At its core, braciole is a kind of involtini—a stuffed and rolled piece of meat. The details that define braciole can vary by region in Italy, and even by household. The meat type (pork or beef), the rolling size (one larger roll to share or smaller individual bundles), cooking method (braised, pan-fried, or grilled) and seasoning elements (breadcrumbs, chunks of cheese, or fresh herbs) are examples of the different directions this seemingly simple meat bundle recipe can take.
The version I have created here is inspired by the Italian-American versions I enjoyed at friend’s houses and restaurants where I grew up in New Jersey. It has roots in a classic ragù napoletano, where meat is slowly simmered in a tomato sauce until tender, then served separately—the meat on a platter with some sauce, and the rest of the sauce used to dress pasta. Thin slices of beef are sprinkled with a seasoned breadcrumb filling and topped with a delicate slice of cured meat like prosciutto, all rolled together, tied up, and slowly braised in a simple tomato sauce until the meat practically melts in your mouth. It’s a truly comforting meal worthy of a Sunday supper.
One of the biggest divides in the Italian-American braciole world centers around which cut of beef to use. The two main camps are those that favor flank steak and those that prefer top round. If you use flank steak, you place the filling over the large piece of meat—which has been butterflied and pounded thin—and roll it up into one big roulade. The entire rolled-up roast braises in one large piece before being sliced to serve. This is a great option for a larger group of people and for a satisfyingly showy presentation.
The other common way to make braciole is to use the top round cut of beef, which is a little less expensive than flank steak. Instead of being prepared as one long, thin roast, top round is sliced and pounded into multiple smaller steaks that are then rolled into individual bundles. They make for a fun and accessible assembly, while yielding enough for a family-sized meal.
I tested many versions of this recipe with both flank steak and top round beef slices, and found that while flank steak has great flavor, the texture is never “spoon tender,” which is my standard for success. I want the meat to be so freakin’ tender that you can literally eat it with a spoon. Every version of braciole with flank steak I cooked up was stringy and required a knife and fork, even after three hours in the oven. I decided flank steak was not the right cut for my recipe.
The top loin, on the other hand, is a tighter-grained piece of meat that can easily be cut into individual steaks (or purchased as pre-sliced steaks) and then pounded thin. It gets incredibly soft after braising in sauce for two or more hours. But, you need to keep an eye on the texture, since it can dry out and become tough if overcooked. In testing, I left one batch in the oven for three hours to see what would happen, and I found that while the flavor was great, the meat had turned dry.
With my braciole meat selected, I focused on the filling. I found a mixture of breadcrumbs flavored with fresh garlic, parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil, pine nuts, and a little crushed red pepper was assertive enough in flavor to hold up to the braised beef.
But, it turns out it doesn’t matter how good the filling tastes if most of it remains on the cutting board. My first attempts met this flawed fate. I at first layered the prosciutto directly on the steak with the breadcrumbs on top. As I rolled the steak up, the breadcrumbs spilled out and ended up all over my cutting board, leaving little inside the actual roll. Reversing the layering solved the problem: By placing the breadcrumbs directly on the steaks, and then the prosciutto, the breadcrumbs were held in place as I rolled the braciole up.
As much as the rolled meat is the centerpiece of the dish, I find the sauce to be the real star. Made from a simple base of onion, garlic, and white wine mixed with whole, peeled tomatoes, the sauce transforms into a meaty, velvety, rich sauce after simmering gently with the meat. It’s an essential part of the dish, so make sure to serve the braciole with plenty of extra sauce on top. And if you have any left over, save it to dress your next bowl of pasta.
Arrange oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F (175°C).
For the Braciole: In a medium bowl, add breadcrumbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, and red pepper flakes and stir until well combined. Set aside.
If using a top round roast, slice roast into six 1/2 -inch slices. If using pre-sliced beef, skip to Step 5.
Lay steak slices 3 inches apart on a cutting board and cover with plastic wrap. Using meat pounder, flatten slices into rough rectangles measuring no more than 1/4 inch thick.
Sprinkle both sides of steaks with salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Spread the reserved breadcrumb mixture evenly over steaks, then place 1 slice of prosciutto over each breadcrumb-topped steak, folding prosciutto to fit and pressing firmly into steak. Being careful to keep filling in place and starting from a short end of each steak, roll each steak to form a small bundle. Tie each bundle with 2 pieces of kitchen twine to secure.
For the Sauce: In a large sauté pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add braciole bundles and brown on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes total. Transfer browned braciole to a clean plate; set aside.
Add onion and salt to the now-empty pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in wine, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan, and cook until mixture reduces by half, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and water. Nestle the browned braciole bundles into the sauce and bring the sauce to a simmer.
Cover the pan with an oven-safe lid or aluminum foil. Place the pan on a rimmed baking sheet and transfer to the oven. Cook, covered, flipping braciole halfway through, for 90 minutes. Carefully remove the lid, flip the braciole again, and continue to cook until the meat is fully tender and sauce thickened to gravy-like consistency, 15 to 45 minutes longer.
Season sauce with salt to taste. Use scissors to cut off twine around each bundle. Transfer braciole to a large serving platter or individual plates and spoon sauce overtop. Serve.
12-inch oven-safe sauté pan with lid, butchers twine, meat pounder (if slicing steaks yourself)
I strongly encourage you ask your butcher to slice the beef for you, or use thin pre-sliced top round steaks, sometimes sold as “braciole steaks,” can be found in some supermarkets, Italian grocers, or butchers. If cutting steaks from a top round roast yourself, look for a longer, oval shaped roast to create longer thin steaks for wrapping.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Cooked braciole with sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.