Stracotto, Spezzatino, Stufato, Brasato: Italians have many names for the humble, hearty beef stew you can find throughout the country, but especially in northern Italy. Stracotto (literally meaning “overcooked”) is a Tuscan preparation for what is essentially a pot roast. Spezzatino implies that the beef, rather than kept whole, is 'spezzata', or cut into pieces. Stufato literally means “to stew” and brasato, the northern Italian name for a stracotto, comes from the word 'brasare' or to cook in 'braci' or charcoal embers, as stews were once made in cast iron pots set in the embers of the fireplace and left for hours.
The idea of a cheap cut of beef, stewed in red wine (a tenderizer) for hours, has peasant origins, and widespread ones at that. Tuscany's peposo, which hails from the Chianti town of Impruneta, is, in its most essential form, diced beef shoulder cooked in an entire bottle of chianti wine with garlic and enough pepper to warm your lips. French boeuf bourguignon, similarly, requires the beef to be slow-cooked in red Burgundy. Piedmont's classic beef stew is al barolo, or cooked in barolo (or any other Nebbiolo-based grape), which is what would have been the most handy for Piemontese peasants once upon a time.
It's the sort of dish—hearty and slow-cooked in one pot—that makes an ideal, wintry Sunday dinner (and, if you're lucky, leftovers for the next few days, too). It's low-maintenance, but its major ingredients include time and care.
A whole bottle of wine will be plenty to cover the meat. It sounds like a lot because it is, so I cannot recommend enough you choose a wine you like the taste of. It doesn't have to be expensive (not everyone has Nebbiolo grapes growing in their backyard), but just pleasant-tasting. Don't use a wine that's corked or tastes like vinegar, as the pot roast will taste remarkably like imperfect wine.
The next ingredient that you need to choose well is the meat. Ask your butcher for a simple roast, such as chuck roast (also known as pot roast) from around the shoulder. It's known as sottopaletta in Piedmont or cappello del prete ('the priest's hat'). You want something with a little marbling or connective tissue in it—too lean and this can easily become too dry after cooking. In fact, in very traditional recipes, lardo, cut into thin strips (pancetta can be substituted), was often added to the stew, to incorporate some fat and flavor to the otherwise lean, muscular meat of Piedmont's native Fassone cattle.
Often you can also find a mixture of spices such as cloves, cinnamon and juniper berries for some extra aroma, and many traditional recipes from Piedmont can call for a splash of Cognac (just before the red wine). Pellegrino Artusi, in his 1891 cookbook, suggests Marsala or even rum. And many a nonna will still marinate the beef in the wine for half the day, even though we now have access to refrigerators and good-quality, tough beef, two things that could be improved upon with a good soak for up to 48 (and I have heard 72) hours.
But the best way to ensure a good outcome here is to prepare it well in advance. At least a whole night's rest is a good idea. As Julia Child says of her boeuf bourguignon in Mastering the Art of French Cooking: “It only gains in flavor when reheated.”
- 2 1/2 pounds (1.2 kg) beef chuck roast/pot roast
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons (50 grams) cold butter
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2-3 bay leaves
- 1 handful mixed fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme
- 1 bottle (25 fl oz or 750 ml) dry, full-bodied red wine (see note)
- Water or beef stock, to cover
- Optional: a few whole cloves, cinnamon, some juniper berries (see note)
Tell us: Do you have a favorite pot roast recipe? (If not, might we suggest the above?)