When Chianina opened its doors in December, it looked to bring the taste of old-world Italy to its contemporary steakhouse nestled in the old location of Kelly’s in Naples. Named after an ancient breed of cattle that dates back to the Romans, the wait (one of many) for owner Michael Dene to finally receive his first Chianina cattle may as well have started during the reign of the last Caesar.
“You can ask my wife; I didn’t sleep last night,” Dene said.
The anticipation came to a end Tuesday night as Chianina rolled out its first offerings of the rare and coveted beef. Dene walked around shaking hands and hugging patrons who had come from all over the southland to get a taste of the Chianina—while it lasts.
“You’re getting the first scoop of something that really is an amazing thing in reality,” Dene said. “Nobody else in America has eaten that beef in a retail environment in a restaurant.”
From now until the beef supply dries up, which is projected to be around December, Chianina will be serving this exclusive carne on a monthly basis, using two cattle per month in a variety of cuts, including the traditional bistecca alla fiorentina, a massive porterhouse-style steak intended to share the Italian way.
Executive Chef David Coleman, who spreads his talents across all three Michael’s Restaurant Group locations, said the cut is the “marriage of two great pieces of meat.”
Like Michael's on Naples and Michael’s Pizzeria, Chianina employs the “whole animal” movement, meaning nothing will go to waste. Coleman explained that while the cuts of steak are “standouts,” the bones will be used to make stock, the chuck will go toward the production of burgers and bolognese sauce, the fat rendered into butter, and so on. That was the idea of buying the whole animal: to use it. Whatever isn’t prepared at Chianina will be used at the two other restaurants.
“We’re not just trying to sell the best stuff; we’re trying to sell the parts that are often thought of as secondary but which are ironically sometimes the best parts,” Coleman said. “At the rate at which were going, even tonight, a lot of it’s going to go through here.”
The Chianina cattle. Photo courtesy of Chianina Steakhouse.
The Chianina’s journey to the United States started in the 1970s with the determination of a Houston-based rancher by the name of Walter Mize, and has a plot line that sounds more like a witness protection program thriller than cattle crossing the Atlantic.
An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease prohibited the importation of the cattle into the United States but Mize found a way. He purchased a few Chianina to bring back from the Italian countryside, but first the specimens were transported to France where the cows gave birth. To avoid possible cross contamination, the calves were fed non-Chianina milk.
After a brief stopover in Japan, the cows were finally brought to the US, where Texas native Bob Morrow eventually inherited the herd from the man that brought them to the States.
Since 1999, Morrow has been raising the breed on his ranch in Goldendale, Washington, just north of the Oregon border. There, the Chianina roam the 340-plus acres of his ranch, which is built atop a volcanic crater that overlooks the Klickitat Valley. Unlike their ancestors that were used by the Romans for their strength and durability—the Chianina is the tallest and heaviest breed of cattle, often measuring over six feet in height and weighing over 3,000 pounds—Morrow’s cattle “live a life of luxury” before they’re sent off to a farm in Utah to be prepped for consumption.
Morrow explained that the Chianina’s lean muscle mass and lack of marbling comes from its history as a beast of burden. Those centuries spent pulling plows and wheel carts have created a tender, high quality cut of meat that is lower in fat and has 30% less cholesterol than other prime beef, including the famed Japanese Wagyu or even Piedmontese beef, which the restaurant has served since its opening. However, to taste that quality takes patience, because raising the cattle and doing it right takes time, especially when pure-bred Chianina is exceptionally hard to come by in the United States.
“We can’t bring them in, it would be wonderful if we could but we can’t,” Morrow said. “But once you’ve got them, you can grow a herd fairly fast. And once you’ve got a herd, it kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The partnership between Dene and Morrow was almost for naught. When Coleman initially made his overture to Morrow, he declined the offer by stating that he was retired. However, Dene wouldn’t take no for an answer. He personally called Morrow, flew to his ranch in Goldendale and over a Chianina dinner prepared by Morrow's wife, convinced the retired CPA-turned-rancher to enter into the partnership with him. The taste was exactly what Dene remembered from his travels to Italy, and he had to have it for his new restaurant.
Morrow is the only rancher in the US that strictly breeds Chianina, and now that the herd of nearly 20 is ready to be slaughtered, Dene’s restaurant is one of (if not the only) American restaurant that will regularly serve it. In fact, Dene recommends that guests call ahead of time to ensure the beef's presence on the menu, though he notes that patrons will be unable to call and reserve a steak.
Dene prides himself on the rarity as much as the quality and freshness, a staple of all of his establishments. Cows can be grown fast and buttered to the point of being marshmallow-esque, but, according to Dene, he was interested in creating something different which is why he coveted the Chianina cattle.
Others have taken notice. Wolfgang Puck and other famous chefs have approached Dene in attempts to buy his beef. Dene had to decline, stating that they "hardly have enough for ourselves; I can't sell any to them."
Dene knows that he's on the cutting edge of steakhouses and that sooner or later it wont be just people in the industry demanding his cows.
“It’s an exciting place for me and it’s exciting for me to be a part of because we’ve created a contemporary Italian steakhouse that’s not too often found in North America,” Dene said. “Anyone can eat beef and love it with butter on it, but not many people can eat beef that just has salt, pepper and a little bit of rosemary and olive oil on it and make the flavor tell the story."
As Dene circled the restaurant gauging the reactions of his patrons to the labor of love that has been the raising of the Chianina, his excitement was drowned out only by the hyperbolic verbal stamps of approval handed out from satisfied foodies.
“The best steak I’ve ever had,” said one guest. “Phenomenal”—so phenomenal in fact, the guest ate the bone.
Encapsulating the beef-buzz that pulsated through the intimate steakhouse, one couple simply hugged Dene and said, “Thank you for bringing this to America.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to the Texas-based rancher as Walter Demuille, the correct name is Walter Mize.
Chianina is located at 5716 E 2nd Street. Dinner is served Tuesday through Sunday, 5PM to 11PM. Reservations can be made by calling 562-434-2333