Braciole—beef slices rolled up with a savory garlic, parsley and cheese filling—is one of those dishes common to both Italian-American and ‘Old World’ Italian cooking—of the Neapolitan variety. Italian-Americans will often add them to the pot when making Sunday Sauce, but they are equally good on their own, simmered in tomato sauce. Unlike the long simmering of a Sunday sauce, braciole need only an hour or an hour and a half of cooking. In fact, many modern recipes call for as little as 30 minutes of simmering, but I like these done the old-fashioned way, simmered in a leisurely fashion as if making a ragù. The sauce is wonderful, almost as good as Sunday sauce, and can be used to dress pasta as a first course before the braciole themselves.
To keep things moist inside, I like to include some finely chopped pork fat or lard in the filling, but if the thought of that much fat makes you shudder, you can omit it, as many modern recipes do, or substitute a bit of olive oil. Some recipes call for a slice of prosciutto as well.
For the braciole:
- 8 thin slices of beef (see Notes)
- A generous handful of fresh parsley
- 1 clove of garlic
- A small chunk of pork fat or a spoonful of lard
- Provolone, caciocavallo or pecorino cheese, q.b.
- A few raisins, soaked until soft
- A few pinoli nuts
- Salt and pepper
- 8 slices of prosciutto
For the sauce:
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove of garlic
- Lard or olive oil
- A splash of red wine
- 500g (16 oz.) of passata di pomodoro or puréed canned tomatoes
- Salt and pepper
Take your beef slices and pound them between two sheets of wax paper until they are very thin.
Mash up the garlic, the chopped parsley with a generous pinch of salt and a grind or two of pepper, with a mortar and pestle until you have a thick paste. (In the absence of a mortar and pestle, you can just chop them all up together with a knife or mezzaluna.)
Lay out the beef slices on a clean surface and slather some of the garlic and parsley paste on each slice. Then add the provolone or caciocavallo (cut into little cubes) or the pecorino (grated), followed by a few raisins and pinoli nuts.
Roll up the beef slices as tightly as you can. To keep them closed during cooking, you should tie them at each end with kitchen string into little bundles (as pictured) or skewer them with toothpicks.
Melt some lard (or heat some olive oil) in a sauté pan, then add the braciole and brown them lightly.
Add the onion and garlic, and season everything with salt and pepper. Simmer gently, covered, until the onion is very soft, turning the braciole from time to time. Add a bit of water if need be to prevent the onion from browning.
Uncover the pan, turn up the heat and add the red wine. Let the wine cook off, turning the braciole from time to time so they color evenly in the wine.
Now add the tomato, mixing it well with the soffritto. Turn down the heat again, cover the pan and let it all simmer very gently for a good hour or more, until the meat is tender and the sauce dark and well reduced. Add some water if the sauce is getting too thick before the meat is done.
To serve, remove the string (if using) and lay the braciole, either home-style—whole with a spoonful of sauce on top—or, for a more elegant presentation, as picture above—sliced, over a ‘bed’ of sauce. Keep the rest of the sauce to dress pasta, perhaps as a primo at the same meal.
Thin beef slices of the kind you want for this dish can be hard to find in the US outside Italian neighborhoods. But some supermarkets sell “sandwich steaks” that you can use for the purpose. And Korean supermarkets sell thinly sliced beef for barbecue that will do very well, too. If you have a friendly butcher, he should also be able to cut you some slices to order. If all else fails, you can always buy a cut of beef and slice them yourself with a large, sharp knife. (Freezing the meat a bit will make the job easier.) The classic cut is natica di manzo, or beef buttock, better known in the US, as the round (either top or bottom will do). The cut is usually quite lean, but if you can find a piece with some marbling in it, all the better.
The stuffing can vary a bit according to your taste. The added fat can be left out if you like, as I said, but at the cost of some moistness. Not all recipes call for raisins or pinoli nuts—and, in fact, Angelina left them out. And while old-fashioned dishes call for provolone, a native Neapolitan cheese, you can use the easier to find pecorino romano if you like.
The traditional versions of this dish call for tomato paste diluted in water, but personally I like to use either passata di pomodoro (strained tomatoes) or canned tomatoes that I pass through a food mill (you can use a blender or food processor if you like).
The name of the dish, by the way, is pronounced “Brah-CHO-lay” in standard Italian, while Italian-Americans pronounce it “Brah-ZHOHL” (with ZH= the “s” in “pleasure”). The Italian-American pronunication is, of course, a holdover from the dialect.
There are braciole that are made in bianco, without sauce at all. This version being more properly called braciole al ragù to distinguish it from other types. And the word can also refer to rolls made from ground meat as well. The invention of the braciola napoletana is attributed to Ippolito Cavalcanti, 19th Century nobleman and gastronome, and author of the seminal masterwork of Neapolitan cuisine, the Cucina Teorico-practica.
In most of Italy, by the way, the term braciole does not mean this kind of roll at all, which is usually called involtino, but rather a chop.