Braciole retains Depression-era charms in some restaurants, home kitchens

Thin pieces of pounded meat wrapped around a variety of fillings was once a rare treat

June 12, 2013|By Rafael Alvarez,
For The Baltimore Sun

Like the best Italian mothers, Rose Savalino Uddeme spent a lot of time cooking for her kids when the family lived off the corner of Central and Eastern avenues on the edge of Little Italy in the 1960s.

One of her go-to meals was a staple of hard times: an egg cracked into simmering tomato sauce thick with peas.

"It was one of those growing-up meals," said Uddeme, 75, who waited tables in Little Italy and Highlandtown before retiring to Essex. "It was cheap."

A less frequent dish, something special when there was a little extra money in the grocery purse, was braciole. Pronounced "brah-zchul" in Sicilian dialect and "brah-shole" by Italian-Americans here in Crabtown, the word simply means "slices of meat."

In the kitchen, it translates into sheets of thin steak rolled around pork and cheese, bread crumbs and garlic, sometimes a hard-boiled egg and sometimes stuff other families put in but yours never did.

Be it peas in red sauce or prosciutto rolled in beef, Uddeme served it up with a crusty loaf of bread from the rowhouse bakery of Anthony Marinelli, who lived a few doors away.

"There you go," she said. "You got a meal."

John Appel — Uddeme's son and the owner of Johnny Dee's Lounge in Parkville (which he took over from his father, Johnny Denolfi, a dozen years ago) — loved every bite of it. To this day, an egg with peas in marinara is often on Appel's breakfast plate.

And every now and then, braciole joins shrimp salad, sour beef and dumplings, and any-time-of-the-year Thanksgiving dinner on the menu of his old-school landmark off Loch Raven Boulevard.

The Lounge, reminiscent of a suburban living room from the Eisenhower era, has framed photos of Orioles legends like Earl Weaver (along with forgotten heroes like pitcher Tom Phoebus, a Mount St. Joseph High School graduate who threw a no-hitter for the Orioles in 1967); shrines to Johnny Unitas; walls of Ravens' memorabilia; and, bolted into the paneling, nameplates of regulars next to their favorite tables.

"Braciole isn't hard to make. You just have to get a good piece of flank steak and pound it and pound it to make it as thin as possible," said Appel, a 1978 graduate of Patterson High School. "Mom likes to get her meat from Santoni's. She gets everything at Santoni's."

And that's where Appel's sister — Denise Oxendine, the daytime cook at Johnny Dee's — bought 10 pounds of top round the other day for $3.99 a pound. Ferried from the Highlandtown store to the restaurant, the beef met the serious end of a tenderizing hammer.

"It's my mother's recipe, but really it's her aunt's recipe, my great-aunt Toni [Fuller]," said Oxendine. "My mother and her aunts were always cooking on Central Avenue. When you walked in our house, all you could smell was food and sauce."

Oxendine, whose son Henry is the night chef at the Lounge (sometimes using fresh herbs grown by loyal customers), said the restaurant is reminiscent of the house where she and her brother and sister, Kim, grew up.

Both places, she said, "had little kitchens with a lot of food coming out of them."

After the beef is good and thin, Oxendine rubs it with crushed garlic and then layers the meat with a blend of shredded provolone and mozzarella, slices of hard-boiled egg, and prosciutto. Each involtini — or "little bundle" — has to be tight, made fast with toothpicks and tied with string.

"Today they have food string [kitchen twine], but when I was watching my mother cook, they used regular sewing thread," Oxendine said.

And there was always the wisenheimer at the table pretending to floss with the string.

Fancy-pants cooks add pignoli (pine nuts) or golden raisins. Fresh parsley is more common, with salt and pepper a given. Grated Parmesan easily takes the place of the mozzarella, just as capicola can be substituted for prosciutto.

Joey DiPasquale, of the Highlandtown grocery that bears his family's name, puts bread crumbs in the filling when braciole is requested for catering jobs. Antoinette Campagnoli King, once of Patterson Park but for many years a resident of Cape St. Claire, likes to use fresh spinach.

At Da Mimmo on South High Street in Little Italy, veal is used instead of beef for a high-end braciole. Anna D'Ambrosio Brannock of Dundalk remembers being so poor growing up on East Pratt Street during the Depression that her family used slices of pork belly because they couldn't afford even the cheapest cuts of meat.

It's the rare restaurant that regularly serves braciole, perhaps because it doesn't keep well. If not eaten the same day it's cooked — no matter how much you've beaten it with a hammer — flank steak can get tough.

Once the meat is rolled, the gastronomic grenades are lightly floured and quickly browned in olive oil.

"Don't overcook it in the frying pan, just enough to brown," counseled Uddeme. "Then you put it in your sauce and start boiling your water for pasta."

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