There is no other cuisine like it, it is served everywhere and its taste is such that it satisfies the rich and the poor; it is the food of Italy. Wherever you go, to all the four corners of the earth, you will find an Italian restaurant. It may be just a simple nook in a wall in the centre of Sicily or in a grand signature restauant in an international hotel, such as the Shangri-La in Jakarta, in Indonesia. Italian restaurants have turned the preparation of food into an art form, to romance gourmands and bonvivants. The skill to turn produce into seductive succulent dishes was a gift from God to the people of Italy…Italians were born lucky!
Most people identify Italian food with its main protagonists…pasta and pizza, with the latter being one of the best examples of food ‘on the go’. What started as a simple snack for the people on the streets of Naples has now become a culinary superstar…you can find it anywhere, you can even see Chinese people in Shanghai eating pizza with chopsticks. Italian cuisine however, owes its largest favour to Spain, as it was its Conquistadors who introduced a plant from South America to Europe. The tomato became a fundamental staple in the preparation of food in Italy. The people regarded the fruit with such esteem that they called it ‘Pomodoro’, which translates into ‘golden apple’…how appropriate to name a fruit after a famous seduction.
The preparation of food in Italy became an endeavour for the nation as a whole, starting with the Bacchanalian orgies of the Roman gentry through to the magical cuisine of Bartolomeo Scappi, the grand chef to kings and popes of the 16th century. What is perceived to be food of a whole nation is actually many different types of regional cuisines. Different climates and locations offer different produce. The dry lands of Calabria, that entertain the growth of olives and wine are very different to the rice fields that surround the river Po in the Veneto region. The hills of Tuscany are renowned for the raffia wrapped bottles of Chianti, a red wine that is synonymous with the very identity of the country.
The food of the country is as varied as the colours of the rainbow. The red hues of tomatoes, the colour of the golden corn that makes the pasta in some 80 different shapes and the rice that is grown, such as Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano, that is fundamental to the making of risotto, makes the country’s cuisine unique. The variety of dishes are a true representation of the colourful people that inhabit the boot of Europe. The invasion of the country, through many centuries, has seen great influences in what people ate then and what is now being eaten all over the world. The Middle Eastern influence and the bountiful sea has seen the southern part of the country produce dishes of allure and temptation. Spaghettini with bottarga and the stuffed veal roasts are all enhanced by bright red little peppers…peppers that were made to rush you towards a fire extinguisher for your throat. Walking north, along the Appian way introduces you to the lands of the region of Lazio, that part of the country that has been the centre of the world…that eternal city…Rome. That city forged by pagans, then taken over by God, has it it’s own distinct cuisine. Saltainbocca Alla Romana, the artichokes of the Jewish community are all there to contribute to the daily table, to make your mouth water.
Keep travelling north to further enhance the pleasure of the palate. The food of Florence is unique, it is a response to that everlasting request to make men and women happy…to satiate their hunger…to give pleasure to the olfactory glands..The food of Tuscany is renowned…the region is in itself a cooking school of envy…it’s food is bliss! It is not a unique dish, it is not even a gastronomic mind bender…it is not just a steak! Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a vegetarian’s nightmare! It is just a huge slab of meat! Gigantic steaks from specially bred white oxen from Chianina near Arezzo, is the fundamental beef for this famous meat dish that is synonymous with Florentine cuisine. The piece of meat, a cut that just barely fits onto a large plate, is cooked simply, so as to enhance the flavour. It is not one of those small cuts of meat that are barbecued in so many backyard gardens in the Antipodes, cooked and turned into veritable charcoal, where the only solace of flavour is found in a sauce bottle.
But let us get back to the meat of the matter. Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is as iconic as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sydney Opera House….the main thing is that ‘La Bistecca’ is arguably more recognisable. This carnivor’s delight is cooked quickly and served very rare, with the cooking done on a steel grate above charcoal, the timing purely depending on the thickness of the meat. The cut is Porterhouse, the meat dressing a wedge of lemon, the side dish or ‘contorni’ is usually a simple salad. No other tastes are proffered with this dish…the meat is what it is all about. This dish is the star attraction of the many restaurants in Florence.
Would you line up for hours to see Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia or Bellini’s Birth Of Venus at the Uffizi, or would you really prefer to attack ‘La Bistecca’ with gusto? I will leave that decision to the reader. You may regret making the wrong decision as Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is not just a steak!
Paolo Tavuzzi, International Food Writer
Florence, 12 September 2014