By B.A. Nilsson
Bistecca alla Fiorentina is more than a meal. It’s a marriage, a commitment to a huge portion of the finest cut of beef, seasoned lightly and grilled over very hot coals. It is a monument of meat that you order rare (if you’re a true beef-eater), served with a traditional yet incongruous side of fries, an avatar of carnivorousness and a tribute to what’s best about Tuscan fare.
Which is a combination of two things: local ingredients and simple preparations, a theme recurring more and more often in the better restaurants. It’s not exclusive to Tuscan cooking, of course, but this region of Italy is steeped in the tradition.
That’s where Vico chef-owner Mark Ganem lived and worked after leaving the world of fashion—specifically, reporting on fashion for the magazines W and Women’s Wear Daily, for which he was Milan bureau chief.
“I decided instead to work for a bed and breakfast near San Gimignano, and that’s where I learned to cook. It was on the river Elsa, and was called Vico d’Elsa—‘vico’ means ‘village’ in Tuscany—so that’s where I found my inspiration.”
Ganem and his partner, maître d’ Adam Klersfeld, tested the waters with a catering business before opening Vico last June. Tucked into a century-old building on a corner of Hudson’s ever-growing Warren Street, it’s a worthy addition to a locus of some of the area’s better restaurants.
Sit in the front room at the bar or at a nearby table and watch Ganem and his staff at work in the open kitchen. Venture beyond and you have a choice of nicely decorated, sunny colored rooms on different levels as well as the outdoor deck. We sat near enough to the deck to allow us to easily get up and explore, but the room itself was more than comfortable.
With a round of beverages before us we pored over the single-page menu, and that’s where the bistecca Fiorentina caught my eye. It’s available in two cuts: T-bone or Porterhouse . Each cut includes two of the animal’s tastiest, tenderest chunks of meat: the tenderloin (which gives us filet mignon) and the strip loin, separated by a T-shaped bone. The Porterhouse is cut from a section with a larger piece of tenderloin, hence the extra cost.
The main difference between this and what’s served in Italy is the breed. Over there, your bistecca generally originates from the huge, white Chianina breed; here, you hope for something on the order of Angus. Having had but one Chianina steak a couple of years ago, I can’t swear that it was many orders of magnitude better. In fact, confronted with the Vico Porterhouse, I was too awed to really care. Even though I could consume only a fraction of it, it was a superb fraction, and the rare remainder reheated nicely.
Being in that Tuscan frame of mind, I started with an assortment of meats and cheeses, which included tangy strips of prosciutto and bresaola (cured beef), with provolone, cornichons and more. The evening’s crostini assortment included the traditional bruschetta topping of garlicky tomatoes, olive-rich tapenade and, best of the trio, a green paste of garlic scape pesto.
Salads include insalate pera, a large portion of arugula topped with poached pear slices and gorgonzola, which is a phenomenal combination when the greens are this fresh and the dressing applied with restraint.
If you’re really going Tuscan, two entrées follow, with a pasta course leading the way. We turned Spartan, although we were able to sample a variety. Eight pasta or rice dishes are offered as primi, including a linguine with seafood dish, risotto with lobster stock and shrimp and fettuccine in a lobster-marsala cream sauce with lobster tails.
The seemingly simple pappardelle al telefono covers wide pasta strips with a tomato sauce dripping with mozzarella, hence the name—supposedly for the resemblance of stringy cheese to telephone wires. With fresh basil and a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, it offers more flavor complexity than you might at first suppose.
Fettuccine Botticelli was a special of the day, a dish in which the pasta is topped with a cream sauce, porcini mushrooms, asparagus and edible flowers, so it really does look like a work of art. Linguine tonno, another special, mixed tuna and capers and big green olives in a light tomato sauce, again boasting the freshness of flavor that comes from freshness of ingredients.
The secondi offerings also include sage-seasoned salmon with white beans, grilled rosemary-crusted lamb and preparations of tuna, chicken and duck.
Vico invites you to linger. Service seems effortless, so your feel right at home. Perhaps a glass of limoncello or grappa after the meal, with a biscotti or sorbet. This we shall do next time we visit, when we haven’t over pasta-ized ourselves. Add Vico to your must-try list.