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Beef Involtini: Fill, Roll, Sear, Douse, Done

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Involtini—small meat rolls stuffed with various fillings—are one of those timeless classics that continue to be loved in Italian home cooking, for good reason. They are easy to prepare, you can use whatever you have on hand (which explains why there are so many versions); with flavor-packed fillings such as anchovies, prosciutto, garlic, sundried tomatoes, or cheese, they are delizioso.

While usually made with veal or beef, involtini come in many, many guises. There are versions that use thin slices of chicken or fish, or vegetarian versions with fried slices of eggplant. But then there is the filling and the sauce.

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Involtini, filled.
Involtini, filled. Photo by Emiko Davies

Fillings can be as simple as ham and cheese, like prosciutto or slightly smoky speck paired with scamorza (smoked mozzarella)—rolled, floured, and cooked in a pan with olive oil and a splash of marsala or even cream. Add a leaf of radicchio or spinach, a rosemary sprig or some other fresh herbs before rolling for a bit of color. My Tuscan husband's nonna often added a thin egg omelet to the prosciutto and cheese.

Roman cookbook writer Ada Boni has several beef and veal involtini recipes in her Talisman cookbook, where meat slices can be rolled up with a slice of prosciutto, sage, thin sticks of carrots and celery, all slow-cooked in a tomato sauce, for example. In the English version (a much shortened one, printed in the US in 1960) of The Talisman, there are “veal rolls with anchovies” where thin slices of veal cutlets “no larger than 4 by 6 inches” are rolled up with mozzarella and an anchovy fillet, then fried in butter. A thickened sauce made of the pan leftovers, a bit of stock and parsley is poured over the top before serving.

Making involtini
Making involtini Photo by Emiko Davies

In Sicily, they go all out when it comes to involtini. Involtini ammucca ammucca (a dialect word that means “to devour”) are veal rolls stuffed with a filling of fried eggplant in tomato sugo and grated caciocavallo cheese. The rolls are then dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and deep fried. In Palermo, raisins, pine nuts, pecorino cheese, onion, and bread fill beef involtini, which that are then skewered together on a long stick with pieces of red onion and fresh bay leaves and grilled. You'll see this done the same way with swordfish too.

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In Puglia's Cisternino, the local butcher shops make bombette, involtini of veal or pork filled with capocollo (you can use prosciutto) and a piece of caciocavallo cheese. The involtini are threaded together on a long skewer, coated in breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan and roasted in the butcher's woodfired oven.

These involtini are made with beef.
These involtini are made with beef. Photo by Emiko Davies

But when you feel like less is more—or the options in the fridge are limited—make this version from northern Puglia, below. It's an essential, pared-back version of involtini, where thin slices of meat layered with finely chopped garlic, parsley and pecorino cheese are rolled up and cooked in a simple tomato sauce flavored with bay leaf.

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Beef Rolls in Tomato Sauce (Involtini di Manzo al Pomodoro)

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Serves 4
  • 8 thin slices of beef or veal
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped finely
  • 1 handful parsley, chopped finely (plus more for garnish)
  • 1 handful pecorino or parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 2 whole garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tin (400 grams or 14 oz) tomato pulp or peeled tomatoes
  • salt and pepper to taste
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Tags: Italy, Regional Italian Food, meat, beef, veal, involtini