“The myriad of flavors explode on my tongue, shimmy through my mouth, slap my taste buds and call them filthy bastards, and I love it.”
Two years ago, I went on the hackneyed, coming of age college eurotrip. My best friend and I drove across the continent, sleeping in the back of a little Audi hatchback since we didn’t want to waste money on hostels, while doing our best to make the most of our budget. This meant compromising on most of our meals- while camping in Switzerland and Germany we stocked up on sandwich bread, deli ham, crappy cheese, and apples. Our version of splurging in France was visiting a boulangerie for breakfast while bypassing countless brasseries, me wistfully imagining a missed opportunity to be Anthony Bourdain. But despite my obnoxious culinary ego, that meager food bill helped us traverse nearly 9 countries.
Arriving to Florence however, proved to be our kryptonite. Perhaps seeing countless tourists do the same enabled us a bit, but the sweltering Tuscan sun in June equated to visits to a gelateria at least twice a day. One will never get to experience hand rolled pasta with zucchini flowers for a long time, so dinners involved many a jug of Chianti, a pizza, and a plate of pasta (followed by more gelato). Stuffing our faces with various salumi and cured meats at one of the many incredible panini shops (I'm looking at you Pane & Toscana), became a much looked forward to ritual. We even fell victim to the overpriced pastries in one of the tourist ridden pasticcerias of the Piazza del Duomo.
Throughout our days in Florence, where food overshadowed everything else you’re supposed to go to Florence for, my self conscious kept muttering to myself, bistecca. Bistecca alla Fiorentina. We only went to a cheap bistro once in Paris, can I at least be frivolous on a bistecca? Can I convince him to splurge on a bistecca? Could the primal cut of meat Florentines are so known for, its near 3 inch thickness lewdly dripping sizzling fat onto burning wood, have that virile, magical power? With equal parts temerity and trepidation, I suggested,
“It’s our last night here. Should we splurge on a steak tonight?”
That evening, I became convinced bistecca alla fiorentina is a rite of passage all men must go through at some point in our lifetime. There’s nothing really graceful about a dripping, carnal slab of meat being erotically basted in its own fat over musky open flame, yet there’s such a sense of decorum when the platter is set on your table that you can’t help but treat it with respect and awe. (It didn’t help I was already feeling the effects of yet another glass of Chianti.) We switched tag teaming the pieces of strip and filet mignon surrounding the erect bone, groaning at the well marbled meat and swaths of crisped fat.
Now I’m not brazen enough to label this an actual recipe for Bistecca alla Fiorentina: a wood burning fire is a bit impractical on a Wednesday night, and the last time I checked Chianina and Maremmana breeds of beef aren’t sitting behind the everyday meat counter. 3 inch thick porterhouses are hard to come by (and more importantly, hard to afford), so a compromise has been made with a good ribeye. Bistecca is usually cooked incredibly rare (think bloody), but I admit I like when my marbled fat melts and become succulent when cooked to a medium rare. And yet, despite all these compromises, this steak is still enough to remind me of that night two years ago.
Florentine Inspired Ribeyes
one rib eye steak, at least 1.5" thick
freshly ground coarse black pepper
3-4 tablespoons of butter
2-3 crushed garlic cloves
1 shallot, thickly sliced
2-3 sprigs of rosemary
1 lemon, wedged
extra virgin olive oil
coarse sea salt
I'll concede that there are a million and one ways to cook a proper steak (Sous vide, broil, reverse sear, par-frozen, stove to oven, etc.) By all means use the method you're most comfortable with - the technique below is the one I like the most when I need immediate gratification.
Season the steak generously with kosher salt and black pepper on all sides. It should look like a light snowfall. If possible, let the steak sit uncovered in the refrigerator for at least an hour, and up to 48.
When you're ready to fire, heat a cast iron pan on high heat for a few minutes until it starts to smoke. Add a couple tablespoons of neutral oil (i.e vegetable, canola, grapeseed) and wait until it shimmers. Gently lay the meat in the pan, and begin flipping the steak every 30-45 seconds. This method not only cooks the steak faster, but more evenly.
Again, there's a thousand ways to tell when a steak is done: the subjective finger poke, a probe thermometer (125ish degrees for medium rare), cutting it open, or just plain intuition. But when the meat is around 75% done, measured using your favorite method, remove the steak from the pan and drain the fat. Reduce the heat to medium high and add the butter, garlic, shallot, rosemary, and half of the lemon wedges. Add the steak to the pan and begin basting it with the infused butter, continuing to flip constantly until it reaches your desired temperature. (Still remember to pull it sooner than you want to account for carryover cooking). Remove the steak and let it rest for about 10 minutes.
To serve, slice the steak into slices and arrange it next to the bone. Drizzle with really good extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt (bonus if you have smoked sea salt), and the rest of the fresh lemon wedges.