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Cooking Lessons From Rome

Osso buco is better on the thin side

Osso buco literally means ''bone with a hole.'' The browned meat is braised in the oven in a rich tomato sauce and broth. Osso buco literally means ''bone with a hole.'' The browned meat is braised in the oven in a rich tomato sauce and broth. (food styling/lisa falso; barry chin/globe staff)
By Judith Barrett
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2009

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When I invited friends for dinner recently, I decided to prepare osso buco, a dish I've made dozens of times in my kitchen in Cambridge, but never in Rome. I'm always aware, when cooking for Italians, of how particular they can be about their dishes. So I was concerned they might think I was serving them an Americanized version of the classic veal dish, even though I was faithful to traditional Italian-American recipes. But I plunged ahead with my tried and true recipe, evolved over 20 years. It turned out to be a good decision and a great dinner. I received compliments all around.

Osso buco literally means "bone with a hole." It refers specifically to slices, cut cross-wise, from the meaty veal shank or shin. While this is a dish that is not typically Roman, it has become universally Italian with regional differences in the flavorings and ingredients.

The osso buco that is most familiar to American cooks, and the preparation I like to serve, is osso buco milanese, or Milan-style. The browned meat is always braised in the oven in a rich tomato sauce and broth. It's an ideal dish to serve to guests. You can, in fact, you should, prepare it ahead because it improves after a day in the refrigerator. And it's as easy to cook for four or six as it is for eight or 10.

In my Roman kitchen, the refrigerator is so small that it only holds the essentials for every day, not an extra pot or large container of food. So there's no possibility of preparing anything in advance and refrigerating it. On the day of my dinner, I headed to the butcher, Orelli, just outside the Campo dei Fiori, to buy the meat. I gave my order and expected to receive six large chunks of bone and meat, the way I do at home. American recipes and cooks will tell you that the shank should be cut in 2-to-3-inch thick pieces. Here in Rome, I discovered, the shank is cut more thinly. One-inch is the norm. I was surprised when the butcher handed me the smaller pieces of osso buco, but in the end it was fortunate.

In a hectic day of shopping and cooking, the meat simmered more quickly, and yet it also became so flavorful and tender that it was literally falling off the bone. As an accompaniment to the meat, I prepared a saffron-flavored risotto alla milanese, the traditional accompaniment to the osso buco, in which the rice grains are stirred with a saffron-flavored broth and enriched with butter and parmigiano cheese.

The dinner party taught me two important lessons: Osso buco is better with thinner slices of meat; and Italians love good food - regardless of who's cooking and where the recipe comes from. Complimenti!