Bistecca alla fiorentina made me give up vegetarianism. Okay, I made me give it up, but the behemoth of a steak was no doubt the cause.
Bistecca alla fiorentina is essentially a porterhouse steak with a very big tenderloin, cooked in a very specific way (read: over charcoal)—but more on this later. I’d never heard of it until my host father in Florence, Gabrielle, asserted: "While you’re here, you must try bistecca alla fiorentina and lampredotto (a tripe sandwich)." And then, upon hearing I was a vegetarian, followed with: "Well, you must at least see both of these then."
The lampredotto—tripe long simmered in tomato and served on a soft roll, sometimes with other additions—was easy. It’s an ubiquitous street food. Finding a good bistecca alla fiorentina, at least according to Gabrielle, was much harder.
He had is favorite place. My host mom preferred another. Arguments ensued. Eventually, though, we all—including Ettore, their dog—traveled for the ultimate bistecca alla fiorentina experience at a nondescript trattoria in the outskirts of Fiesole, right outside of Florence.
I wasn’t going to try it. But, as I finished my plate of tagliatelle con tartufi (pasta with truffles), the bistecca called me. It was like I never tasted meat before—and I had. The smokiness from the coals permeated the steak. While the outside was charred, the inside remained as rare as can be. However—as Gabrielle told me when he spotted me skeptically looking at puddle of red juice on the plate—to cook the steak more would be to disrespect the meat. When in Florence and eating Florentine steak, you do as the Florentines do.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina is different from most steaks because of the cut of meat used and how it's cooked.
The cut. The dish has roots in Tuscany’s Val di Chiana, where they use meat from young steers (no more than 2 years old) of the Chianina, a breed of grass-fed, white-haired cattle. The meat is lean and aged for up to a month, meaning it’s extraordinarily flavorful. As for the cut, famed Italian cookbook author Pellegrino Artusi, in his 1891 book The Science and the Art of Eating Well, described the steak as being such a way that the tenderloin and the sirloin are attached together. Artusi was talking about porterhouse steaks.
True bistecca alla fiorentina is priced by weight, costing about 50 euros per kilo, or around 2 pounds. Yes, it’s huge, but the steak’s meant to be shared. Before it’s cooked, the restaurant’s proprietor brings the raw steak to the table so the diners can approve its weight and quality. Once they give the go-ahead, as Gabrielle did, it's brought back to the kitchen.
The cooking. The steak is placed over roaring hot coals. Flipped only once, it's cooked until the outsides are deeply charred and the insides remain rare. Bistecca alla fiorentina is salted after it comes off the grill so it doesn’t try out and arrives at the table glistening from a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and hit with freshly cracked black pepper. There's no accompanying sauce. Purists won't even squeeze lemon overtop, for fear of disguising the meat's flavor.
Bistecca alla fiorentina showcases what Italians do best: Take great quality ingredients and cook them in a way that showcases their purity. This is true for steak, burrata served with just a drizzle of olive oil, or a tomato sauce that's nothing more than tomatoes and salt. Bistecca alla fiorentina proves that a little of the right stuff can do a whole lot more than more truffle butter.
Now, you’re thinking: I want one. Although it’s nearly impossible to make a traditional bistecca alla fiorentina because of the hyper-local sourcing of ingredients, you can approximate. Here’s how to make a (sort of) bistecca alla fiorentina at home:
What dish have you learned to love during your travels? Tell us in the comments (and upload the recipe?)!