A Carnivore in Tuscany and a Blacksmith in Hell

Since Rome I’ve had a busy week, visiting a series of stony cities — each historic and, it seems, made entirely of stone. Most have Etruscan foundations, plenty of ancient Roman stones still standing, and a thousand years of pride and paranoia stacked and weathered in whatever is quarried nearby. Orvieto, Civita de Bagnoregio, Assisi, Cortona, Montepulciano, Montalcino, and now Volterra – most of them touristy, but late at night, they’re all the domain of mostly locals — polishing their stones with convivial promenades.

I sat under rustic, noble, Volterra stones tonight — bats bursting through the floodlights, ghostly towers held together with rusted iron corsets, a stony bench cold on my butt at the base of palaces that made commoners feel small six centuries ago.

These stones have soul. The countless peasant backs they bent so many centuries ago gave to future generations the architectural equivalent of fine wines, something to be savored and pondered in solitary moments like the one I just enjoyed.

 

Giulio brings a slab of steak to the customer for an okay to cook it up.
Enlarge photo

I’m in Tuscany, so proud of its beef — last night I sunk my teeth into a carnivore’s dream come true. In a stony cellar, under one long, tough vault, I joined a local crowd. The scene was powered by an open fire in the far back of the vault. Flickering in front of the flames was a gurney, upon which lay a hunk of beef the size of a small human corpse. Like a blacksmith in hell, Giulio — a lanky man in a T-shirt — hacked at the beef with a cleaver, lopping off a steak every few minutes.

In a kind of mouth-watering tango, he pranced past the boisterous tables of eaters, holding above the commotion, like a tray of drinks, the raw slab of beef on butcher’s paper. Giulio presented the slabs to each table of diners, telling them the weight and price (€3 per hundred grams, one kilo — the minimum is about $40) and getting their OK to cook it. He’d then dance back to the inferno and cook the slab: seven minutes on one side, seven on the other. There’s no asking how you’d like it done; thisis the way it is done. And about 15 minutes later, you got steak.

When the meal’s done, Giulio pulls the pencil out of his ponytail and scribbles your bill on the paper table cloth. The beef goes with the hearty red wine here in Tuscany. “It’s tradition here to serve only one glass for water and wine,” Giulio explained, as if to keep the humble tradition of old-time trattorias alive. The single glass was the only downside. It was a fine dinner — and will make a vivid memory (and great addition to my Italy guidebook).

La vita è bella…life is good in Italy. And the good life seems, like the cuisine, simple. Locals are really into the “marriage” of correct foods. An older wine needs a stronger cheese. Only a tourist would pull the fat off the prosciutto.

To me, the cuisine is a symphony — it’s like music. The ingredients are the instruments. The quality is important…but even good instruments can be out of tune. The marriage of the ingredients is what provides the tonality. I’m not sophisticated enough to explain what’s good or bad. But when things are in tune, you taste it.

Comments

21 Replies to “A Carnivore in Tuscany and a Blacksmith in Hell”

  1. That last paragraph sums up why it’s sometimes a good idea to let the waiter or owner choose your food for you. Especially in Italy, the proper pairing of food flavors and wines seems to be very well-understood and folks are usually happy to pass along to the guest what they have learned.

  2. These are the types of entries that make me close my eyes and dream. How often I have been humbled as I walked where great men and women walked before me. Thinking of all the people who have walked the same path that I got to walk as I walked down cobbled streets in France, Spain,Italy, Portugal, etc. I get chills thinking about knowing that Caesar could have touched the same stone that I got to touch. What a dining experience you had; I like the easy way of life; order, you get it, and there is only one way to get it so you better like it. Of course, sometimes that meat is pretty rare in Tuscany. Excellent blog and thank you for sharing again…too much time had passed and I was hungry for my travel fix.

  3. Thanks for the update Rick. As someone who lives in Italia (Sicilia) half the year, I have seen many of the sites on the mainland and island that you blog on. I enjoy your perspectives and look forward to them. Keep up the hard work! I will say, I find Tuscany’s steak overrated. Maybe it is the native Texan in me (who certainly loves a great steak) but I love the steaks in the States (and Texas) better. That being said the seafood in Sicilia cannot be beaten by anything Stateside, so it is a two way street. And as you note in your blog, the simple great dishes of Italia are made to be enjoyed within the wonderful ambiance of the people and family and historical towns of the countryside. And with all that said, you have to try the Tuscan steak at least once. It might be a “touristy” thing to do, but it should be on everyone’s “to do” list when visiting the area. Make sure you enjoy the steak in a family eatery, like Rick mentions! Ciao, buon appettito!

  4. THANKS Rick, we leave for Tuscany in 14 days and your blog just made the wait much longer…but it’s worth it! the good life of Italia….. Ciao.

  5. Rick, it sounds like you talking about L’Osteria dell’Acquacheta in Montepulciano. We ate there in March – one of the best meals of our 5 days in Tuscany. Your description of the small restaurant is spot on. However, you neglect to mention the rareness of the “cooked” steak; “seared” is the more appropriate term. My wife and I enjoy medium-rear steaks, but I have never seen people savor rare meat like that before. We were truly awed when the Italian couple next to us polished off one of these behemoth slabs of rare meat. We whimped out and went for the veal – an excellent choice. Another American couple who were present ordered the steak, and it was obviously too rare for them. Needless to say, they sent back almost full plates. Regardless, the whole scene is so unique and Tuscan – definately eat there if you are in the area. If rare steak isn’t you cup of tea – they have plenty of pastas and salads for excellent prices. Enjoy!

  6. Rick, My next trip will be based in Volterra. Last time there, I was just passing through and now I am pulled back by images of the mushroom hunter in the field, turffle hunters in the woods, alabaster, and now steak! Can’t wait to get an updated guide book that will have the name of the restaurant you describe.

  7. This is a great blog. The best 20 Euros I spent in Italy was at the Osteria il Tamburino, in Siena. Never had minestrone quite like that, and my secondo was a steak to die for…..everyone commenting are so correct, nothing beats these small dining establishments for authentic Tuscan cuisine. Rick’s descriptions make me savor that sumptuous meal all over again.

  8. Hi Rick— Your feature writing just gets better and better with each passing year. Today’s entry tops the list in my humble opinion. You rock, my man… keep up the good work.. which truly great writing is, regardless of the situation and surroundings.

  9. I returned from my first trip to Italy on May 9, 2009. It was a wonderful ten day experience. Two of my friends/family took Rick Steves’ Italy 2009 and it proved very valuable. We were able to avoid long lines at the Colosseo (Colosseum) and other sites as a result of tips from Rick. I ordered Rick’s Civita shoulder bag and used it every day. His warnings as to what to look out for also proved valuable. My next tour will be either Ireland or Scottland and this time I believe I will take one of Rick’s tour groups. Thanks Rick Kay

  10. I’ve also dined at Giulio’s meat-heaven in Montepulciano, it’s great. Rule is if you don’t like it rare you don’t really like serious steak, better stick with a hamburger.

  11. Rick! I Love Italy. Suggestions: Branch our a bit off the beaten path in Southern Italy. Specifically: Anzio, Gaetta, Monte Cassino and Casserta. Maybe you could combine these with some other sites and produce a new TV show.

  12. How you made a “small human corpse” sound delicious is beyond me. In fact I never would have tried. I bow to the master.

  13. My daughter and I met you on the streets of Florence on May 14th. She will be a junior at Notre Dame in the fall, and we talked about the commencement address by Pres. Obama and about Andy. Your book on Rome was so helpful. You have a new fan in me!

  14. Wonderful evening, my wife , and another couple sat next to Rick and his party at the restaurant he is writing about . He forgot one thing, the absolutely wonderful waitress, who played the foil to Giulio. Biggest steaks I have seen. Fabulous fun place in Montepulciano, go to the 9:15 sitting mostly locals

  15. Thanks Rick for the wonderful portrait you just painted for me!! I am leaving for Italy in October. I have waited for 27 years to take this trip and can hardly wait! Florentine history has been a fascination of mine for years, the art, the food, the people…and I know that it will be amazing to be there finally after all these years! Now I know what I will be having for supper! I don’t know what I would do without you and your guides to help me plan for the trip of my lifetime!

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