Old Italian’s Braciole

For many years, I cooked numerous dinners for a dear friend I fondly called The Old Italian. His cooking prowess was limited to pour-over coffee – lots and lots of coffee all day long – and to the occasional box of Jello, always orange. But he was an adventurous eater and liked most everything I concocted even when I was testing a recipe that was far from right just yet.

However, every few weeks he would get nostalgic and say, in a reflective way, “Could you make me some Sholl?” Anyway, that’s the way he pronounced it. I had absolutely no idea what he was hoping for. Questions as to its makeup had vague answers. Beef with a tomato sauce. That could have been one of hundreds of Italian recipes.

He only knew he’d had this as a youngster and loved it. I knew he’d had an Italian mother and a German housemother, so it could be rooted in Italy or maybe Germany? So I scouted my huge bookshelf, mostly looking under S for something that could be Sholl and at all of the beef listings. No luck. Everything I tried was “good, but not right.”

Then one night we visited an old-school Italian restaurant. Seated where the servers left the kitchen, he and I both eyed every dish that came out. Suddenly, with wide smile, he declared “There it is!” So I waved down the waitress and asked what she had just served. Pointing to the huge menu I held in my hand, there it was: Braciole. No wonder I’d been looking in all the wrong places.

Of course we ordered it and, once he’d confirmed that it was “almost right”, I picked it apart to see what it was made of. And sure enough, when I hunted up recipes, this time with the real name, I found dozens.

Turns out this dish has as many ways to make it as there are Italian cooks and ways to pronounce its name. The methods are similar but the fillings range all over the map. My guess is that fillings were adapted to whatever was easily accessible, and then transferred from family to family as sacred truth.

I experimented with many. Here is the fairly simple one the Old Italian and I settled on.

On a warmer day, plug in the slow cooker for the long cooking process; I’ve given you instructions for more traditional versions as well. Turns out the only real secret to this recipe was in knowing how to translate an Old Italian’s pronunciation!

Old Italian’s Braicole                   

Serves 4

  • 2 slices whole wheat bread
  • 1 large garlic clove, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped red onion
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped red bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup parsley leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt and black pepper
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh basil and parsley or ½ teaspoon dry Italian spice mix
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 4 very thinly sliced pieces of round steak, sometimes called Sandwich Steaks
  • 4 – 6 Swiss chard leaves or 8 – 10 large leaves fresh spinach
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1 cup spaghetti sauce, prepared or homemade

1. Tear the bread into chunks and place in the bowl of a food processor with the garlic. Pulse 3 – 4 times. Add the garlic, onion, bell pepper, parsley and spices and pulse until crumbly and well mixed. Taste and adjust flavor as necessary. Add the egg and cheese; pulse just until the mixture begins to hold together.

2. Place the round steak pieces on a work surface and top with chard or spinach leaves to cover. Add about 2 tablespoons of the filling in a line near the wide end and then roll tightly from wide to narrow end. Tie with kitchen string or pin in place with toothpicks.

3. In a skillet over medium high heat, warm the oil and brown the rolls on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Remove rolls and place into a slow cooker in one or two layers. 4.  Over medium heat, add the wine to the skillet and scrape up all browned bits. Add this to the slow cooker and then spoon the spaghetti sauce over the rolls. Cook on high 4 hours or on low for 6 hours. 5.  Remove strings or toothpicks and serve the rolls with pasta; spoon the sauce over all.

NOTES: Sandwich steaks are available at some meat markets. Or buy thin sliced bottom round and cut into wedge or rectangular shapes. Use homemade spaghetti sauce if available, but jarred sauce is fine.

If you wish to do these on the stovetop or in the oven, replace the rolls into the skillet after the deglazing step, cover with the sauce then cover the pan and cook on very low simmer or in a 325º oven for about 1 hour.