Tuscan Steak, Florida Style
Tuscan steak. The very words bring back memories of a weekly carnivorous ritual during my couple of deliciously decadent decades in Italy. Living in Rome had its pluses and minuses, to be sure, but dining almost daily around the city, with its more than 3000 restaurants, became a passionate pastime as well as an education in regional cuisines. In the Italian philosophy of "at the table one doesn't grow old," most socializing, romanticizing, even wheeling and dealing takes place at lunch or dinner, when time is of no concern. Indeed concerns of any sort are put on hold at mealtime. American preoccupations with calories and cholesterol, heartburn, hangovers, or garlic-laden breath quickly disappear before a steaming dish of fragrant pasta served alfresco on a cobbled piazza.
But once or twice a month I'd find myself in Florence, blissfully buried in a serious little underground eatery near the Ponte Vecchio. Knowledgeable Florentines came here for Italy's choice, succulent T-bone, generally served à la carte like everything else in Italian restaurants. The traditional accompaniment, a side dish of fagioli (fat white cannellini beans), available fresh out of the shell in their brief season, always came swimming in a sea of slurpable extra virgin olive oil from the region's rolling hills. That, with a carafe of Chianti and a little unsalted Tuscan bread to sop up the oil, was dinner. No spaghetti, no salad, no dessert. La fiorentina (as it is commonly called), cut thick on the bone, is sold even in restaurants by weight, with a minimum of half a kilo (just over a pound), normally more than enough for two hungry carnivores, and far too much if recklessly preceded by a first course of any sort.
Act One, Scene II: Tuscan Steak, South Beach. Early Sunday evening (an afternoon request for Saturday reservations brought a "sure, anytime after eleven"). Drooling, we approached the China Grill Management's version of our vivid steak memories. Sitting directly across from mother China Grill and next to sister Red Square, Tuscan Steak has a few tables lining the sidewalk. Exhaust fumes fill the air. Inside, all was dark and quiet. The trendies come late, the celebs discreetly awaited. At 7:30 we were the first dinner guests.
A refreshing change from most pretentious restaurants that charge a fee for sharing, at Tuscan Steak all portions are served family style and are designed to be shared. The problem here is that portions are huge, with proportionate prices, so individual needs suffer. A small caesar salad goes for $11, the house salad for $13. There is nothing smaller. Fortunately we came with intentions to share. And we came to eat Tuscan steak. It comes in grande (big), at 28 ounces for $38, and piú grande (bigger), at 50 ounces for $62.
Alas I was told the steak comes from ... Florida. Another waiter later told us it comes from the Midwest. Chef Dewey LoSasso, a Culinary Institute of America graduate and third-generation Neapolitan, agrees Midwest is more accurate: "Colorado, Wyoming, or the Dakotas, depending on where they're farming." Midwest? One thing's for sure: There is no Tuscan steak at Tuscan Steak. No great white Chianina cattle fed on nature's bounty, no Florentine steak as we know it. Puff the magic memory.
Florentine, we were told, refers to the style, not the steak. Grilled? Yep, but first marinated two to three days in garlic, olive oil, basil, parsley, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Doesn't sound Tuscan. How would we like it? Like most men, my dinner companion wants his medium-rare. I prefer mine "blue." No problem; they can accommodate both. I was impressed -- until the platter arrived, bone propped up sprouting a twig of rosemary like a discarded mini-Christmas tree, slices of beef arranged all around. In Italy, cut off the bone as it was, this would have been called a tagliata di manzo rather than a fiorentina. "We're in Florida," my companion noted. He's right.
"Your blue ones are in the middle," said the server. In the dim light of the votive candles and distant minihalogens, they all look alike. On closer examination, they were. The only thing blue about my overcooked steak (as well as the "medium-rare") was its temperature: stone cold, practically shivering, on an ice-cold plate. Graciously and without hesitation, he offered to send the whole thing back. Meanwhile we gorged on a side order of sautéed spinach with garlic ($8), enough to feed Popeye's extended family of twelve. The next steak arrived, this time the "blue" a bit rarer, the plate a tad warmer, but I could have sworn it was the same bone more charred. The meat decidedly lacks the flavor of animals fed on an organic diet of Tuscan greens, a strong savory succulence rarely found in this country or elsewhere these days. A couple of crisp potato chips garnished the revolting roasted garlic purée. (I say this as an avid devourer of all things garlic, with this one exception -- too strong!)
First courses were far more successful. Although not a gnocchi fan, I found the gnocchi with fresh plum tomatoes and basil perfectly marinated with the sort of fine fresh produce Tuscan cuisine is all about. The gnocchi are remarkably light, the chef's variation on a secret learned from La Loggia restaurant in Florence: More ricotta cheese than potato is used, resulting in an airy version of the normally heavy dumpling. For those lactose tolerant, one of the restaurant's most popular dishes is the gnocchi with Gorgonzola cream sauce. We also give many stars to the three-mushroom risotto with porcini, portobello, and shiitake, finished with Alba white truffle oil. The remaining four or five daily pasta selections were not terribly inviting.
On another visit we went right for the interesting antipasto list, which includes a Harry's Bar (Venice) variation of beef carpaccio with a celery root slaw, stuffed mussels with basil aioli, and a crab potato rissolle. The house antipasto, displayed in the rear of the not-exactly-intimate dining room (which boasts seating for 150 people in what's described as a "cozy family-style food concept") presents a variety of salads and grilled vegetables for $18, or $25 with the addition of fresh seafood.
Any of the above would be a better choice than the "seared rare tuna and Tuscan white bean salad, with herb crostini," at $16.75 possibly the biggest disappointment after the "Tuscan" steak. Having been served chilled bread rolls (could this be a ploy to encourage ordering the "famous white truffle garlic bread" for $13.50?) we were then surprised to find our white bean dish fresh out of the fridge, chilled as the "seared rare tuna" slices adorning it. Most surprising of all were the so-called herb crostini (actually full slices of Italian country-style bread doused in oil, herbs and garlic, and better described as bruschetta), also served chilled, greasy and difficult to break, messy to eat. Rather than presear the tuna and refrigerate it altogether, why not sear it to order then add it to room-temperature beans? While the tuna was good, the beans could have been microwaved straight from the can, a dry clump of carbo.
Chef LoSasso, who has served as personal chef to Donatella and Santo Versace, and as executive chef for the l997 Lipton tennis tournament and the Foundlings Club of Miami Beach, traveled the world with Mickey Wolfson, researching various cuisines. His intention to fuse Tuscan steak with Florida elements would benefit from a little more time in Tuscany.
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