Steak, Italian Cooking, and Bistecca alla Fiorentina
It used to be the case that when you asked any southern Italian (especially from Calabria) the last time he or she consumed steak you’d get an awkward stare in return, as beef consumption was rare in il Mezzogiorno (the southern half of Italy) and cattle were used to produce cheese and milk. However, times have changed and beef is now consumed in much of Italian cooking, especially in regions like Toscana (Tuscany), Perugia, and Umbria where the Val di Chiana or Chiana Valley produces some of the best beef on the planet by way of one of the oldest and largest breeds of cattle known to man, viz., the Chianina. In Tuscany, for example, bistecca alla Fiorentina , or Steak Florentine, is a delicious, and nearly 3 inch thick, Porterhouse steak grilled (always rare) outdoors on a wood fed fire.
As you can imagine, our Southern Italian family did not consume bistecca alla Fiorentina but we did occasionally grill some wonderful, thinly cut, T-bone steaks. The steaks were usually cooked well done (more on this later) and then dressed with extra virgin olive oil, finely chopped parsley, a dash of red wine vinegar, and finely minced garlic (again, more on this later). After the family moved to the States in the early 1970’s, we replicated the dish (usually with club steak) in the New Jersey suburbs.
Cuts and Making Steak at Home
Making high quality steak at home doesn’t require much work nor the most expensive beef one can find. We buy our beef from a few local markets/butchers and look for local suppliers who raise their cattle on grass. When purchasing beef look for prime or choice beef with good marbleization (and/or how the fat is distributed on the cut) . Proper Dry-Aged beef (versus inferior “wet’ aged, which quickens the aging process via liquid) is expensive, but there is a noticeable upgrade in flavor. We like buying T-bone, bone in rib eye (sometimes called “cowboy steak”), Shell or Strip Steak, Porterhouse, Skirt, Flank, and Sirloin cuts.
In terms of our cooking process, we let our steaks sit out of the fridge for 1.5-2 hours so that the meat doesn’t hit the heating source cold. We also dry the meat very well and season with plenty of Kosher salt and Freshly ground, coarse, black pepper. We’ve heard plenty of opinions on when to salt, including after or during the cooking process and hours prior to cooking; however, we’ve found no discernible taste difference and, in turn, season just before cooking. For lesser cuts of beef and/or supermarket variety beef like “select”, we recommend using a sauce, marinade, or dry rub to enhance the flavor and texture of the beef.
We cook all of our steaks via two methods: an outdoor, wood fired, grill (gas is perfectly acceptable as well) or a heavy, well seasoned, cast iron pan. Whatever our cooking apparatus, we always make sure the grill or pan is as hot as possible and cook our steaks rare to medium rare (rare, if we’ve having extraordinary beef). Searing the meat via a scolding grill or pan ensures you’ll get a wonderful charred crust with deep flavor, but note you’ll need a few tablespoons of vegetable oil if you’re using a cast iron pan.
If you’re looking for a specific guide on how to cook steaks of varying sizes and thickness here’s a good article. Letting the meat sit in order for the interior juices to re-distribute prior to cutting / eating is also another necessary step. If you’re going to cook up a proper steak Florentine then follow the process by one of the most famous butchers on the planet Dario Cecchini.