International Day of Italian Cuisines

That Tender, Juicy Ossobuco. The Symbol of the Most Tempting Italian Cuisine

By Rosario Scarpato
Director of IDIC – International Day of Italian Cuisines 2012

Ossobuco, with all its erroneously written variants (osobuco, ossobucco, osso bucco, etc.) is one of the best known Italian words in the world. Not by chance, in only 0.26 seconds Google in English gives almost 2,000,000 results with this name. The word means hollow-bone and, in culinary terms, it refers to the Italian dish ossobuco with gremolata alla milanese, whose basic ingredient is veal shank, more specifically, to the one made with the middle part of the hind shank, which has enough tender meat around the marrowbone, which the fore shank doesn’t have. Its popularity makes Ossobuco one of the most counterfeited dishes of Italian traditional cuisine in the world. For this reason it has been proclaimed as the official dish of the 5th edition of the IDIC – International Day of Italian Cuisines, whose mission is to preserve and protect authenticity and quality of the Italian cookery. The previous editions of the IDIC celebrated Spaghetti alla carbonara, Risotto alla milanese, Tagliatelle al ragù bolognese and Pesto alla Genovese. All these dishes share the same profile; while deeply rooted in their areas of their origin, all have become, with the passing of the years, symbols of the Italian “national” cuisine, particularly abroad.

Why is Ossobuco so popular around the world?

Based on historical evidence, there is not a single answer to this question. This dish emigrated from Italy with migrants, possibly, but not necessarily, with those coming from Lombardy, its origin. The recipe, at least in the 19th century and thereafter, has become well-known and is made all around Italy. Among the possible reasons of the popularity of ossobuco are certainly its low cost and the relative easiness of its preparation. The low cost doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it was a dish for the poor; it was simply an ideal dish for families. Served with risotto or polenta, ossobuco made and makes a delicious and satisfying meal. It was originally a seasonal dish, to be cooked in winter time on charcoal or wood stoves, which in the past, also had the function of warming the household. Its familiar profile caused its success on the menus of the Italian restaurants opened by migrants all around the word, which were based almost totally on hearty, home cooking. However, a notable contribution to the worldwide popularity of Ossobuco was the inclusion of its recipe in famous collections published outside Italy. It was featured in France, for example, in the famous Art Culinaire Moderne by Henri-Paul Pellaprat , since its first edition in 1935, and in England as well, in the Elizabeth David’s book Italian Food at the beginning of the 1950s. Ossobuco a la milanaise, with some variations, has become part of the French home cooking tradition as well.

Where and when was the dish born?

From left to right: Elizabeth David and Pellegrino Artusi

Milan claims to be the city where Ossobuco was born. Its City Council, in 2007, solemnly declared the oss (or òs) buss, ossobuco in Milanese dialect, as part of the De.Co. (Denominazioni Comunali in Italian, or “community denominations”), which is an official public acknowledgement that a certain dish or product belongs to a certain territory. There is no dispute of the fact that Ossobuco originated in Region of Lombardy. No one, however, can say exactly when. The use of marrowbones and veal shanks was common in middle age Italian cuisine but there is no evidence of the presence of ossobuco (alla milanese) as a dish, at that time.

If we take into consideration the gremolata that accompanies Ossobuco, we can presume that the dish was already made in the 18th century. According to culinary historians it was at the time of the Illuminist Revolution that lemon – in this case the rind used in the gremolata – radically replaced the more expensive spices such as cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. In that period and before, though, the dish didn’t include tomatoes, which became widely used only at the end of the 18th century. Some authors believe that Ossobuco has a very recent history, since it doesn’t appear in the popular cookbooks of the 19th century, such as La vera cucina lombarda (The True Lombard Cuisine) published in 1890 by an unknown author. Since this book was mainly direct to housewives, the American food writer Clifford Wright believes that Ossobuco was a dish born in a “professional” context, that is, in some osteria – the small, family-ran eateries catering to neighbourhoods in Milan. But then this thesis appears weak, because in 1891 the recipe of ossobuco alla milanese was included by Pellegrino Artusi in his La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene (The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating well), the first collection of Italian national cuisine ever published, a celebration of both home cooking and well known dishes from all over Italy. Artusi wouldn’t have ever included ossobuco alla milanese in his book if it hadn’t been around and known for long, long time.

From left to right: Clifford Wright and Marcella Hazan

Variations that still make the dish authentic

As in the case of many other Italian traditional dishes there is not just one way of making authentic Ossobuco alla milanese. Variations however are well within the parameter of what is intended by authenticity in Italian Cuisine, that is, which is defined more by what is not accepted in a recipe rather than a single way of doing it.

The classic recipes of Ossobuco appearing in many cookbooks, including La cucina lombarda by Alessandro Molinari Pradelli and Cuochi si diventa (which can be translated: No one was born a cook) by Allan Bay, start off by making a simple soffritto of chopped onion sautéed in butter or butter and oil until translucent. The ossobuchi, lightly floured, are then to be browned adequately on both sides in the same pan with the onion (or without, to avoid the risk of burning it). White wine should be then added and the cooking should continue with the heat lowered and the pan covered.

From left to right: Alessandro Molinari Pradelli, Allan Bay and his book, Cuochi si diventa

In other recipes, such as those appearing in Artusi’s La Scienza in cucina and Marcela Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, chopped carrot and celery join the onion, to make what is known as the classic “Italian soffritto, which is also recommended in the recipe of Mario Caramella. Anna Gosetti della Salda in Le ricette regionali italiane, includes a single clove of garlic to be lightly browned in the butter and removed before adding the ossobuchi to the soffritto, which according to some recipes may also contain prosciutto or pancetta.

Flouring the veal, which was a way to tenderize the meat in the past, appears only in some recipes and definitely not in Artusi, nor in Hazan.

Traditional recipes call for dousing the browned veal with wine and then letting it evaporate. Then the ossobuchi are seasoned with pepper and salt and cooked at low heat in the covered skillet, turning them over from time to time and dousing them with broth as needed. That is the original Italian technique called arrosto morto “dead roasting” or stove-top braising, which in the past few decades has been replaced by a way of cooking very common in French cuisine, after the wine evaporates the ossobuchi are covered with broth and placed in a hot oven to braise. This technique starts to appear in the Seventies of the 20th century as in Marcela Hazan’s Essentials (1974).

From left to right: Il mangiatore di fagioli in the cover of Ada Boni´s famous Il talismano della felicità and Pellegrino Artusi's La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene

The gremolata (‘gremolada’ or ‘cremolata’), in its basic and traditional version is prepared out of parsley, garlic and lemon zest finely chopped together. Gremolata comes from the Milanese word “gremolà”, ‘reduce to grains’ and it was used in the past also to season scaloppine and dishes made with rabbit. It is added to ossobuco only at the end, before serving it. Sometimes the gremolada contains rosemary and sage too, or even anchovy, as Ada Boni recommend in her Il Talismano della Felicità.

“Soft as the leg of an angel”

The veal should braise until the meat can fall off the bone and can be eaten with a fork alone. The veal shank should be from a very young, milk-fed calf. Actually, according the American poet Billy Collins, who wrote a poem named Osso Buco (“something you don't hear much about in poetry,/ that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation”), the meat should be “soft as the leg of an angel / who has lived a purely airborne existence”. Tenderness and juiciness are the key to the best ossobuco. The marrow is a delicacy on its own and is traditionally dug out, in Lombardy, with a small, long-handled spoon called esattore (tax collector). Ossobuco is traditionally served surrounded by risotto alla milanese but goes well with mashed potatoes or crusty bread. One thing is sure, after eating it, it should generate a feeling that Collins describes as “the lion of contentment” placing “a warm heavy paw” on the chest of those who have dined on Ossobuco.

From left to right: Gremolata and esattore