My Dream Day with Dario Cecchini
10:06 AM EDT on April 7, 2023
He said, “I’m a butcher who cooks.”
I said, “Me, too.”
The drive from Firenze to Panzano in Chianti gives one just enough time to soak in the stunning surroundings and to begin to grasp the magic of this part of Tuscany. Talk about a dramatic build-up: Twisting turns of narrow streets cutting through groves of olive trees and vineyards as far as the eye can see, dotted with noble villas, wineries and farm houses leading to the Conca D’oro. The area was once prized for its fantastic wheat production, giving it the “gold” or “oro” in its pseudonym; nowadays it’s the aroma of its famed red wine that nearly permeates the breeze itself. But I didn’t go for a drink, not that I would ever turn one down. This was a pilgrimage to see Dario Cecchini, the Dante-quoting “Mad Butcher of Panzano” who lives and works there.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that such a personality was born of a land shaped similar to that of an amphitheater, or maybe not. These days, in the time of social media, there is a grossly exaggerated understanding of what a legend is, of what really makes someone a master, an influencer, or dare I say a “GOAT.” In the food realm, we have unlimited access to knowledge of ingredients and methods, both ancient and traditional or innovative and cutting-edge. But many people hide behind angles and edits to create someone they want to be or something they simply want to sell. That is the exact opposite of Dario. If you’re into Italian cuisine or even food at all, you’ve probably heard of him—or at least you should have. From the books and countless food and travel shows including his gripping Chef’s Table episode (Season 6, episode 2), you’ll see that his madness is not because of the blades and the blood of his craft. No. It’s the obsession and pure elation he gets from the best ingredients and simply making people smile. “To beef or not to beef” is one of his famous lines. And if you’re going to Panzano, it’s definitely “to beef.”
Growing up as the son of a butcher, at a young age, I didn’t really get it. I wanted to work in my dad’s store simply to be close to him. After a few years of stocking shelves and sweeping floors, when a knife was finally put in my hand and apron around my neck, life truly began to carve a path for me, a journey that led me here, to Dario. I had met Dario briefly in New York once and visited Panzano in Chianti with my friend Roberto Caporuscio (of Kesté Pizza) not long after. Unfortunately, Dario was out of town, probably spreading the “Gospel of Meat” as he usually does, but his staff gave us a tour of the farm and its facilities and treated us to an epic lunch at Dario’s flagship restaurant, Officina della Bistecca. We FaceTimed with Dario a few times that day, but I knew I had to come back when he was in town. In fact, Riccardo, Dario’s second in command, invited me to return to stay a while and work with them. I don’t think I’ve said the word “Yes” that fast in my life. But not long after, the world was turned upside down. The dream of coming back was abruptly halted by the pandemic, but luckily, not forever.
I returned in June of 2022 and parked my car across from Dario’s butcher shop, La Antica Macceleria Cecchini. The words “Ecco Angelo!” came booming from the open door and bounced around the narrow street. The shop was opening for the day but already busy with customers and workers. The announcement of my arrival may have been confusing to those admiring Dario and his products, but it meant I was not only welcome but truly anticipated. After a world-class embrace from the towering butcher, we chatted briefly before I was whisked away, put into a chainmail apron, handed a knife and put to work.
Last summer’s heatwave in Italy was in full effect, and this was the hottest day since I’d arrived. Luckily, I spent the next hours in a refrigerated room with two of Dario’s skilled butchers, breaking down shoulders of the famed beef he so proudly serves in Panzano and around the world. Ahmad is from Turkey; Filipo from Brazil, but both men, like me, had traveled from afar to work for and with a legend. After a mandatory sip of strong coffee, we began working hard but also talking of the food we loved, our native homes, family, even politics and religion, and life itself. Our stories had their differences, yet there we were with the same appreciation of our favorite parts of life.
Staff lunch was simple but delicious and filling, accompanied by a little wine because it’s Italy. Dessert consisted of a quick detour to Dario’s food truck to share a beef belly sandwich with Ahmad, and then it was back to work. That’s what I was here for after all, to work, not to linger around the shop or take selfies with Dario or photos of the view to brag about on Instagram. It was about the product and the process. Every cut, scrap, bone, or piece of fat had its place and its destination, whether it be the restaurants and butcher shop, or a lucky customer abroad. People like to exaggerate their dedication or passion, even feed you a line about how much they work to respect and honor the ingredients they use. In Panzano, under the auspices of Dario Cecchini, the passion and dedication are real. We wasted nothing, and the beautiful beasts who provided us with their beef were given the attention they deserved.
As I was wiping down the bandsaw, I was told I was needed at the Macelleria. I was happy to make new friends over the life’s work we shared, but it was time for me to return to Dario. “Vieni con me!” he bellowed then rushed off. I followed him across the street and into his restaurant Solociccia with him urging me to keep up. “Ladies and Gentlemen” he proclaimed to the crowded room as we entered, “I present to you Mister Angelo!” The only guests, though, who had a clue as to who I was was my friend Cesare Casella, a longtime companion of Dario, there for an impromptu dinner with his mother, our friend Patrick, and Patrick’s his grandson. Cesare and I had hoped to connect on our simultaneous trips to Italy, but we had failed to make actual plans. This was a wonderful surprise. They were on their way out of town, so I only got to briefly catch up with them and get some pictures of us together.
But this place with Dario, this small intersection in a tiny Tuscan village, connects so many of us, so it meant the world to reunite with old friends there. The shop was closing, and it was time for the staff to prepare for the dinner service. More hugs and kisses from Dario, because he just might be the warmest person ever, and I was about to head back to my car to freak out a little in private and drive back to Florence. I didn’t want to leave that day, or ever, to be honest, but I’ll certainly be back in Panzano soon enough, to work and eat with my new friends and to make more. Dario said goodbye with his huge signature smile raising his world-class mustache. “Angelo,” he said. “Questa e’ casa tua” (this is your house). Those words summed up the man and the reason I was there. We sometimes forget that our day-to-day routines do not define who we are, but our experiences, the relationships we create, and memories we make are truly what writes our story. This is what living your dreams is like, at least, to me. Carne diem.
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