up (or maybe I’m just remembering the Italian translations offered by my friend), but Bossy was fearless-- she jumped right into (as best I could decipher) the regional food discussion at the table, asking a lot of very specific questions about the hows and the whys of the culture, without hesitating or holding back in her third language. Pretty impressive.
Because I’m an American and because I’m too cheap to buy a real camera, I was hoping to get a nice iPhone picture (professional and high tech!) of Bossy at lunch, and I thought I had found just the right moment of beautiful light and composition as she was turned to the side, engaging in lively conversation with the Florentines, and right as I was about to push the button....
“Ahhhh [Bossy Blonde]!”, CLICK, just as Dario puts his hand on her back, surprising us all, and specifically addressing her before anyone else at the table. She grinned wildly. It was a perfect moment.
The meal itself was, of course, meaty, and even though Bossy had warned me not to fill up on the pinzimonio or focaccia, tarted up Tuscan-style, with herbed salt and first pressed olive oil (which I couldn’t NOT do since it was the first bread I’ve had in Italy with any salt in it) and to save room for the last two courses of meat which were the most delicious, I was as full as a tick in very short order. We ate family style with dishes of fried cutlets and herbs (the fried sage was a first for me), a platter of barely seared on the outside, raw on the inside meatballs with little rosemary spikes jutting out the tops like hats, a thinly sliced portion of roasted meat that looked and tasted like pork slathered in herbed olive oil, a dish of boiled meat topped with a salad of julienned vegetables and, lastly, a braised beef that disintegrated in my mouth before I could say even one word of menu Italian.
And for dessert, a dairy free olive oil cake, cut into pieces to be picked up communally with our fingers and served with espresso and some crazy 40% alcohol liqueur (“In the style of Brandy” our waiter said to me, in English, before I burned the inside of my mouth on it). Dario came back to our table, addressing Bossy only, once again, and talked a little about the dairy free menu and how it’s healthier to not combine mother with mother’s milk, or maybe it was something about cars. I’m not too sure. But nonetheless, we followed him back to the macelleria to pick up our braise-in-waiting. And one $100 shin bone and several jars of herbed salt and meat jelly later we were off for the journey home, coasting on fumes in a blissed-out state of what we’ve decided to call “after-wine” on our way to get gas.