Behind the Recipes

Hearty Beef Braciole

Inspired by my nonna’s stuffed beef rolls slow-cooked in rich tomato sauce, I set out to explore this epitome of Italian country cooking.

Published Feb. 2, 2021.

My nonna is no longer with us, but if I close my eyes, I can still hear the thwack‑thwack of her meat mallet as she pounded pieces of beef thin for her weekly batch of braciole. She rolled the meat around a simple bread crumb, cheese, and herb filling; pinned the parcels with toothpicks; seared them; and slowly simmered them in a rich tomato sauce. The braciole was often just one element of her Sunday gravy, which could also include savory meatballs and rich sausages to serve at a family gathering with guests numbering in the teens. But the meaty bundles were always what really captivated me, and I figured it was time I learned to make them myself.

First, an acknowledgement that “braciole” means different things to different people: In much of mainland Italy, including Piedmont, where my nonna grew up, it refers to the dish I just described, prepared with beef, pork, or veal and assembled into either one large roll to be sliced into pinwheels for serving or smaller individual ones, like my nonna preferred. However, in the far north of the country, along the Austrian border, “braciole” refers to a grilled bone-in pork or veal chop. In the deep Sicilian south, it’s the name for tiny skewered and grilled stuffed beef rolls. Calabrian braciole features pounded pork shoulder and is spicy with the region’s chiles, whereas Neapolitan versions are typically made with beef and stuffed with pine nuts, raisins, cured meat, and/or hard-cooked eggs.

The Meat of the Matter

I wanted to stick with the style of braciole that my nonna made, in keeping with the deep traditions established by her mother and grandmother. As a kid, I never thought to inquire about the type of meat she used, so I took a guess and picked up some top round steak from my butcher—it, along with bottom round and flank steak, is one of the most commonly used cuts for the dish.

Pounding the steak to 1/4-inch thickness was tough going, as top round has a tight grain. But I persevered, and once the meat was sufficiently thin, I cut it into roughly 6-inch squares that I topped with the thrifty ingredients I could remember from my nonna’s kitchen: dried bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and dried oregano. I tied the rolls with twine (more secure than toothpicks) and browned them before oven-braising them in a simple sauce for a couple hours.

My Favorite Cut for Braciole

Braciole is traditionally made with top or bottom round or flank steak. Flank steak, which has a loose grain and is cut from the bottom abdominal area of the cow, is easier to pound thin than top or bottom round, which are cut from the rear leg of the animal and have a tight, muscular grain. Flank steak also has roughly twice as much fat as the round cuts, so it is more moist and tender.


Flank Steak

Its loose grain is easy to pound thin, and its fat keeps the meat moist and tender.

I took a taste, waiting for a flood of cozy childhood memories to wash over me. It never came. The meat was somewhat dry, the filling lacked presence, and the sauce was thin and weak. I made a few more batches, braising each one for a successively longer period of time, but even after 4 hours the top round remained parched.

Flank steak has about twice as much fat as top or bottom round and exhibits a much looser grain, so I tried it next. It was easy to whack the meat 1/4 inch thick before dividing it into eight squares to stuff and roll. Sticking with my basic filling and sauce for now, I braised a batch for 2½ hours and was thrilled to find that the flank steak braciole cooked up beautifully moist and fork-tender.

Filling In the Details

With the meat settled, I addressed the filling. I wanted to turn the austere mixture into something more luxurious, as I think that Nonna would have done if she had had the means and wasn’t cooking for more than a dozen people, week in and week out. I hoped that the finished product would have made her proud, not only of my interpretation but also of how her cooking inspired me.

First, I switched to Pecorino Romano instead of Parmesan for its gamier, saltier profile. Next, I added minced anchovies—the tiny fillets worked their usual magic of adding umami depth. To give the mixture some richness and help it hold together, I stirred in a handful of nutty shredded fontina (a great melter) and a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil. To incorporate bright notes, I turned to one of my favorite Italian seasonings: gremolata. Made with heady minced garlic, fresh parsley, and fragrant lemon zest (I added some fresh basil, too), this vibrant blend contributed a burst of freshness. Finally, for a salty, porky component, I draped thin slices of silky prosciutto atop the filling before rolling, tying, and searing the tidy bundles.

Getting Saucy

Sauces for braciole tend to be rather straightforward, but mine was hardly more than a can of crushed tomatoes fortified with sautéed onion, minced garlic, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. It needed more body and deeper tomato flavor, and a generous scoop of tomato paste provided both. A pour of hearty red wine was a smart complexity-building addition as well.

I was now quite pleased with the consistency and taste of the sauce, but it didn’t seem to meld well with the beef rolls. A colleague suggested that I swap out some of the crushed tomatoes for beef broth. It was a brilliant idea: Now the sauce had beefy depth that pulled the whole affair together into a unified whole.

As I spooned the rolls onto a platter of spaghetti, I took stock: The beef was tender and moist; the vibrant filling enhanced the meat without overwhelming it; and the beefy, tomatoey sauce made the whole dish sing. I wish Nonna could taste it.


Inspired by my nonna’s stuffed beef rolls slow-cooked in rich tomato sauce, I set out to explore this epitome of Italian country cooking.
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