Postcards from Italy

Italy’s Beef from Ranch to Restaurant

As far as national identity goes, Italy is more associated with pork than beef. From prosciutto to lardo di colonnata, the lion’s share of Italy’s most recognized charcuterie and grilled cuts are made from its domestic pigs. Pigs are less expensive to raise and butcher than beef, and pork is one of the pillars of the country’s historic “cucina povera”, or rural cuisine, tradition.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The postwar boom brought both wealth and urbanization to Italy, and average Italians began sitting down to a large steak for the first time in the country’s history. Even Dario Cecchini, Italy’s celebrity butcher and proselytizer of the famous Fiorentina, ate his first steak at age 18 to celebrate his birthday. As a modest family of butchers and laborers, the Cecchinis’ diet was based on the cheapest cuts of pork and beef, offal, and charcuterie, which Dario remembers fondly and continues to prepare in his shop and restaurant.


 (Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though the more prestigious cuts of beef have not been a historical mainstay of the Italian diet, the beef raised in Italy today is among the world’s finest, using heirloom breeds, open grazing, and limited and strictly regulated pharmaceuticals. If you are hankering for an excellent cutlet or tartare the next time you’re in Italy, here are a few facts about Italian beef to help you choose the most mouth-watering cut.

Italian Heirloom Breeds

Like almost all of this country’s delicacies, beef is very deeply rooted in Italy’s geography and most of its historic breeds are named according to region. There are upwards of 50 breeds considered wholly or partly of Italian origin, sixteen of which are recognised and protected by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture as heirloom breeds.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The best Italian beef is generally from Tuscany, Le Marche, Piedmont, and the Dolomites, though even the island of Sardinia has an indigenous breed known for its excellent beef, the Sarda. Tuscany is home to the Grafagnina and the Maremmana along the coast and over the border in Lazio, and the iconic Chianina, one of the most historic breeds in the world, is raised in the rolling countryside inland. Further north, the Fassona dominates the Alpine areas of Piedmont, and the Pustertaler Sprinzen and Tyrolean Grey graze the slopes of the Dolomites in Trentino and South Tyrol.

Italy, with its small and medium family farms and limited space, lacks the vast industrialized feed lots that have drawn such criticism in other countries where intense, corporate farming is the norm. Instead, most Italian cattle is grazed for all or most of its life; protected heirloom breeds and cattle raised for organic meat must be pasture grazed by law, and the seasonal “transumanza”, or migration of herds from valley to plateau and back, is a deeply felt tradition from the Alps to the Apennines.

Categories of Italian Beef

In Italy, cuts of beef fall into five categories based on the age, weight, and sex of the animal. The most prized, vitello, is either a male or female animal less than six months old, weighing between 100 and 180 kg, and fed on a diet of grain and forage in addition to milk. Though vitello is most often translated as “veal” and is made from animals which have not yet cut their permanent teeth, almost no Italian veal is exclusively milk-fed, so the meat is darker in color and has more marbling and fat than what Americans consider veal.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Vitellone, also often translated as “veal”, is a male or female between 18-20 months old and weighing more than 200 kg; females are often called scottona if they are less than 16 months old and have never calved. Vitellone have cut at least two permanent teeth, are fed on a diet of forage, grain, and pasture grasses, and have tender meat that is dark red with light marbling which melts away as it cooks.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Manzo, and its female counterpart manzetta, are male and females who are less than three years old. The maturity of the animal leads to a less tender meat suited to longer cooking. Bue, or a castrated bull, and vacca, an adult cow, are animals more than 30 months old and considered the least prized.

Italian Cuts and Dishes

The most prized cuts are the lombata, the filetto, and the Fiorentina…or the sirloin, tenderloin, and the hefty T-bone steak carved out from between the two. Lombata is most often used for roast beef, tagliata (a thick slice of grilled beef carved into strips and served on a bed of arugula or with a sauce), or gently braised in a rich sauce. The filetto is used for tender steaks, beef medalions, filet mignon, and tartare.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Almost as prized are the fesa and scamone, both cuts of the rump, used for roasts, spezzatino (a beef and potato stew), cutlets for cotolette alla milanese, and steaks. The lesser quality cuts from the shoulder and ribs are still considered excellent for spezzatino and other beef stews like stufato and stracotto, or ground for polpette (meatballs), polpettone (meatloaf), hamburgers – though gourmet burgers made from more prized cuts and breeds have recently come into fashion in Italy – and ragù.


(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Even the most humble cuts of beef have been raised to noble heights by enterprising home cooks over the centuries. Coda alla Vaccinara, Rome’s traditional oxtail stew, and Osso Buco, made from veal shank, use what was once the butcher’s leftovers for savory specialties which rival the richest Fiorentina or tartare.

Travel Specialists

Maria Landers

Brian Dore