Italy’s great meat eaters are the Tuscans, and they too have a knack for grilling and eating a good steak. The classic Bistecca alla Fiorentina can be found in nearly every Tuscan restaurant. It’s a three-fingers-thick porterhouse steak that usually weighs around 2 pounds and is typically sourced from Chianina cattle, a famous Tuscan breed.
The original recipe stipulates this enormous steak be grilled over a wood fire for 3-5 minutes per side, flipping it only once, and 5-7 minutes vertically standing on its bone so as to make the blood pour out.
A Fiorentina must be served invariably rare (sanguinoso) and seasoned with sea salt and just a drizzle of olive oil with an occasional squeeze of lemon. The steaks are often shared between two or more diners, with slices accompanied by stewed white beans or a bitter green vegetable such as rapini, another name for broccoli rabe.
This simple, rustic style of cooking is typically Tuscan and calls for red wines that are dry and savory with full body and high acidity to cut through the fat. I enjoy steak and Cabernet as much as anyone, but recently I’ve been choosing another Tuscan specialty to pair with red meat: Sangiovese.
Sangiovese is the most-planted red grape in Italy and is the most important grape variety used to produce Tuscany’s greatest red wines. It is believed that Sangiovese’s name is derived from “sanguis Jovis,” or the blood of Jove. No wonder it works so well with a rare steak.
It’s true that Sangiovese was the grape used to produced the shrill and biting Chianti that once flowed in Italian-American restaurants from squat, wicker-wrapped baskets. But in the 1980s and ’90s, Chianti transformed itself into a top-producing region of high-quality red wine.
The reason for the positive transformation was the use of better clones. There once existed two distinct clonal families of Sangiovese: Sangiovese Grosso and Sangiovese Piccolo. Sangiovese Piccolo (the clone responsible for the wicker-basket stuff) gave winegrowers high yields but very little in terms of quality.
Now, almost all quality Chianti wines are variations of the superior Sangiovese Grosso clone.
Sangiovese Grosso is also used in Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most collectible red wines, where it is known simply as “Brunello” (little dark one) due to the darker skin of the Sangiovese Grosso found there.
All of Tuscany’s famous red wines, including Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano and even many of the famed “Super Tuscans” feature Sangiovese Grosso, all of which are superb with a juicy, rare steak.
Look for Sangiovese wines at these Omaha locations:
2004 Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy
Textbook Chianti Classico with 92 percent Sangiovese and 8 percent Canaiolo. As with all Italian wines, the term “classico” indicates the original zone of production — in Chianti that means the hills between Florence and Siena — and is usually a good indicator of quality. Pair with the simplest of meals such as grilled bread topped with lentils or ribollita, a hearty Tuscan soup with bread and vegetables. Available at Brix at Village Pointe shopping center, $18
2008 Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, Tuscany, Italy
Sangiovese goes by the name of Prugnolo Gentile in the southern Tuscan village of Montepulciano. The wine is dry, medium-bodied and juicy with aromas and flavors of dark cherries and roasted herbs. The “noble wine” of Montepulciano is perfect for a ragł of pork or grilled sausages or wild mushrooms over a hearty polenta. Available at Omaha Wine Co., $44
2007 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, Tuscany, Italy
Casanova di Neri has received consistently high praise for its full-bodied, ripe and intense expressions of Brunello di Montalcino. Ideal with the aforementioned Bistecca alla Fiorentina or any grilled steak, roast of lamb or beef or rotisserie chicken. Available at Omaha Wine Co., $60