Word of Mouth

Elise Wiggins: Another slice of life with Panzano's "mad butcher"

Panzano Executive Chef Elise Wiggins is in the small town of Panzano, Italy, doing a stagisti with Dario Cecchini, the mad butcher of Panzano and owner of Antica Macelleria Cecchini. Wiggins, who recently won a Colorado Restaurant Association Industry Spot award and also earned Panzano another Best Italian Restaurant award, is honing her skills by learning from a master -- and sharing observations with us.

Here's Elise's account of her second week in Panzano, Italy:

I butchered whole cows today! That's right, cows! They prefer girls because all of the cattle are grass-fed and the girls make fat better than boys -- even castrated boys. Ten percent of Dario's cattle come from the local area and the rest from Catalonia, Spain. They are all grass-fed and Dario says the breed is a "European mutt of cattle."

We separate all the muscles from the leg to be butchered into steaks. One cut is slightly roasted to make carpaccio. These cuts have amazing flavor and can be incredibly tender depending on how they are cooked.

During the typical night in the restaurant, there is one seating at a communal table that seats 45 people at a time. As the guests arrive, they just squeeze more in. The fires are burning on the grills that are right in front of everyone; all the raw steaks are displayed in the middle of the table for the guests to see and anticipate.

The first course is simple raw veggies in a bowl: carrots, celery and onions. Then jars of whipped lardo seasoned with rosemary garlic, served with bread. Next is the oddly named Chianti tuna -- cured and slow-cooked pork shoulder that's pulled apart and served with olive oil and raw onions on top. This arrives with another local favorite, Chianti sushi, a center cut back-leg muscle served raw, minced with rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper.

Next come the steaks. The cooks throw the various cuts on the grill and start service with the Panzano steak, a large cross-muscle cut from the round. When each cut is ready, Dario comes over and holds up the cooked steak, describes it and cuts it up for the guests. His next steak is the tagliata, a sliced rib chop; then the porterhouse.

With each demonstration, Dario is reciting Dante and honoring of guests who are celebrating birthdays or are brides-to-be. The crowd goes crazy! The guests include Italians from all over Italy and international tourists who have heard about Dario; my first night included a famous Japanese opera singer who sang Italian arias all night.

Dessert is lemon tart bites and coffee all around.

Dario is called the "mad butcher" because he can successfully use any part of the cow and make it taste amazing. He doesn't cure, marinade or season his steaks with anything -- not even salt -- and it's the best piece of meat I've ever eaten!  My theory is that perhaps because the beef is all from females, it tastes so different and good. His truck has a cow horn that moos when he honks.  Everyone in town knows he's coming.

On the weekends here the grocery stores are closed, but they have these huge farmers' markets in the town square. The produce is simply amazing. We served some wild picked asparagus today for lunch. The strawberries are to die for right now.

Wine is served in carafes with everything. At the end of every meal there's a shot of grappa -- even at lunch. 

I can't believe this experience is soon to end. This has been the fastest two weeks of my life, and I've learned so much that I can bring back to the States and use in the kitchen at Panzano. Read the first installment of Elise Wiggins's travel journal here.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun