One of the most famous of all meat dishes in the Roman culinary repertoire, these veal scaloppini known as saltimbocca typify Roman cooking in their simple, lusty deliciousness. And they are really quite easy to make, too, so long as you keep a few cardinal points in mind.
You begin with slices of veal known as scallopine. Trim off any loose meat or connective tissue and pound them very thin between two sheets of wax paper (or plastic wrap), then lay a thin slice of prosciutto and a single sage leaf over each slice of veal. Skewer them all together with a wooden toothpick like this:
Then heat a skillet or sauté pan large enough to hold all your veal slices comfortably until properly hot (see link below) and add a bit of olive oil and butter. When the butter melts, add your veal slices, with the prosciutto and sage side facing down, and allow it to brown for just a minute. (NB: The prosciutto will harden if it fries too long.) Then flip each over and brown on the other side, again for only a minute or so, seasoning with salt (just a bit, since the prosciutto is already salty) and pepper:
Remove the veal slices from the pan and arranged on a warmed serving platter. Then deglaze the sucs that will have formed in the pan (assuming you’ve used stainless steel, see Notes below), remove the pan from the heat and swirl in a dab on butter until it has completely melted, and pour the resulting sauce over your veal slices and serve immediately.
NOTES: The main ‘trick’ to this otherwise easy dish is to ensure tenderness. Veal scallopine are typically cut from the top round. You can find them pre-sliced in the better supermarkets or butchers, but they are rarely made correctly here in the US. They should be cut across the grain but are almost always cut with the grain, which means the muscle fibers remain intact and the meat tends to curl and toughen as it cooks. What to do? Well, if you are on good terms with your butcher (assuming that you have a butcher, a professional that is sadly quickly disappearing) you can ask him to give you properly made scallopine. Otherwise, it becomes essential to pound the meat very well. The pounding will partially break up the fibers and tenderize the meat. And make sure that you trim off any silverskin or other connective tissue attached to the meat.
Like many traditional dishes, saltimbocca has a good number of variations. The oldest recipes I have found—including the recipe given by the romanissima Ada Boni and by Artusi—call for cooking the dish entirely in butter and using water, not wine, for the final deglazing. These traditional techniques are repeated in the authoritative La cucina romana e del Lazio by L. Jannattoni. The official cookbook of the Italian Academy of Cuisine, on the other hand, calls for deglazing with wine (but no final butter enrichment).
Most modern recipes, however, including almost all the ones you are likely to find online, call for adding the wine to the pan while the veal slices continue to cook—some recipes call for just a bit, others for a generous pour. This adds flavor to the meat and, even if I usually find the original versions of traditional recipes more appealing, this is one modernism that may actually improve on the original. A number of modern recipes also call for lightly flouring the veal slices, which, of course, aids in browning them and provides for a nice liaison for the sauce. If you do this, however, you will need to add wine, and a fair amount at that, or else you will wind up with a stodgy, gooey sauce—which is all too often what you get when you order this dish in an “Italian” restaurant outside Italy.
Finally, there is the eternal question: do you place your sage leaf between the veal and prosciutto, or on the outside? I prefer the latter option, as it allows the sage to lend its flavor to the sauce. And I find that the sage taste is just too strong if the leaf is ‘protected’ by the prosciutto.
This is one recipe where the choice of your cooking utensil will make a real difference in the end product. Many modern recipes call for using a non-stick skillet. That works fine, especially if you follow the modern practice of simmering the veal slices in white wine. But if you follow the traditional recipe, you’ll want those lovely sucs that will only form if you use a stainless steel (or copper) pan. Many people these days shy away from these materials because they are afraid of the meat sticking, but if you heat your pan properly, that should not be problem. For proper use of stainless steel for pan frying, take a look at this excellent instructional video from the Rouxbe Online Cooking School.
It is common to make this and other veal scallopini recipes using with other meats instead of veal. Here in the US, the most common substitute is probably chicken, as in this recipe for chicken piccata. In Rome, however, I would dare say that chicken saltimbocca would be seen as a kind of heresy. But given the cost of veal, even in Italy, substitutions are not unheard of when making scallopine; slices of turkey breast or pork loin, however, are much more common than chicken.
Even though saltimbocca is one of the most iconic Roman dishes you can find, it is actually rather uncharacteristic of Roman cuisine in its use of butter as a cooking medium and its final deglazing and butter enrichment—all rather ‘Frenchified’ and not very Roman. Some gastronomes, including Ana Boni, cast doubt on its Roman origins. Indeed, according to Jannattoni, Boni’s uncle Adolfo Giaquinto, in his Manuale pratico di cucina, includes an identical recipe called saltimbocca alla bresciana, or “Brescia-style” saltimbocca.
Saltimbocca is usually served with a green vegetable as a contorno. This time I made piselli alla romana, Roman-style Peas, which will be the subject of a post in the near future.
The name saltimbocca, as many of you probably already know, means ‘leap into the mouth’, a reference to how very good they really are.