The scaloppina (in the plural, scaloppine) and its manifold variations may be the most common secondo in Italian cooking. To me, it is typical of that Italian knack for using a bland main ingredient as a foil for a flavorful sauce. Pasta is the example we all know and love, but in the case of Scalopini Marsala, una fettina di carne, or a slice of meat, serves as the foil instead. Veal is the classic choice, as it has only a very mild flavor of its own. These days, turkey or pork (and, particularly outside Italy, chicken breast) provide less expensive alternatives.
Scalopini Marsala looks very elegant on a serving platter, but it is really very quick and easy to make, as perfect for a weekday supper as it is for an important dinner for company.
- 4 slices of veal, cut from the loin (or pork loin, turkey breast or chicken breast)
- 50g (1/2 stick) of butter, or a combination of butter and oil
- Salt and pepper
- A glassful of dry marsala wine
Take your slices of meat and, placing them between two sheets of waxed paper, give them a good thumping with the back of a heavy skillet—or with a meat pounder, if you have one. This will thin them out even more and break down some of the fiber in the meat, rendering it more tender.
Meanwhile, heat the butter (or butter and oil, or even just oil if you’d rather) in a skillet over medium-high heat. When the foam subsides, add the slices, which you will have very light floured just beforehand. Make sure they are not crowded in the pan or they will not brown properly. (If your skillet is not big enough to hold all the slices at one go, you can proceed in batches.) Sear them for just 30 seconds or so on each side, seasoning well with salt and pepper. They should lightly brown around the edges. Remove the slices to a heated platter and keep warm. (A toaster oven set to ‘warm’ is perfect for this.)
Add the marsala to the pan, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. Let it reduce until it forms a syrupy sauce. Then, turning off the heat, add the slices back to the pan and turn them around to coat well.
Arrange the slices on a warmed platter, pour over any remaining sauce in the skillet, and serve your Scalopini Marsala immediately.
The above recipe will produce a small amount of intensely flavored marsala ‘sauce’, which is just the way I like it. I also like to swirl in a pat of butter off heat, which smooths out the sauce and gives it a nice sheen. If you prefer more sauce—better to ‘fare la scarpetta‘—you can dilute the marsala in a cup or more of broth mixed with a spoonful of flour or corn starch. In this case, simmer the sauce over gentler heat for a minute or two, long enough to thicken, but don’t allow it to reduce very much.
I think it was Marcella Hazan, way back in the 1970’s, who pointed out that veal scaloppine should be sliced against the grain. Unfortunately, American supermarkets don’t seem to have listened. You will still find most veal slices cut with the grain, which means that they will tend to curl and toughen as they cook. Not much that can be done about this. Marcella’s solution—buying a whole veal loin and slicing it yourself—is an effective but prohibitively pricey for most of us. I just whack the heck out of the veal and trim off any filament in hopes that that will do the trick, and I usually get a serviceable result.
If you are using chicken breasts, you should start by slicing off the little ‘extra’ flap of meat on the underside of the breast called the tenderloin, then cut the main part of the breast width-wise into two slices. The operation is easier if you apply gentle pressure on the top of the breast with the palm of one hand while slicing with the other. (NB: Extra-plump breasts you often find these days are thick enough for three slices.) Then proceed to flatten the tenderloin and slices as described in the main recipe.
No matter what meat you use, it’s crucial that the slices be quite thin—remember, the meat is really meant as a foil or vehicle to carry the sauce; it is not actually the star of the show.
There are other well-known scaloppini dishes, perhaps the best known being the scaloppine al limone (finished with lemon juice rather than marsala wine). Saltimbocca alla romana, one of the signatory secondi of Roman cookery, is really just a kind of scallopine dish, a bit more elaborate. Some recipes can get quite elaborate, adding ham, cheese, asparagus… And if you stuff and roll your meat slices, you wind up with involtini. But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself; I’ll save these subjects for future posts…