Not everyone associates hamburgers with Italian cooking, but Italians have a long tradition of using ground beef in imaginative ways, for meatballs (polpette) and meatloaf (polpettone), as well as as a basis for the classic ragù alla bolognese. So it should really come as no surprise that they’ve also applied their culinary creativity those patties of ground beef, which are called svizzere (Swiss) in Italian but these days are just as likely to be called by their English/German name. In fact, the tradition goes back to long before McDonald’s came to Italy.
Made in the Italian manner, the hamburger becomes a kind of secondo. The beef is generally seasoned with aromatics and cheese, and mixed with bread to give it a softer texture, then browned in a skillet and served with a sauce. Some classic meat dishes —like carne alla pizzaiola or costolette alla valdostana—have been adapted for the hamburger with delicious results. Of course, beef goes incredibly well with cream, and here is my favorite ‘classy’ hamburger.
Ingredients (serves 4 persons)
For the patties:
500g (1 lb.) ground beef (or 4 beef patties)
1 slice of best-quality bread (better if homemade) crust removed, cut into cubes, soaked in milk to cover and squeezed dry
1 medium onion or 2 shallots, minced and sautéed in butter until soft
100g grated parmesan cheese
A handful of chopped parsley
A scrape or two of nutmeg
Salt and pepper, q.b.
For the browning and sauce:
Olive oil and/or butter
1 spoonful of flour
1 cup of rich beef broth
2 cups of cream
For finishing the dish:
A splash of sherry
More chopped parsley
Mix all the ingredients for the patties in a large bowl and mix them thoroughly with wooden spoon or spatula until smooth and uniform. (If you find the mixture a bit too soft or wet to handle easily, you can add a bit more cheese or bread to stiffen it a bit.) Form the mixture into four round, flat patties.
Sauté the patties in a sauté pan in a combination of oil and butter until they are nicely browned on both sides. Remove the patties from the pan.
Add a heaping spoonful of flour to the pan and let it cook int the fat for a minute or two. You can let it turn a light brown if you like. Then add the broth, whisking vigorously so it incorporates the flour well. Let the broth come to the simmer; it will thicken up a bit. Then add the cream, mix well, and add back the patties. Let the whole dish simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the sauce has reduced considerably and the patties are done through.
A few minutes before serving, add a splash of sherry and some chopped parsley to the sauce.
Serve the ‘hamburgers’ immediately, with the sauce napped on top and some nice crusty bread or a few steamed baby potatoes on the side.
NOTES: I am a big fan of using ground chuck for hamburgers. Not only is it inexpensive, it provides great flavor and has enough fat to keep the patties nice and juicy. If you use a leaner cut such as sirloin, you may want to mix a bit of softened butter into the mixture.
As I mentioned at the top of the post, the combination of beef and cream is a classic. You may have noticed more than a passing resemblance between this dish and Swedish meatballs, for example. I remember eating some similar in Austria as well (the name of the dish escapes me) and, of course, in a different guise, there’s the ever-popular Beef Stroganoff.
You can add vegetables—mushrooms for example—to this dish to add more interest. Add the sliced or chopped vegetables to the fat after removing the beef patties and sauté until they are nicely softened and brown, the proceed to add the flour and continue the recipe from there.
Of course, this is not a dietetic meal, but, in the Italian style, you will be eating just one patty and a bit of sauce as part of a larger multi-course meal. Keep the other courses light, say a chicory and rice soup to start and a piece of fruit as dessert, and you should have a balanced and not too heavy meal.
For more background on Italian hamburgers, Kyle Phillips has an excellent article on About.com that is well worth a read.