Piedmontese Beef is Better For You
 
By Kate Lawson / The Detroit News
 
Ever since our forebears discovered fire back in the B.C. days and the first unfortunate, four-legged beast stumbled into the flames, man has loved to barbecue. And through the years, the main object of that affection has been beef, especially steaks and burgers.
 
But then beef ran into some trouble. First, in the early '80s, health-conscious Americans' concern over cholesterol and calories sent them scratching around the poultry section of the meat case for a lower-fat alternative. The beef industry responded by developing leaner cuts that have been gradually drawing people back into the fold. Then talk of mad cow disease in Britain a few years ago created such a commotion here that even fast-food restaurants felt the need to promote the nugget part of the chicken rather than burgers. But that furor has died down, too.
 
Now beef is making a comeback. While Americans eat a lot less meat now than they used to (per capita, beef consumption is still down 16 percent since 1985) according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Americans grilled nearly 60 million pounds of beef on Memorial Day, which was 11 percent more than in 1996, and the industry projects Americans will eat nearly 56.6 million pounds of beef this Fourth of July.
 
This delights Gene Baratta, owner of Fairway Packing Co. in Detroit. It's been Baratta's business for the past 35 years to provide meat products to more than 500 Metro Detroit markets and restaurants, and this year he's offering a beef that's not only better tasting, it's better for you.
 
Called Piedmontese beef, it's a double-muscle brand of beef that originates from the Alpine region of northern Italy and is now raised across the United States. Baratta believes it's the beef of the future. "It's lower in calories, has less fat than regular beef and is endorsed by the American Heart Association as a heart-healthy food," Baratta says.
 
Baratta says he was skeptical when he first saw the low-fat Piedmontese. "Characteristics of good beef are a heavy, white fat cover, bright red color and nice white marbleizing. All that is great, but it's also very high in fat and calories and cholesterol," Baratta explains.
 
"The Piedmontese beef doesn't have these traits. You look at a tenderloin or strip loin, and the little bit of fat is a cream color and there's almost no marbleization at all," Baratta says. "As a meat man, I look at this product and I say, 'It doesn't look right. This isn't gonna eat right.' But yet, take this beef, put it on the grill and it eats like prime. It's tender, it's tasty, it's juicy, it's incredible."
 
Incredible is indeed the word. Piedmontese beef has half the cholesterol of regular beef and far less fat than a skinless chicken breast, salmon or swordfish fillet (see the chart on Page 1F). And the heavy muscling of the breed results in more tender and juicy steaks, roasts and grounds. "Plus, the beef is all natural, no steroids, no antibiotics, no force-feeding, just pure goodness," Baratta says.
 
While Piedmontese beef is relatively new to the United States (the breed was first introduced in the early '80s in Canada and arrived here in '84), the cattle have been evolving in northern Italy for 25,000 years, according to Rico DiMattia. DiMattia is national sales director for Ameri-Pied Beef Inc. in Wooster, Ohio, which distributes Piedmontese Beef and also is a breeder of the Piedmontese cattle."We are certified Piedmontese by the USDA and in fact, received certification on our first attempt, which is practically unheard of," DiMattia says. "The compliance specifications for the Piedmontese beef program are so strict that if a cow fails to meet even one point (including weight, fat thickness, marbling, etc.) it's out of the program."
 
And, because the Piedmontese beef has more muscle than its beefier, bulkier cousins, it's naturally lean, more protein-dense and lower in calories, fat and cholesterol.
 
"It's the Arnold Schwarzenegger of cattle," DiMattia says. "It's nutritionally correct meat with a high food value chock full of riboflavin, B-12, iron and zinc. It's the creme de la creme of beef."
 
Indeed, a side-by-side taste comparison between a grilled 6-ounce filet of Piedmontese Beef and a grilled 6-ounce filet of prime beef clearly shows no visible fat in the Piedmontese Beef. The Piedmontese Beef filet also was more tender and juicy than the regular prime filet, and there was no lack of flavor as one might suspect in the low-fat variety. The low-fat filet also cooked in one-third less time.What's the trade-off? Except for slightly higher prices, none that a table of four testers could discern.
 
Where do sales of Piedmontese stand in comparison to regular beef? "It's a grain of sand on the beach. We're only five to 10 percent of the market," says DiMattia, who explains that while there are anywhere from 140,000 to 160,000 head of cattle harvested daily, there are only 2,500 head of Piedmontese harvested yearly. DiMattia expects that number to double by the end of this year.
 
To help make that happen, there are more than 300 breeders of the cattle across the United States, including eight breeders locally in Albion, Lapeer, Clare and DeWitt. "The cattle are then sent to Iowa for harvesting and shipped out from there across the country," DiMattia says. "I should also mention it's also a kosher operation."
 
The Piedmontese beef is not yet available in retail markets other than Fairway Packing in Eastern Market, but Baratta expects that to change very soon. "We're contacting stores throughout Metro Detroit about carrying it."
 
Meanwhile, three Metro Detroit restaurants are trying out the new low-fat beef.
 
Mark Brown, owner of the Red Coat Tavern on Woodward in Royal Oak, began selling a Piedmontese burger (containing only 2 grams of fat) in addition to his regular beef burger about a month ago.
 
"Everybody who's tried it loves it," says Brown, who admits he was a bit surprised himself when he saw how little marbling the beef had. "It tastes more like ground sirloin than a regular burger. It's not as greasy, and it has more beef flavor. I expect to be serving it a lot more once the word gets out."
 
Nearby in Southfield, chef/owner Marty Wilk of Excalibur reports the Piedmontese Beef steaks he sells "have gone over extraordinarily well. I'll continue to carry it, absolutely."John Ausilio, owner of Arriva Restaurant in Warren, says the Piedmontese steaks and filets he serves "are a real winner as far as I'm concerned." He reports a very good response from his customers. Ausilio, who'd been shunning beef in an attempt to lose 50 pounds, says he's even started to eat beef again (but only the Piedmontese Beef). "It feels almost sinful to eat it, it's that good," he claims."I sincerely believe that Piedmontese beef is going to be the product of the next millennium," Baratta says.
 
How nice that will be for those of us who don't want to give up french fries. Now we can just get a side order of guilt.
 
Storing and cooking
 
Gene Baratta of Fairway Packing Co. offers these tips for storing and cooking Piedmontese beef:
 
* Beef can be stored up to two weeks in the refrigerator if it is sealed via the cryovac (airless-packaging) method.
* Beef wrapped in cellophane only can be stored up to four days in the refrigerator.
* Freezing any beef is not recommended, but if it's necessary, make sure the beef is wrapped thoroughly in freezer wrap.
* Do not flash thaw in the microwave as the meat has a tendency to tighten up. Let the beef thaw naturally in the refrigerator for 24 to 36 hours.
* Always let meat sit out a half hour before cooking as it is best prepared at room temperature.
* To grill a 3/4-inch steak, use a high temperature and cook approximately 8 minutes to a medium-rare or medium doneness. It is not recommended that Piedmontese (or any beef, actually) be cooked past medium doneness or the meat will be dry and tasteless.