My Italian language skills are rather limited (I’m working on it), but ordering from restaurant menus in Italy is easy. Like many Americans, I’m well acquainted with the traditional dishes. (But sadly, if the waiter then tries to engage me in conversation, I can only stammer that it’s such a lovely day.)
One familiar (but occasionally complex) Italian menu term is involtini. It usually refers to something rolled up around a savory filling. It could be eggplant slices, swordfish cut thinly or pounded veal (or beef or pork) cutlets. The filling could be a mixture of onions, raisins and pine nuts; a blend of onions, herbs, ham and cheese; or any number of regional variations.
Involtini made with meat may be simmered in a sauce, grilled or baked in a hot oven, depending on the cook’s inclination and the meat’s inherent tenderness. In the United States, Sicilian-Americans refer to involtini as braciole, which are most often braised in a tomato sauce.
Stuffing a thin slice of meat is a frugal practice, since each piece may weigh only 2 or 3 ounces. It is a way to stretch the budget and give everyone in the family a little bit of something meaty and delicious.
Everyone makes involtini in Sicily, or you can buy them ready-to-cook in any butcher shop. They’re diminutive, no bigger than an egg, really. But one or two involtini with a juicy vegetable and a green salad makes a fine meal.
This version with prosciutto cotto and caciocavallo cheese is one I learned from my friend Fabrizia Lanza, who has a cooking school near Palermo. She taught me to thread the little bundles on skewers with bay leaves and bread slices, dust them with bread crumbs, and bake them in a hot oven.
To make involtini di carne, buy very thin veal scallops. (A butcher will be able to pound them to your specifications, about an eighth of an inch thick.) Cook a finely diced red onion until softened, then combine it with minced ham, cheese, herbs and rough bread crumbs for the filling. Place a spoonful of filling on each slice and roll the meat into a little bundle. The next step is to thread the bundles on two skewers (to seal them closed and help them keep their shape), placing a bay leaf, a piece of onion and a small slice of bread between the bundles.
Last, place the skewers on a baking sheet, daub them liberally with olive oil and sprinkle with a coating of fine bread crumbs. As the dish bakes, the bay leaf and onion will perfume the dish, and the bread bits will become crunchy, golden croutons.
When they emerge from the oven smelling heavenly, call everyone to the table. Involtini per tutti!
Sicilian Involtini With Ham and Cheese
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 40 minutes
8 veal scallops (about 3 ounces each), sliced or pounded to 1/8-inch thickness
Salt and pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely diced red onion, plus 1 small onion, cut into rough 1-inch squares
6 slices day-old peasant bread, roughly chopped in 1/4-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
4 ounces prosciutto cotto (cooked ham), cut into 1/4-inch cubes (about 3/4 cup)
2 eggs, beaten
4 ounces caciocavallo or Provolone cheese, diced small (about 3/4 cup)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Bay leaves, fresh or dried
10 slices bread, cut into 2-by-3-inch rectangles
1 cup dry homemade bread crumbs
Pinch of dried oregano
1. Season veal scallops on both sides with salt and pepper, and set aside. Heat oven to 400 degrees.
2. In a skillet set over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes.
3. Add bread cubes and ham, and toss well to coat. Cook for 1 minute more, then transfer mixture to a bowl and let cool to room temperature. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in eggs, cheese, marjoram and parsley.
4. Place 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling on each veal slice, depending on size. Fold sides over the filling and roll each piece into a little parcel. Set aside, seam-side-down.
5. Thread the parcels onto skewers: Start with a rectangle of bread, a bay leaf and a strip of red onion. Next, place a meat parcel. Continue in this fashion until skewer is full — you’ll get 3 or 4 parcels per skewer. Secure by threading another skewer parallel to the first one. Place completed skewers on a baking sheet or in a dish.
6. Dip a brush in olive oil and generously daub the involtini all over. Sprinkle generously with bread crumbs. Add a small sprinkle of oregano. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until meat is cooked through and crumbs are golden. To serve, transfer the meat rolls to a platter.