Not all tourists realise that grilled steak is very popular in Tuscany and, under names such as carne alla brace or carne alla griglia, no doubt has been, in one form or another, since time immemorial. One of the most traditional grilled steaks in Tuscany is the tagliata Toscana which is basically a simple grilled steak, served cut into slices and moistened with olive oil and fresh rosemary. However, in the early 19 C, the English settled in and around Florence in large numbers and introduced new cuts of beef, including the T-bone and porter house steaks, and the bistecca alla fiorentina, “florentine steak“, often known outside Tuscany simply as a fiorentina (Florentine), was born. Fanfani’s dictionary of 1863 describes bistecca alla fiorentina as a neologism dating from 1823, the word bistecca being of obvious English origin. Be that as it may, bistecca alla fiorentina is now a famous native dish with closely defined rules regarding its preparation. It has to be admitted that getting a good fiorentina is partly a matter of luck, whether you prepare it yourself or order it in a restaurant. When eating out, try to get a recommendation from local people on where to go for your fiorentina.
The steak: the cut is a porterhouse or T-bone with as large a fillet (tenderloin) as possible. If you’re buying from a butcher’s shop, ask to sample a small piece of raw meat. If the fillet is not very tender while raw, it surely won’t be after it’s grilled. The club steak (strip steak, contrefilet) should also be tender. Traditionally, the meat should come from the “calf” (up to two years old) of a chianina ox although by far most of the bistecca alla fiorentina sold in Florence is Spanish beef. The meat should have been hung for five days, and should be kept at room temperature for 10 hours or so (all day, effectively) before grilling. Traditionally, the thickness should “three fingers”, quite thick, in other words.
When ordering in a restaurant, you need to look at what they have available before ordering so that you can pick a piece that has a large filet, if they have it, and of a size suitable for your group. A good restaurant buys when the cut yields a large filet. Prices on the menu will be “per etto“, an etto being 100 gm. So the price per kg will be ten times that.
Onto the grill: grill your bistecca over charcoal – some say hardwood charcoal is better but if you buy your charcoal at a supermarket, you don’t have much choice. The charcoal should be very hot and the steak close to it (10 cm) because the aim is to seal in the juices by forming a dark crust on both sides quickly. Use a pair of tongs to turn the steak and try to turn it just once. Don’t use any kind of fork for turning or probing the steak while it’s cooking – that will let the juices run out and it will dry out. When one side is done and the steak has been turned, you can then salt the cooked side. It will take about 5-8 minutes per side. Salting prior to grilling also draws out the juices and dries out the steak. If you wish, you can pour some olive oil onto the upper, cooked side while the second side is grilling. Optionally, after both sides are well grilled, you can stand the steak upright on its bone and cook for another 5 minutes. The idea is that the bone will conduct a lot of heat into the interior of the steak. The end result will be a steak with a very well-done exterior and quite rare inside. If the meat has been well hung, it won’t be bloody when sliced.
Off the grill and onto the plates: take the steak off the grill and onto a very hot iron tray or a wooden cutting board and let it rest for 5 minutes so that the juices redistribute inside. It’s not a bad idea to cover the steak with a piece of aluminium foil during this resting phase to keep it hot. If you wish, you can pour some rosemary-flavoured olive oil onto the steak. Some add pepper and others a slice of lemon. Artusi, in his famous Italian cookery book of 1891, recommended to add a dollop of butter but this is no longer commonly done. Indeed, butter is very un-Tuscan and Artusi probably adopted this idea from the Anglo-Italians. Cut the meat off the bone, slice it into strips across the grain and serve it up on a hot plate. Your fellow diners can then help themselves to meat and juice as they wish.
Bistecca alla fiorentina is traditionally accompanied by a delicious bowl of fagioli, Tuscan white beans (cannellini).