What I desperately wanted was to recreate a meal from my first trip to Italy in 1998. A meal that struck a deep emotional chord, and has taken on mythical proportions in my memory. It was the meal that converted me from a casual appreciator of Italian cooking to an adherent.
This happened in a little neighborhood cucina in Cortona named Tacconi Angiolo. If you venture away from the tourist trail, it's one of those places you find in neighborhoods all over Italy. It doesn't have a menu. You are served what was being cooked that day. You share the dining room with the owner’s neighbors, mostly workmen.
Nonna was the cook, her son manned the bar and her daughter-in-law helped her in the kitchen. When we were there, the ‘front-man’ for the entire operation was a Jack Russell terrier named Michael. Michael was the maître d’. He escorted you to one of the dining room’s six tables, then sat next to your chair waiting for ‘tips’.
The meal we were served that day was "Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Spinaci & Patate Saltate". A t-bone grilled over a wood fire. A partially wilted spinach dish that was quickly sautéed in garlic infused olive oil and dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice. And potato slices fried in a skillet with branches of rosemary laying on top of them as they cooked. The picture below is my attempt to recreate that dish.
Sometimes you just can’t have what you want. Sometimes you have to make choices based on the available options – none of them perfect.
Perfect would have been that I was able to get my hands on two lovely grass fed, dry-aged t-bone or porterhouse steaks from the Italian Chianina breed. Perfect didn’t happen. But not because I didn’t try. I even called the American Chianina Association, which happens to be headquartered in Missouri. But their members appear to only breed and raise Chianina for fun and show. Not for food. Although for some reason, some of them do cross breed them with Angus for food production.
So, faced with the inability to buy Chianina at any price, I began to search for grass fed, dry aged t-bone or porterhouse no matter the breed. New snag. Very little grass fed, also very little dry aged. I could have my grass fed t-bone if I was willing to give up the dry aging. I could have the dry aging if I was willing to give up the t-bone. I weighed my options and decided that dry aging trumps cut. I settled for ribeye.
The ribeyes were nicely marbled. The dry aging produced the deep rich flavor you'd expect. But, the tenderness of a bone-in cut was absent. The meat was juicy, but not meltingly so.This was a delicious steak. But it didn't hold a candle to the Bistecca alla Fiorentina of my memory. Next time, I'll go for the grass fed t-bone and skip the dry aging. Compromise stinks.
Or, perhaps, secretly, I am relieved that the ideal remains unattained.
Perhaps it is much more about the place and time, than about the actual meal.
Perhaps it is the memory of the meal is actually a metaphor for the beginning of my love affair with all things Italian.