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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Braciola: Try an Italian-American classic

 •  Dish worth time invested
 •  Step-by-step guide to braciola

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Braciola is so popular among Italian Americans back East that stores sell meat specially cut for the dish.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

When Amelia DeAngelo Chun thinks about holiday time back in New Jersey, she thinks about visits to cousins and great aunts and grandmas all up and down the state and into New York.

And she thinks about one particular dish: braciola, or "brazhool," as Tony Soprano would pronounce it.

Top round steaks, pounded thin by the strong arms of the lady of the house, filled with herbs and onions and bread crumbs and other good things, rolled and tied with string and then cooked in what East Coast Italian Americans call "gravy" — meaning homemade red sauce.

"It's like hekka or beef stew here: It's what you make when the whole family's comin' and you want something special but something that goes a long way. Everybody has a recipe, and everybody's Mama's recipe is the best. You could fight over it," said Chun, who married a Hawai'i man and left New Jersey 15 years ago but retains a bit of the accent, and the in-your-face-attitude of her hometown of Teaneck.

"I would paddle a canoe single-handed all the way back to Jersey for just a taste of my Nana's braciola but she's gone, and although mine is very good, it's not hers," Chun said. She has converted her entire family here into braciola afficionados. "One year, my mother-in-law even made a Chinese version where she filled the beef rolls with rice and cooked them with oyster sauce and shoyu and, I gotta say, it was pretty good even if she did do it for a joke. She kept telling me she was making me braciola for dinner and then she comes out with this brown dish! We still laugh about that."

Braciola (variously spelled braciole, bracciola) has a long but hazy history. A similar beef roll is made in southern Italy, but it's braised in wine instead of tomato sauce and served in small portions as a second course, between the pasta and the fish — not in the industrial-size portions that constitute the Italian-American Sunday dinner. Chun remembers sitting down to tables of a dozen or 20, snaking out of the dining room into the living room on mismatched chairs and card tables, and seeing pan after pan of braciola come out of the kitchen.

Although there's work involved, braciola isn't hard to make: You need to know how to fry and braise (to slowly cook something in liquid over low heat). And you need some time; it's definitely a weekend dish because the beef needs a couple of hours in the oven.

The dish is so common in southern Italian communities back East the meat departments sell thin-sliced steaks and label them "for braciola." Elise Yates, another Honolulu transplant (New York and Georgia), has found the pre-cut sukiyaki or teriyaki beef sold here a perfect substitute. Others buy thin steaks and pound them even thinner — a bracing activity that takes some skill and not a little muscle to flatten but not tear the meat. A number of different cuts of meat can be used: the center of the top round, sirloin, flank (which does need to be pounded), scaloppine cuts.

The rich-tasting made-from-scratch sauce — which has dozens of uses — was so common at the Sunday table that it was routinely referred to "Sunday sauce" or "Sunday gravy." In some households, it was a straightforward marinara: canned crushed tomatoes cooked in olive oil with garlic and some fresh herbs. In others, the sauce might be enriched by cuts of pork or beef cooked along with the tomatoes, or even meatballs. It might be served over pasta, chicken or steaks, or as a base for lasagna or eggplant parmesan.

The filling ranges from the very simple mixture favored by Yates — bread crumbs, pine nuts, garlic, parsley, raisins and parmesan or romano cheese — to layered fillings including bread crumb mixtures, slices of provolone or or mozzarella cheese, bacon or prosciutto ham. Chun sautees minced onion, garlic, basil and parsley with bits of salt pork (or ham) and tosses the mixture with dry bread crumbs and salt and pepper to taste; she spread provolone slices on the meat, tops with a mound of filling and then rolls the beef up.

"Braciola has everything: It's meaty but it's not too heavy. The tomato gravy gives it a lot of flavor. And a really good braciola will just fall apart when you look at it, it's so tender," said Chun. "God, I could go for some right now!"

• • •

Step-by-step guide to braciola

1. Making the filling
Process sliced dried bread, parsley and garlic together to make a rough-textured crumb mixture. (Without a food processor, roughly chop the parsley and garlic and use a rolling pin to make crumbs.) Add flavoring ingredients, such as pine nuts and raisins.

2. Stuffing the bread rolls
Salt and pepper thinly sliced beef (teriyaki-cut), lay a slice of provolone or other cheese on beef, top with crumb mixture and roll up tightly. Secure with cotton kitchen string or bamboo skewers.

3. Browning the rolls
Melt butter with olive oil and saute beef rolls briefly until colored on all sides.

4. Making the sauce
A simple "tomato gravy" is made by sauteing garlic briefly in butter and olive oil, adding canned crushed tomatoes and wine (optional) and cooking until the sauce is slightly thickened and glossy.

5. The rolls cook in the sauce for two hours, growing fork-tender and becoming permeated with the tangy tomato flavor.