There are many reasons to love Nash Cognetti’s bistecca alla Fiorentina, grilled to pink perfection over hot almond wood on Friday nights at Tra Vigne, in St. Helena.
For starters, it’s the closest thing to an authentic Italian bistecca alla Fiorentina that you’re likely to find on this side of the Atlantic.
Save the $2,000 airfare of flying to Florence and, instead, book a Friday table at Tra Vigne. This also eliminates the hassle of a TSA strip-search at the airport.
After wowing locals every Wednesday this summer with his sensational seafood cioppino dinner (delicious house salad, HUGE serving of cioppino, grilled asparagus, roasted potatoes and buttery toasted bread, all for only $20 a person), Nash has decided to one-up himself. Now he’s offering Tuscany’s most famous steak every Friday night. Only Nash does it better than I’ve ever had in Italy.
In Nash’s world, steak alla Fiorentina means serving a one-kilo (2.2 pounds), three-finger-thick, porterhouse steak that he personally grills al sangue (pink), slices and drizzles with extra-virgin olive oil and gives a squeeze of fresh lemon. Just as they do in Florence’s best restaurants.
Served with sautéed spinach, the giant steak is $60 for two. This is a bargain, given the quality, taste, and size of the steak. Many Bay-area steakhouses charge more than $30 for an 8-ounce filet; I weighed the filet portion of the porterhouse steak, which Nash cooked for me, and in its raw state, it weighed 12 ounces.
I prefer Nash’s steak to those I have had in Italy as the meat here is richer and more marbled. As well, Nash has cooking steps, which are more thought out, producing a more evenly cooked end product. Let me explain.
Steak alla Fiorentina is cut from the short loin, pictured above. Nash has two rules at this stage: first, the beef has to be aged at least 24 days to reduce moisture and concentrate flavor. Secondly, the vertical cut made on this block, to slice off your steak, must be three-fingers thick, as illustrated.
When you cut the first few steaks off this short loin as shown, they are called porterhouse steaks. On each porterhouse, the muscle to the left of the T-shaped bone, (pictured above) is what we know as a filet. To the right of the T-bone (above) is the cut we know as a strip steak.
As steaks are cut off sequentially in the block above, the percentage of meat on the left and right side of the center T-bone changes; steaks cut from the end of this block would be called T-bone steaks, would no longer be called porterhouse steaks. Got that? (Relax: none of this is on the final napaman exam.)
Culinary purists argue whether the proper cut for steak alla Fiorentina should be the porterhouse, or T-bone cut; Nash prefers the former simply because the tenderloin portion (filet) is larger.
“We serve grass-fed, grain-finished beef from Van De Rose farms in Iowa. The beef is hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and most importantly, delicious,” says Nash.
But it’s what the chef does with the steak that is most impressive.
This is how Nash measures the thickness of the steak he will cut and grill for you; it must be three-fingers-thick.
In Florence, to make this dish, they use local beef, the Chianina cow. It has a grassy taste and sufficient marbling, but tends to be sinewy. It also just happens to be local, so it’s what they choose to grill.
As the filet portion of the steak is smaller and less marbled than the strip portion of a porterhouse steak, Nash removes the filet and cooks it separately, and for a different length of time, than the strip loin portion.
“This allows me to cook both portions of the steak to a precise pinkness,” says the chef.
A properly grilled steak alla Fiorentina is seared, to caramelize the surface but the interior is ALWAYS pink, or rare to medium-rare. Italians don’t ask their waiter for a “medium-cooked,” or “well-done” bistecca alla Fiorentina. This would be like asking for your sushi at a Japanese restaurant to be well done.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina, grilled al sangue (just to the point of pinkness).
In fact, in Florence, at Trattoria Mario, in the market area, where I had a good bistecca alla Fiorentina (sorry Mario – not as good as Nash’s!), this sign is posted on the wall to ward off tourist complaints about the doneness of the steak:
The message: You want bistecca alla Fiorentina? You get it the way it the only way it is grilled - pink. You want well-done steak? Head to an Arby’s or Outback Steakhouse…
After the steak is grilled, Nash seasons it with Sicilian sea salt (from the Trapani Sea, if you’re a detail person – but this is NOT on the final exam, either) and freshly crushed black peppercorns. It’s then drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and given zippy brightness from the juice of a squeezed half-lemon.
As in Italy, bistecca alla Fiorentina serves two persons. Nash’s version is offered Friday nights only.
Nash, who trained at the California Culinary Academy, cooked at Plumpjack, Jack Falstaff and Balboa Café in San Francisco before being hired at Tra Vigne. In December 2007, he became executive chef.
One of the memorable fixtures of the high-ceilinged dining room at Tra Vigne, is this bar, an original fixture from St. George, a 1980’s restaurant which preceded Tra Vigne.
Nash’s quest to offer simple, authentic versions of (mostly) Italian, dishes has been successful. The food here is back on top – perfectly prepared and served, as good as it’s ever been in 22 years.
One final note: As good as entrees are at Tra Vigne, desserts are not to be missed. On each of two recent visits, I enjoyed the best strawberry shortcake, which I have ever had. Anywhere. The confection may not be Italian, but it sure as hell is tasty here and not to be missed. Or as the Michelin Man would say, “Worth the detour.”
Tra Vigne, 1050 Charter Oak Ave., St. Helena. Tel: 707-963-4444.
After this review… reservations recommended!