One step into Antica Macelleria Cecchini and I’m already gaping.
It’s all marble, oaken butcher blocks, hanging meat hooks, crackling rolls of porchetta, links of aged salami suspended over platters of Tuscan bread, mounds of creamy lardo, and – behind the glass display – a staggering amount of meat, meat, meat.
This clearly is no ordinary butcher.
This macelleria (butcher shop) awes with its idyllic Italian charm, and I remain rooted in the doorway. I don’t quite care if I’m blocking the entrance because I’m having a moment here, where I’m processing that I’m standing where the shoes of people the likes of Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Springsteen, and Jamie Oliver have tread.
I am, of course, rendered useless as I spy Dario Cecchini, famed owner of the macelleria, striding towards me. I don’t even have time to gasp.
“Vino?” he offers, a bottle in one hand already tipping the mouth towards an empty glass.
Startled, I shake my head sharply in slight panic, partly because I was aware of the time of the day (morning), and partly because I had already been acquainted with the potency of Chianti wine. “No, no. Grazie.”
“No vino?!” is the incredulous reply, Dario’s voice booming within the small confines.
I cringe, feeling curious stares turn on me, and I offer a sheepish smile in return, “No.”
His eyes dart to the bottle of water I have in my hand, “No acqua! Si, si, vino!”
And he proceeds to pour a healthy amount of deep, dark liquid into the glass, piercing blue eyes fixing firmly on me till I finally take it.
Dario smirks as I sip the heady wine in embarrassment, and I make a quick mental note-to-self to never, ever decline a proffered invitation to wine – especially from an Italian, and especially if it’s Dario.
Dario Cecchini is the 5th generation owner of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini, a butcher shop in the humble Tuscan town of Panzano. His macelleria draws droves of tourists, all clambering for a taste of his quality meats, or just to see the man himself in his culinary Mecca. He is best known for holding a ‘funeral’ for the bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine-style T-bone steak) in 2001, back during the mad cow scare when a ban was imposed on eating meat served on the bone. To serve the bistecca without its bone was sacrilege.
The name Dario goes beyond the person itself. It’s immediately clear that the bold strips of red and white paint on the shop’s façade, the bottles of olive oil and Chianti wine emblazoned with stickers of his side-profile, the jars of salts and marinades stamped with the name of his shop, are all Dario.
The man is a brand.
Standing next to me, he is decked out in a white long-sleeved shirt, with a bright red vest thrown over and a matching pair of red pants. He has a white ‘Antica Macelleria Cecchini’ apron on top of it all. In his left arm he cradles a bottle of wine in a straw basket, and it is with no small amount of amusement that I learnt that it is traditionally called a fiasco – probably attributed to the very merry-making the wine induces. I know that for a fact, because I am starting to feel a little too happy from my first sip of Chianti.
The first time I saw him was not in person, but on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. He was waving a meat cleaver at the camera and smooching a roll of head cheese salami. I adored him already.
Arriving in Panazano and stepping through the macelleria‘s doorway, I thought I already knew what to expect.
I was happily proven wrong.
He is an imposing figure, Dario. Towering over me, he easily swings an arm around my shoulders and grips me in the most heartfelt and palpable (ie. Crushing) one-arm bear hugs as we smile for a picture. I don’t doubt that he’d be able to haul me over his shoulder – like a rack of ribs, or maybe a leg of lamb.
“Good?” he inquires once the picture is taken. “Bella! Bella!”
He grips me tighter gleefully.
Dario is not just a butcher.
As he tends to customers, tourists, regulars alike, he entertains with much gusto and conviction, his arms moving in wide arcs as his voice thunders. Conversant in English, he still reverts to his dramatic (and louder) Italian when chatting with fellow countrymen. He is a personality, a celebrity, and a butcher extraordinaire. A theatrical host, a show-stopper, and an artist. There is a spark of something in his electric blue eyes, manic passion, perhaps, and his grin is all-indulgent as it is wild.
Stories of him melodramatically reciting entire cantos from the 14th century epic poem, Dante’s Inferno, while carving up huge sections of meat only add to his allure. I would know, since I was hoping for a show, but rumour has it that he has stopped after tourists repeatedly request for a re-enactment. It would probably be tragic if he got sick of his favourite poet, I think.
Half a glass of wine later and we’re chatting like long-lost friends. He asks about Singapore, and I’m surprised to find out that he has already been to our island state.
He also nudges us towards the staggering amount of food by the side of the shop, laid out on large platters, for anyone and everyone.
The thick-cut slices of his signature fennel-flavoured salami, la finocchiona, had me reaching out for seconds and contemplating thirds. Fragrant with fennel seeds, its more floral than spicy, subtle yet arresting, chunky and meaty. This is salami that’s meant to be eaten by the disc, paired with a sip or two of wine. I have already made up my mind to buy some.
Then the Chianti Butter, burro del Chianti, follows. A heaping bowl of creamy white paste sits beside prepared crostinis already schmeared with a dollop of the stuff. I find out that it’s lardo (herbed pork fat cured in marble casks) that has been whipped and mashed with a dash of vinegar and olive oil into burro del chianti. My love for lardo is cemented.
Of course, there’s sliced Tuscan bread on a platter, lashed with some olive oil, and then more wine, and black olives, and juicy oranges. I sample almost everything, and then I see the whole hunk of porchetta.
I feel like I was far too indulgent the night before, dining at Officina Della Bistecca, one of Dario’s three restaurants just across his shop. I suppose I should give the porchetta a miss (what nonsense am I trying to make you believe?), and I did.
In hindsight, I should have asked, pleaded, fallen on bended knees for it, but I didn’t. The mammoth pork roast was languishing on a wooden board – meat, fat, skin, and all – and had been spit-roasted to a golden brown crisp. It hadn’t even been sliced yet. I would have gotten first dibs. The shame of it all burns. Burns.
Dario whips out a menu from nowhere and brandishes it in our faces, suggesting that we head up to Dario Doc for lunch.
“Go upstairs for lunch!” he says. “I make hamburgers! Only ten euros!”
As the proud owner of three highly successful restaurants, Dario never compromises on the quality of his meats. His restaurants make dining on copious amounts of meat affordable and possible for anyone, starting from the lower-end Dario Doc, then upwards to the mid-ranged Solocicca, and finally with Officina Della Bistecca. They pay homage to every part of an animal, and it is in his philosophy that every cut of meat, no matter how undesirable in industry standards, can be made into succulent dishes.
We dined at Officina the night before and the wreckage of meat we plowed through was nothing short of a carnivorous feat. With the previous night’s dinner etched into my memory, it is with much eye-rolling that we find ourselves seated at Dario Doc for lunch. I think of it as compensation for the porchetta, and I’m aware that it may be cleverly disguised self-pity, but who cares? I am getting more meat.
Much food later, we shimmy ourselves back down the narrow staircase and into the shop, now bustling with tourists. We head out into the street for air.
A mop of fur brushes my calves. I look down to see a scraggy Silky Terrier making rounds about my feet.
A couple of British twenty-somethings walk up. “Whiskey!” they call out. “You’re bothering the tourists again!” One might wonder why he wasn’t named Grappa, or Vino.
They pat and coo at Dario’s dog and feed him a bit of salami. When they leave, he looks up at us expectantly, or at least I think he does, and I kneel down to sort through the layers of fur to find his eyes.
Outside, the Panzano neighbourhood is quiet in comparison. It is, afterall, the Italian countryside, of rolling hills, sprawling vineyards, and a vastness that stretches for miles and miles. We wander into the Old Town, past a vineyard, and past gardens of Tuscan lemon trees growing in large terra cotta pots, to the church of Santa Maria di Panzano. The silence is seizing at first, but then it curls around in a tickling, playful welcome. It chides a little, as though saying ‘what took you this long to visit?’.
It’s quiet. So quiet.
I can hear the flat whirr of a car’s engine as it makes its way down a gravel road in the distance. We venture past brick houses, vibrant flowers, lemons the size of my head, and then we’re back where we started. Panzano, I realise, is very, very small.
Only an hour’s bus ride away from Florence, Panzano is a must for any traveller. A day trip would be more than enough. The neighbouring towns of Greve and Castellina could even have convinced me to extend my stay if not for tight travel plans.
And for anyone encountering Dario for the first time, I have just one piece of advice: Don’t be shy. It’s almost instinctual to shrink a little in his revelry, but that’s nothing that a glass or two of liquid courage can’t fix. You’re there for a show, so grab the front row seats.
Lastly, while you’re at it, please ask for that porchetta. I won’t forgive you if you don’t.
Antica Macelleria Cecchini (website)
Via XX Luglio, 11 Panzano in Chianti Firenze
Tel: +39 055 852020 fax +39 055 852700
Mon-Thurs, Sun: 9am to 2pm
Fri-Sat: 9am to 6pm
Directions to Panzano:
Buses from Florence leave quite frequently. Go to the SITA bus station, located on Via Santa Caterina da Siena, that’s beside the Santa Maria Novella train station. There’s a bus that goes straight to Panzano, and is just an hour’s ride.