The Steak Issue

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

The desire to know the origins of our ingredients and just how they have arrived in our shopping carts or on our plates (and maybe the farmers who grew them) has never been more important for food-chain-conscious diners. Across Italy, though, this has been a way of life for thousands of years, with a commitment to the “farm-to-table” ethos ingrained in the very fiber of Italian culture long before the concept was globally ubiquitous.

If you’re looking for a primo example of how this dedication to traditional sourcing, preparing and eating plays out in our modern era, look no further than the age-old process for cooking the kind of juicy, hulking piece of meat that—in the opinion of many—dwarfs all others: steak Florentine.

But first, to talk about steak Florentine, you have to talk about Chianina cattle. Bred in an area of Tuscany called Val di Chiana for more than 2,000 years, Chianina cows—with their milk-white coats, black horns and signature swatch of charcoal fur on their foreheads—are some of the largest and heaviest in the world. Once valued for their strength and vigor as draft animals, today they’re raised pretty much exclusively for their meat, which comes with a steep price tag of roughly 50 euros (or $60) per kilo. Most importantly, Chianina are the only type of cows from which a true bistecca alla Fiorentina can originate. (That’s steak Florentine, for those of you still in the beginning stages of your Italian lessons.) All other cattle sources, purists would say, are poor imitations.

Tuscans on the whole and Florentines, specifically, are ultra-serious about their meat—particularly when it comes to following time-honored traditions and, yes, preparation method. Steak Florentine is a cut of meat that is known for its colossal size and shape—a well-marbled T-bone that’s at least 1.5 inches thick and weighs between 1.5 and 3 pounds, on average—but also the specificity with which this gigantic, feed-a-couple steak is to be cooked.

Steak Florentine must age for two weeks in a cold room after being butchered to ensure its tenderness. As with all steaks, it should then be brought to room temperature before grilling begins. Seasoned lightly with salt and pepper (if at all), the steaks are grilled over open embers for 3 to 5 minutes on each side to ensure that a flavorful crust develops rapidly while leaving the interior warm, pink and rare. Typically, after searing on both sides, the steak is flipped to stand up vertically on its bone (yes, this steak is so thick it can stand alone!) and cooks in this unexpectedly upright fashion for another 5 to 7 minutes. Forks, knives or any tool that could puncture the steak’s crust—or allow the interior juices to escape—are not permitted for use when turning the meat or shifting it in any way.

If you’ve always wanted your steak dinner served with a side of delicate reverence, this is the cut of meat for you.

This ultra-precious steak has also played a (somewhat goofy) role in Italian history. During the early 1950s, Florentine publisher Corrado Tedeschi founded the Italian Nettist Party—also known as the “Beef Steak Party”—with the campaign promise of a “daily supply of [Florentine] steak” to all citizens. One of the earliest examples of a satirical, surrealist political group in Italy, the party’s mascot was (of course) a heifer, a series of mooing cows served as the anthem and the official motto was, “Better a steak today than an empire tomorrow!” Running on a party platform that included three months of vacation for every citizen, an increase in games of all sorts and clowns being honored with the utmost respect, the Steak Party collected 0.02% of the national vote in the 1953 election.

And while  the whole episode was performance art at its finest, Tedeschi didn’t joke around about how his party’s Florentine steaks should—and would—be cut. Namely, these Florentine steaks had to be of properly whopping proportions. “To be truly such, a beefsteak must weigh at least 450 grams,” Tedeschi wrote in a plank of his party’s platform. “If it weighs a kilo, so much the better. But no less than 450 grams, because otherwise it becomes a cutlet and then my party would no longer be the Beef Steak Party.”

Because even at the highest of silliness, hanging onto the specifics of a delicious tradition—particularly for the Italians—is no laughing matter.