You Say Bistecca, I Say Besotted

Francis Janisch

Connoisseurs of fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth steak prize the Chianina of Tuscany. One devoted chef goes a step further and breeds his own.

The first time I met Mimi, I was riding shotgun in a pickup truck, traveling with my husband across a dusty prairie. It was deep in the heart of Texas—Hico to be exact, 75 miles southwest of Fort Worth—on a perfectly backlit May afternoon. I was peering out the window when Mimi caught my eye. She had an incredible gaze, steady and watchful, with an eternal quality to it, as if she knew from the start of time not to trust me. Seeing as how my husband was a noted chef and Mimi an 1,800-pound heifer, her instincts were good. Our visit to Hico was strictly business: We were shopping for steak.

And we’d come not just for Mimi but for her offspring and four of her friends standing there in the field, too. The friends we named Tosca, Butterfly, Minnie, and Turandot—after Puccini heroines since my husband, Cesare Casella, hails from Lucca, Italy, near where the composer wrote many of his operas.

Of all the cattle in the United States (about 100 million head), Cesare had settled on these five because they were pure-blooded Chianina, an Italian breed that dates from Roman times and is prized for its snowy-white coat, noble stature, and awesome muscle mass. More important, Chianina are the source of Tuscany’s famous bistecca alla fiorentina, a hefty, fork-tender porterhouse that is grilled to rare and, when served, covers an entire dinner plate. The meat is lean, as soft as lamb, and Cesare was determined to deliver this unique culinary experience to his clientele in New York.

That task was easier said than done. Chianina are a revered albeit minor bovine in Italy, where some 35,000 are recorded with the national cattle registry. In the United States they’re barely a blip of a breed and extremely hard to find, with fewer than 500 in the whole country. Cow economics account for the resistance. While an Angus matures in 13 to 18 months, full-blooded Chianina take 20 to 24 months, a big difference for a commercial grower rushing to convert his herd to cash. The cattle can also be ornery—Cesare’s herdsman, Rob Thompson, says his give him the "stink eye." They are also difficult to manage because of their size. Chianina bulls tip the scale at about 3,000 pounds; an Angus bull hovers around 2,000 pounds.

All of which means that the people who raise, butcher, and serve Chianina have a passion for Tuscan culinary purity that can trump market practicalities. Giuliana Galeotti Ottieri, who runs a ranch called Tenuta La Fratta in Sinalunga, Siena, raises her Chianina on a diet of organic barley, corn, and fava beans grown and milled on her own farm. Salvatore Toscano—the owner of the celebrated Osteria Mangiando Mangiando, a refined trattoria in Greve in Chianti that serves peasant dishes—refers to Chianina as the queen of meats. And then there’s my husband, who compares owning Chianina to having a Lamborghini Diablo. "Some people want the best cars," he says. "I like the best cows."

Gourmet fanaticism is not a new posture for Cesare, who once ordered 10,000 pounds of bona fide Tuscan beans, which we had to store in our one-bedroom apartment. I should have known a new passion was brewing when the brochures started popping up. "Fantastic Italian full-bloods," they promised, with snapshots of doe-eyed Chianina staring unblinkingly into the camera. There were pamphlets on daily weight gains, feedlot performance, dressing percentages, and yield grades. There were also videos. This "cow porn," as Cesare called it, showed grainy footage of heifers and bulls being paraded up and down a corral as their weight and price were announced in a twangy monotone. Soon I, too, became fluent in Chianinese and could tick off such health advantages as its being high in omega-3 fatty acids. I even struck up an e-mail correspondence with Phillip Mitsis, a classics scholar at New York University, who says the majestic white cattle that show up on Roman coins, on triumphal arches, and in Virgil’s poetry may well be Chianina.

What really put the breed on the international map was the mad cow scare, when ardent fans began stockpiling steaks to circumvent the European Union’s ban on beef. There was a hue and cry about the Chianina’s purity (none was found to have mad cow) and the poetry-spouting celebrity butcher from Tuscany, Dario Cecchini, staged a funeral for la fiorentina in early 2001.

It has now been almost five years since we met Mimi and our other Chianina, who settled happily at the Thanksgiving Farm in Sullivan County, New York, and became part of a herd that has grown to 49. That makes Cesare, me, and our partners among the largest Chianina breeders in the United States. There are enough cattle that Cesare recently started serving Chianina at his West Village trattoria, Maremma, which specializes in Tuscan and rustic Italian cooking. Though I’ve been a quasivegetarian since high school, I was among the first to order the sampler of the beef served five ways. The memory of Mimi, Tosca, Butterfly, Minnie, and Turandot flickered in my mind’s eye. Was the T-bone going to be Mimi? The rib eye? Guiltily I dug in.

Gorgeous ruby squares of grilled porterhouse gave me carnivorous goose bumps; twirls of garganelli pasta in a cinnamon-flecked ragù were so buttery, I wiped my bowl clean then scarfed down what was left on my daughter’s plate. I even polished off the glistening red slivers of carpaccio. The meal was primal, satisfying, luxurious, and it made me understand why people love steak. I relished every bite.

The coda to all this: Owning your own cattle, alas, doesn’t exactly bring home the bacon. Cesare estimates it costs him about $40 to $45 apiece to put a fiorentina on the plate. While he can charge about $75 for a bistecca for two in order to turn a profit, restaurants typically aim to mark up items threefold or more. So though he has problems making the numbers work to serve the dish, Cesare still plans to offer it, out of passion and a sense of commitment to tradition. "Chianina are like family heirlooms," he says philosophically. "This is culture. Raising Chianina is like saving artwork. It’s preserving part of our past."

Eileen daspin is coauthor with her husband, cesare casella, of diary of a tuscan chef (Broadway books).

Taste Test: Sizing up the Sizzle

So how does a Chianina steak stack up against the competition? Cesare and I invited a few of our favorite carnivores to join us in a taste-off: Julian Niccolini, a fellow Tuscan and owner of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York; Mark Pastore of Pat La Frieda Wholesale Meats; and Lauren Falk, Cesare’s assistant. We set aside a slow afternoon at Maremma to taste bone-in slabs of Angus, Chianina, Hereford, and American Kobe, all grilled to rare. We considered the way the beef looked on the plate, its aroma, mouthfeel, flavor, butteriness, texture, and value. Here are the results.

Chianina

Given the makeup of the panel, the Chianina had a built-in edge. But it also delivered on every characteristic we judged, from the way it looked to its aroma and butteriness. "There are layers of flavor that evolve as you chew," said Falk, who gave the meat high grades for aroma, looks, texture, and mouthfeel. I thought it was soft and buttery but also had a lot of character, which was an unexpected combination in a steak for me. The texture made me think of lamb. Niccolini judged it "flavorful and smoky. It reminds me of Tuscany." Pastore was more reserved in his praise: "Tasty and good" were the adjectives he used. Cesare pointed out that while the Angus and Hereford have a similar texture and taste—what many Americans expect in a steak—the Chianina is almost a different animal. "If you cut into the tenderloin, it has the consistency of tuna," he said. "This steak is tender and juicy with a unique, clean flavor. Plus it’s from Tuscany—it’s the best."

American Kobe

At about $100 a pound for a porterhouse, American Kobe— also known as Wagyu—is about two thirds the price of its Japanese counterpart but was by far the most expensive cut in this group. (Angus retails for about $20 a pound, Hereford for about $10, and Chianina would cost about $30 if it were available commercially.) Wagyu are famous for the way they are raised—according to popular lore, the Japanese kind are fed beer and get regular massages—as well as for their flavor and tenderness. But the meat was too tender for our group. "Fat," "Too fatty," and "Fatty" were Niccolini’s respective answers to the questions "What are the first words that come to mind?" "What is the mouthfeel?" and "What is the flavor?" Falk thought the beef was soft but not chewy, and Cesare said he was disappointed. Pastore, too, was un- enthusiastic, repeatedly using the word "soft" to describe the mouthfeel, texture, and chewiness. Probably the biggest fan was our sixth, uncredited judge, our five-year-old daughter. She gave the meat the ultimate compliment with a single word: "More!"

Angus

For many American consumers, Certified Angus beef is the gold standard when it comes to steak. Considered the juiciest and most tender—just look at the marbling—it’s the breed that gets trumpeted by chefs and restaurateurs. David Burke and restaurateur Stephen Hanson, who together opened David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago, have gotten publicity this year for buying their own $250,000 Angus bull to sire meat for their steak places. Among our panelists, the Angus was either a close second or tied with Chianina for taste. "This is a great steak," Niccolini said, "very intense and flavorful." I thought its best characteristic was the flavor, which was smoky and smooth. Cesare liked its smokiness, too, but damned it with faint praise—"It’s the common flavor of good steak," he said. Pastore was the biggest fan. "But he’s prejudiced," said Cesare, pointing out that Certified Angus is La Frieda’s best-selling beef.

Hereford

Originally a British breed, it’s now a big source for American steak houses, from Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in New York to midpriced chains around the country. But our crew wasn’t overly impressed. Comments on taste ranged from "cardboard" (Niccolini) to "stringy" (Pastore). There were also complaints that the meat had no aroma and was too lean. I thought it looked as if it would be delicious, but it didn’t deliver on that promise.

Cesare’s Favorites for Chianina in Tsucany

Arnolfo Ristorante Cool white dining room and terrace. Dinner, $220. 50 Via XX Settembre, Colle di Val d’Elsa, Siena; 39-0577/920-549

Buca Lapi One of the town’s oldest, located in a vaulted cellar. Dinner, $160. 1R Via del Trebbio, Florence; 39-055/213-768

Le Coccole dell’Amorosa In a converted stone cow barn within a 14th-century castle hotel. Dinner, $160. Località Amorosa, Sinalunga, Siena; 39-0577/677-211

Osteria Mangiando Mangiando Casual dining with an open kitchen. Dinner, $100. 80 Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, Greve in Chianti, Florence; 39-055/854-6372

Ristorante della Pieve Baronial hall plus a romantic courtyard. Dinner, $180. Gaiole in Chianti, Siena; 39-0577/749-483

Ristorante "Il Pozzo" Rustic family-run tavern in a small medieval hill town. Dinner, $120. 2 Piazza Roma, Monteriggioni, Siena; 39-0577/304-127

Ristorante La Tagliatella da Cristina Old family recipes and very sophisticated wine list. Dinner, $110-$140. 45-47 Viale Giotto, Arezzo; 39-0575/21931