On most weekend nights, the line of hungry customers waiting for a seat at Florence's legendary Il Latini restaurant spills halfway down the narrow, stone-paved Via Palchetti. But for the past few months, getting in to feast on the house specialty--the encyclopedia-size Fiorentina T-bone steak--has been easier. "This mad cow thing is just like the millennium bug," proclaims Torello Latini, who with his wife runs the restaurant founded by his father, Narciso, more than half a century ago. "People are scared, but they'll soon see there's nothing to it."
That may be. But for now, with five cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) confirmed since the beginning of the year--from only 38,000 animals tested as of Mar. 6, out of a total of 7 million--Italy's mad cow crisis has taken a heavy toll on consumer confidence. In response, restaurant owners such as Latini are rewriting their menus.
Despite unwavering reassurances from the Agriculture Ministry that Italian meat is safe, many of the recipes handed down by mamma have been relegated to the back burner. The Fiorentina T-bone, which is served raw on the inside after no more than five minutes' barbecue over hot embers, faces possible extinction on Apr. 1, when an EU ban on the use of the vertebral column from cattle aged over 12 months is scheduled to take effect. So it's time to get creative. "I added a few new dishes to my menu, including one used in medieval Tuscany in which wild game is stewed with honey and chocolate," says the portly Latini. "But the Fiorentina is just as much a part of Tuscany as Chianti wine, and tastes won't change." He does concede that Fiorentina sales dropped in January and February, adding that families and female eaters especially have been skipping the meat course in favor of pasta or vegetables.
From Milan to Messina, namesake dishes are no longer whetting appetites in a country that saw beef consumption tumble by 70% from the year before in some regions in January. Risotto alla milanese is rice cooked in a broth made of bone marrow and yellow saffron. In Rome, locals feast on fried cow brain and artichoke as well as pajata, noodle-like strips of a young cow's intestine served with tomato sauce. But now, restaurant-goers are steering clear. "I've been trying a lot of new ethnic foods lately, like Chinese and Indian," says Milan lawyer Fabrizio Soda. "And I'm eating more seafood."
FUNERAL MARCH. Rome plans to dole out $250 million in emergency funds to farmers and also fine up to $75,000 any company using or producing animal-based livestock feed. Ranchers and butchers, who suffer from guilt by association even though they say they've never used the feed, are up in arms. Since January, many have staged cook-off protests in front of Parliament, handing out free steaks and red wine. Butcher Dario Cecchini, whose shop in Panzano in the Chianti region has been in family hands for 200 years, plans to stage a T-bone steak funeral march at the end of March. A Fiorentina will be placed in a coffin and paraded through town. "Tuscans like to celebrate gluttony and lust, and the Fiorentina is all about those things," says Cecchini, who is known as the "poet butcher" because he can recite the entire "Inferno" from Dante's Divine Comedy. Sure enough, he stands behind a glass counter adorned with devils and gold-gilded flames.
Beef may be cursed, but enterprising chefs have been quick to find substitutes to serve Italian carnivores. Ostrich, bison, reindeer, and even kangaroo meat are popping up on menus. Bison makes good salami, and reindeer can be served with a black truffle and caper sauce that overpowers the meat's gamey taste. Kangaroo, imported from Australia, can be breaded and fried with marjoram. Ostrich, served raw and thinly sliced, makes a great carpaccio. Guido Bruzzo, who imports more than a ton of ostrich meat every month that retails for $20 a kilo, has seen demand rise by 25% since the start of the mad cow crisis. The number of Italian ostrich farms has almost doubled in five years, to 1,770, with 150 of those in Tuscany alone.
The irony is that beef sales are creeping up again--by as much as 47% from the second to third week of February in the south, where mad cow fears were originally strongest. Some have suggested that the turnaround is fueled by steak eaters wanting to squeeze in their last Fiorentina before the ban goes into effect. But it could be that reindeer meat simply doesn't get Italian juices flowing. By Monica Larner in Florence
EDITED BY Harry Maurer