Florence’s most iconic dish is, without a doubt, bistecca alla fiorentina: an enormous porterhouse steak, minimally seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled and served bloody rare. It’s a showstopper, for sure. But it’s not for everyone, or for every occasion. Less well known, but just as worthy, are the simple roasts served in the city’s cozy trattorias, in family-run restaurants in the countryside and in home kitchens throughout the Italian region of Tuscany.
During a visit to Florence last summer, I was reminded of just how appealing a roast — beef, pork, veal — can be, thinly sliced and adorned only with pan drippings. My jet-lagged family and I followed my friend Emiko Davies on a hot day in late July as she ducked through a doorway beneath a green-and-white-striped awning. Davies, a longtime resident of the city and author of the cookbook “Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence,” was taking us to Trattoria Mario, one of her favorite spots for traditional Florentine food.
Although it was barely lunchtime, the place was already packed with a mix of locals and intrepid tourists sitting elbow to elbow at communal tables. The menu, handwritten (in Italian only) on butcher paper and taped to the wall, listed the day’s selections. Seeing that we weren’t quite ready to face a bloody bistecca, Davies instead ordered several platters of sliced roasts to share, plus traditional sides of roasted potatoes and stewed cannellini beans. The food, like the trattoria itself, was no-frills: no special sauces, no fancy garnishes, no clever twists on classics. But, also like Mario’s, it was genuine, and really, really good. Especially those roasts, all juicy and tender and succulent — just what you want a good roast to be. We polished them off.
A few days later, another roast stole the show. This one, a turkey breast, was the centerpiece of a luncheon prepared by my friend Giulia Scarpaleggia, a food writer who shares recipes and snippets of life in the Tuscan countryside on her blog, Juls’ Kitchen. She served it sliced and cold, with a tonnato (tuna and mayonnaise) sauce on the side. Even without the dollop of sauce, the turkey was tender and rich, with meaty flavor.
Weeks after we had returned home and gone back to our usual habit of grilling steaks and chops, I was still thinking about those roasts. With winter in full swing, I decided it was time to crack the code on how to make them.
Simply prepared roasts have a long history in Tuscan cuisine. Arista di maiale, a bone-in pork loin roast seasoned simply with herbs, garlic and white wine, dates to at least the 15th century, when it was served at an assembly of bishops in Florence. “Rosbiffe,” the Italian adaptation of roast beef, is a more recent import, arriving in the 1800s with a large British expatriate community that settled in Florence. Pellegrino Artusi, author of the famous 19th century cookbook “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” (“Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well”), lived in Florence for most of his life and devoted an entire chapter to roasts. “Roasting preserves the nutritional qualities of meat better than any other method of cooking, and the meat is also easier to digest,” Artusi wrote.
The success of a roast depends on the quality of the meat, says Andrea Falaschi, Davies’s butcher in San Miniato, not far west of Florence. “Our recipes aren’t complicated,” he says. “Simplicity is our strength; it’s the beauty of our cuisine. But we start with the best primary ingredients.”
Florence is famous for its Chianina beef, says Davies, which comes from an ancient breed of cattle raised in Tuscany and in parts of Umbria, Lazio and Abruzzo. One of the world’s largest breeds, Chianina are known for the creamy white color of their hide and their lean, flavorful meat. The region’s best pork, she says, comes from Cinta Senese pigs, a slow-growing heirloom breed prized for its fatty meat: “Whenever you eat anything made with Cinta Senese, you can tell, because it has a richness and juiciness to it that comes from that amazing layer of fat.”
Davies, who tested recipes for her book in her native Australia, says she used Berkshire pork, a heritage breed that originated in England and has characteristics similar to those of Cinta Senese, to make her arista di maiale. The breed has been raised in the United States since the 1800s and in recent years has become more widely available, including at local butcher shops such as the Organic Butcher of McLean and Red Apron Butcher in the District and Virginia. It is noticeably fattier and juicier than standard mass-produced pork, which is bred for leanness. Arista, with its rack of rib bones, makes an impressive roast for very little effort. For that reason, it took the place of turkey this year at our Thanksgiving table, and it might make an encore performance next year.
As for “rosbiffe,” it is possible to buy U.S.-raised Chianina beef, but it is not easy to find at retail markets. Grass-fed beef, which is available at many farmers markets and supermarkets, makes a good substitute. It is leaner and not as buttery-soft as typical beef raised on grain, with a more pronounced beefy flavor. Because of its leanness, it is best cooked slowly at a moderately low temperature.
Dave Burton, a butcher at the Organic Butcher of McLean, offers an alternative for those willing to splurge a bit: Wagyu roast beef. Derived from a Japanese cattle breed, Wagyu is richly marbled with fat. However, the whole-muscle cuts typically used for roast beef, such as top round and eye round, are not as fatty. Wagyu eye of round makes an especially good roast beef, Burton says, because it gives a typically lean cut, one that’s prone to dryness, just enough fat to ensure a good roast. At $12.99 a pound, it isn’t cheap, but it is certainly less costly than prime rib or tenderloin.
Veal is more complicated; it is more expensive and less popular in the States than in Italy. Italian veal is older — more like young beef — and is rosier in color and tastier than the young milk-fed veal sold here. Many Americans are put off by the poor, cramped conditions in which veal calves are raised. But it is getting easier to find humanely raised veal that is more like what is sold in Italy. The Organic Butcher of McLean carries it, but it is prohibitively expensive: about $29 a pound for top round. I found a good substitute for about $10 less per pound at Arrowine and Cheese in Arlington. The wine, cheese and charcuterie shop carries a limited selection of meats from high-end producer D’Artagnan, including a petite (2¼ -pound) chuck roast already bound in mesh.
If you are not tired of turkey, try roasting a boneless turkey breast. Scarpaleggia’s turkey roast sold me on this less-expensive alternative to veal or pork. You can buy a butterflied boneless breast to roll and tie yourself, or look for one that it is already tied in mesh; some Whole Foods Markets stock them on the weekends (best to call in advance). Once you’ve chosen your roast, follow a few simple steps, and within a couple of hours you’ll have a beautiful Tuscan-style roast at your table. All that’s left is to open a bottle of Chianti.
Marchetti is the author of, most recently, “Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). She’ll join today’s chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.