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Weekends in a Tuscan Butcher Shop

Ann J. Reavis

One leg tucked beneath me, I sit in the corner of a wicker bench, listening to a Verdi aria waft from the speaker on top of the bookcase behind me and watching the customers come and go in the Tuscan shop. The shop is full of paintings, sculpture, and books on art, history, poetry, cooking and travel; and then also, there is a lot of meat. It is a butcher shop after all.

Things have changed in my life since I moved to Tuscany five years ago. Now I don't spend my weekends in the library of a large corporate law firm churning out pleading and briefs. Instead, on Saturday or Sunday I escape the narrow winding stone streets of Florence to visit my favorite places in Chianti. On top of my list is L'Antica Macelleria Cecchini, the butcher shop of Dario Cecchini.

I go to Dario's not just because of the butcher, although he is tall, broad-shouldered, with a classical Italian profile, dark curly hair, and sparkling blue eyes. I spend hours there not because it takes thirty minutes to an hour to be served, although it always does. No, what brings me back over and over is the moveable feast of food, wine, music, art, celebrities and friends that move through Dario's shop every weekend in Panzano, a small hill town just fifty minutes south of Florence, high on a ridge above Greve in Chianti.

Except for the sides of beef and pork hanging in the meat locker across from the front door and the long marble and glass case full of prepared cuts of meat and other produce, L'Antica Macelleria Cecchini could be an art gallery, a bookstore, or a restaurant. A few years ago Dario transformed an adjacent room into a gallery with constant change of shows, the most recent that of a Japanese water colorist; and Dario hosted the book signing for Faith Heller Willinger's latest book "Eating in Italy" at the shop a couple of years ago and on a table in the corner there was a stack of yellow paperback books -- a just published anthology of Tuscan detective stories -- that Dario was selling for a friend; and in the back of the shop is a professional kitchen where a chef toils, catering not only to the weekend crowd, but also to a few large private events each month.

L'Antica Macelleria Cecchini does a brisk business during the week, much of it by same-day delivery to top restaurants throughout Italy; but it is on the weekends that a visit to the butcher shop becomes an "event". The place fills with villagers, artists, writers and childhood friends of Dario, as well as members of the "villa crowd", wealthy Americans and Brits who vacation in Tuscany, and passers-by, who stop to see why the crowd in the butcher shop is overflowing into the dusty street. Everyone gets the chance to munch on bread baked in a wood-burning oven, sip rich red Chianti, made from grapes from Dario's vineyard and served from traditional large straw-encased wine flasks, and taste the spicy pork sausages, veal sugo, pecorino cheese with hot pepper jelly and peposo, chunks of tender beef slow-cooked in an iron caldron, prepared in the kitchen in the back of the shop.

Dario holds court from a raised platform behind the counter, working with an assortment of knives and cleavers on a long block of oak, trading quips with his friends and providing the assembled crowd with a clear view of his work.

"A butcher is like a priest," he says, only partially joking as he cleaves through the bone of a two-inch thick bistecca fiorentina, the classic Tuscan beefsteak. "We represent blood, life and carnality. We understand about the flesh, about sin, about good food and beautiful women."

In front of him, a display case on an antique base of creamy-white marble contains roasts, chops, filets, sausages, salami, a huge bowl of whipped lardo (herbed lard, aged in small Carrara marble "tombs"), another bowl of spicy jelly made from tiny red chili peppers, a platter of black olives accented with orange peel, and packets of various prepared sugo di carne, meat sauce for pasta.

In the corner on a marble-topped table, at the feet of the bronze sculpture of a zaftig nude peasant woman, there used to be a fax in a plastic frame that read: "Caro Dario, L'America sta diventando sempre pi un Paese di astemi vegetariani e puritani. Personalmente, continuo a preferire il vino rosso, le carni e le belle donne. Con affetto. Jack Nicholson." [Translation: "Dear Dario, America is becoming more and more a country of teetotalers, vegetarians, and puritans. Personally, I continue to prefer red wine, meat and beautiful women. With affection. Jack Nicholson."] Then the fax was gone, replaced by a poem, an ode to Dario and his shop, penned by another fan. Celebrities like singer Bruce Springsteen, actor Dustin Hoffman, the cast of "The English Patient", and Sirio Maccioni, owner of New York's "Le Cirque" have all fallen under the spell of Dario, magician with a meat cleaver.

Alain Bonnefoit, French painter and part-time resident of Tuscany, stops by the shop to give Dario a painting of a nude woman, sparingly drawn in black, white and red. Dario leaves his podium to greet the artist with a big hug and then, with arms upraised, he begins to quote from memory poetry written seven hundred years ago by the medieval poet Dante. Then, the butcher and the artist step into the meat locker for a private chat. A tourist snaps their picture through the glass door.

Dario is famed for quoting whole passages from Dante's Inferno as he carves up a boneless shank of veal and stuffs it with pecorino cheese and rosemary or shaves off paper-thin slices of prosciutto or salame using only the razor-sharp edge of a huge knife. Once, on television, Italian MTV, Dario quoted an entire canto of Dante's Inferno while carving a massive arista, a circular crown of pork chops, including the loin, from a side of pork. The X-gen host looked on dumbfounded. Only in Italy would a butcher be showcased carving raw meat on television. Only in Italy would a Tuscan butcher quote Dante from memory on MTV.

A fifth generation macellaio, whose family has owned the butcher shop in Panzano for over 250 years, Dario was not destined to be a butcher. He says that his mother wanted him to work in a bank and that she cried on the day his grandmother made him his first butcher's apron -- he was twelve. Six years later, while he was attending college in Siena, family necessity dictated that he come home to take over the butcher shop. Dario was not content, however, to just follow the family tradition: he stamped it with his own personality. Twelve years ago, he renovated the shop to look like a macelleria would in the 1800s with mammoth marble-topped tables and antique oak butcher blocks. Iron butcher's hooks hang from the ceiling holding whole prosciutto, long salami, ropes of sausages and bunches of fire red hot peppers. The walls are decorated with antique butcher's tools and other artifacts.

Stepping into the shop may be like stepping into the past, but it has a state-of-the-art sound system through which Dario's mood of the moment is reflected. One Saturday disco music rocked the place while Dario chopped cubes of pork for kebabs in time with the beat. Two American "villa" ladies marched empty-handed past me out the door. "I'm so disappointed," the older one said. "It's been completely ruined. It used to be so picturesque -- so authentic and Tuscan. I tell you, last year you would only hear opera or maybe some jazz -- never disco." The ladies should have waited: a half hour later a quartet of musicians arrived and set up in the gallery space to play Sicilian folk tunes throughout the rest of the afternoon.

The experience Dario's butcher shop on the weekends is how I imagine the village square used to be on market day -- how it still is in parts of Tuscany: a place where friends and strangers meet to eat and discuss politics, food, life stories or local gossip. It is a celebration of a culture and traditions that have endured in Tuscany for more than a millennium.

A version of this article was first published as "At the Butcher" in Travelers' Tales: Tuscany, Travelers' Tales, Inc., 2002.

© Ann J. Reavis, 2002

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