Roll with it

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The number eight tram rolls a good route. At least I think so. Starting in Largo di Torre Argentina, it cuts straight and then crosses the bridge, runs the entire length of Viale Trastevere before curving its way along Gianicolense and sliding into the terminus at Casaletto. On a good day; clear and avoiding the rush, top to tail takes about 22 minutes. On a bad day; rain and rush, it takes 35.

I don’t very often top to tail or tail to top on the number eight. Most days I’ll ride a section though: The Ministry of Education up to work at the children’s theatre, the theatre up to the park, purveyors of fine pizza bianca back to The Ministry, my biscuit shop up to Stazione Trastevere. Come to think of it, of all my routes – there are many, I’m both dedicated and dependent on the exasperating Roman public transport system – this is the one I ride the most.

Then every so often, last Saturday for example, we roll the whole line and are not only reminded what good curved cut the N° 8 makes through the city, but what a good destination awaits at the end of the line.

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Occupying the ground floor of a nondescript modern building just yards from the tram terminus and identifiable only by a small yellow sign, the trattoria Cesare al Casaletto is, from the outside, unremarkable. I’d passed by, at first oblivious and then dismissive, dozens and dozens of times. Then, on advice from Katie, we went for lunch. The best lunch we’d had in a long time. And so we went back, again and again, each visit reaffirming our conviction.

Bright and luminous, da Cesare is the antitheses of the archetypal shadowy and surly Roman Trattoria – I should add I like shadowy and surly from time to time. It’s quietly elegant yet cordial and comfortable. On Saturday we were given a table in the nicest corner with plenty of space for a high chair. Da Cesare is a family trattoria in the truest sense and this is personified by the owner’s bold little girl who marches up to your table to say ciao.

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To start, we divided a portion of plump, preserved anchovies: oily, fiendishly fishy filets to be squashed onto bread and polpette di bollito misto; delicate, fragile, deep-fried spheres of breaded shredded veal served with a spoonful of pesto. Then we shared a primo of fresh egg pasta with vignarola (braised artichokes, peas, broad beans and spring onions) and pecorino romano cheese. We paused. For secondo my companion had baccalà alla Romana (salt cod with tomatoes) and I had involtini al sugo, two quietly delicious beef rolls in a rich tomato sauce. There were also side dishes, one a tangle of dark-green ragged cicioria ripassata and another of chips. Such good chips. We finished with coffee and biscuits that had not long been pulled from the oven.

It took me a few visits to understand what makes the Food at da Cesare so special. Of course it’s the excellent ingredients, the skill and a lightness of touch that transforms traditional Roman food – the menu is much the same as any menu you might find in any trattoria – into something so vital and impressive. Then, after the fourth or fifth meal, I understood. It’s the care taken that sets da Cesare apart. Real care without pretense or fuss, without swagger or caricature. The food makes even more sense when you talk to the owner, Leonardo Vignoli or his wife. Both are gentle, modest, passionate, attentive: a rare combination in Rome.  The wine list is as splendid as the food. As is the advice to help you navigate it.

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As I paid the bill I asked Leonardo about the involtini, the two unassuming beef rolls that had been simmered tenderly in tomato sauce, maybe the nicest I have ever eaten (and I have eaten a few.) ‘Thin slices of good beef, well seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic wrapped around impossibly thin batons of carrot and celery and then simmered gently in tomato for an hour and a half‘ was his advice. ‘How would I know they were done?’ I asked. ‘Touch and taste‘ was his reply. Then he was gone – politely of course – back into the kitchen and I was left with a queue of questions trailing down my throat.

My first attempt was acceptable. My second very reasonable. My third attempt at involtini however, was a resounding success. Not quite reaching the benchmark set by Da Cesare, but nearly. Ask your butcher to cut you 10 thin slices of beef – rump or chuck is ideal. Season the slices prudently with fine salt, freshly ground black pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you so wish (I don’t.) Position a fat bundle of painfully thin carrot and celery batons at the bottom of the slice and then roll, tuck and roll until you have a neat parcel. Secure the roll lengthways with a toothpick. You brown your involtini in hot oil, nudging and turning, until they are evenly coloured and then you cover them with wine and tomato and simmer for a good long while.

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The tomato reduces into a dense, flavoursome sauce and the beef rolls – with their neat bundle of savory – are simmered into tenderness. I wouldn’t have given these involtini a thought (never mind a second glance) before coming to live in Rome. Old-fashioned, boring and just damn fuddy-duddy I might have mumbled. Little did I know. Made carefully with good ingredients, they are simply delicious, richly favoured and well, very Roman. And the word involtini? It comes form the verb avvolgere (to wrap) so literally translated means, a little thing that has been wrapped.

Of course involtini work well as part of a Roman-style lunch. That is; a tasty antipasti, a modest portion of pasta and then a roll (or two) served alone on a white plate with nothing more than a crust of bread to scoop up the sauce. They are also good in a more English manner, that is beside a pile of extremely buttery mashed potato (what isn’t?) Roll with it.

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Involtini al sugo  Beef rolls in tomato sauce

Inspired by the involtini at  Cesare al Casaletto with advice from my butchers at Sartor.

serves 4 (two each with two extra to squabble over)

  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into extremely thin batons (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 1 large stick of celery cut into extremely thin batons  (roughly the same length as the beef is wide)
  • 10 thin slices of beef (3mm or so) – rump or chuck is ideal
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • a clove of garlic, finely chopped (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • a small glass of white wine or red wine
  • 500 g tinned plum tomatoes coarsely chopped or passed through the food mill

Peel and then cut the carrot and celery into extremely thin batons roughly the same length as the beef slice is wide.

Take a slice of beef, lay it flat on the work surface, season with salt, pepper and very finely chopped garlic if you are using it. Again, I don’t use garlic. Place a bundle of carrot and celery at the bottom of the beef slice and then roll the beef around the batons, tucking the sides in if you can, until you have a neat cylinder. Secure the roll with a toothpick along its length.

Warm the olive oil in a heavy based saute pan. Add beef rolls, and cook, turning as needed, until browned on all sides, which will take about 6 minutes.

Add the glass of wine to the pan, raise the heat so the wine sizzles and evaporates. Add the tomatoes and stirring and nudging the rolls so they are evenly spaced and well coated with tomato. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the rolls covered partially – gently stirring and turning the rolls a couple of times – until meat is cooked through and tender which will take about 1 and a half – 2 hours. Add a little more wine or water if the sauce seems to be drying out during the cooking.

Lets the rolls rest for at least 15 minutes before serving with a spoonful of sauce and some bread.

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43 Comments

Filed under beef, Da Cesare al Casaletto, food, In praise of, meat, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, tomatoes

43 responses to “Roll with it

  1. I am a great involtini fan — and it’s so ‘thrifty’ too, the sauce can be used to make a very good pasta dish. Involtini may not be ‘exciting’ — but then, does food always have to be exciting? I am so glad Roman trattorie keep serving reassuring dishes such as these …

  2. Eileen

    Can’t wait to try involtini and ride the “rolling no 8″

  3. Iona Williamson

    Hi Rachel,
    I’ve never left a comment before but feel moved to do so as you are so very inspirational. I will be going to my butcher today to persuade him to cut the beef so very thin.
    Thanks Iona

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or tried involtini. But reading your post has made me incredibly hungry for some plus it looks easy enough to make as long as you pay attention to the detail. Reading this before lunch wasn’t really a good idea, was it?

    • rachel

      They are pretty straightforward. The rolling and tucking takes bit of practice (I’d got the hang of it by my fifth roll, i have to admit the first two were very slack). R

  5. Bizarro coincidence. Despite spending so much time in Italy I have never had, or indeed heard of, involtini but last Sunday found them on a menu at a pub in Goudhurst. Jed had them and loved them and so I said I would try to find a recipe. Lo and behold his fairy Godmother has come up trumps. Am off to the butcher now. Thank you.

    • rachel

      Always happy to be part of your kitchen whirl, Just wish I was sitting in it with an extremely large glass of alcohol in my hand.

  6. johanna

    these look great! i’ve never had involtini but am very excited to make them now.

  7. Just lovely. I love the recipes put together by brief instructions, passed on orally, to be remembered and acted out later a little like Chinese whispers. Seems like such a traditional way to cook a recipe. And you end up putting your own stamp on it. Per forza.

    • rachel

      The Qb does my head it a bit though. I imagine you are getting plenty of these whispers at the moment. Hope you are all having a lovely time x

  8. I love all your posts but this has to be a favourite! We too have dipped in and out of the number 8 tram route but on our next visit we plan to ride it all the way to Da Cesare al Casaletto. The icing on the cake has to be your recipe – just fantastic!! Thank you

  9. I love it when an unpromising looking restaurant turns up trumps. We have just come back from a break in Madeira ( I did say I was in need of a holiday) and I love to try out the restaurants that look like you probably shouldn’t. We have been rewarded several times. This beef roll thingy sounds delicious. I bought a cabbage for the majestic oak today and now I might have to buy some thin beef tomorrow. x

    • rachel

      I adore Madeira. Hope you all had a lovely time? I need a holiday too, badly. I think you will like these, just remember to simmer long and slow xxx

  10. Amy

    Almost every post your write makes me wish I lived in Rome, but this one especially so. The involtini look very good, and that tram route sounds very nice.

    • rachel

      …having written this post I then waited and waited for the no 8 two days later which meant I missed an appointment. When it did arrive I left one of my bags on it. Ha (well not at the time). The involtini are good, simple and good

  11. Jack

    From cabbage rolls to involtini to what next, perchance? Your rolled and stuffed offerings resonate with me, so thanks again.

    The slices of beef – cut across the grain or with the grain?

  12. sara

    beautiful writing, beautiful food. i can’t wait for my roman days, whenever they shall be…
    in the meantime, can someone give you a book deal already?! i need a good way of storing your recipes and going through them over and over. :)

    • rachel

      I need somewhere to organise my recipes too. talking of which my index is a shambles – sorry. You are really kind and it is lovely to have you reading along.

  13. Oooo you are a magical writer, Rachel! I can’t wait to try my hand at Roman involtini. Our (Sicilian) household has heretofore been completely loyal to the type of involtini you’ll find near Mt. Etna, but I plan to show this to my husband and demand we make a little trek north for some Roman goodness. Thanks for a lovely read on a dismal Friday afternoon in NYC!

    • rachel

      Thanks so much. I like the sound of the Sicilian involtini – a recipe?

      • From what I’ve gleaned from peeping over the counter, the main differences are he (and his town on the eastern coast) use either swordfish or veal instead of beef, and the filling (and also crust) is a mixture of parsley, garlic, pecorino, pistachio, and sometimes pinenuts/raisins. And always seared in the pain, sometimes with a tomato sauce, but just as often without.

        Must definitely pay better attention next time! ;)

  14. This looks so delicious that I have now made it twice. The sauce is DELICIOUS ( I guess the combination of meat, tomatoes, carrots and the celery is glorious), but my meat was tough both times. Any suggestions? Do you think I didn’t have thin enough slices? The second time I made it with slices the butcher cut for me from a prime beef rump roast. I am determined to get it right. Perhaps the third time will be a charm for me too.

    • rachel

      Hello hello Vic. Oh no, I am sorry, I feel responsible for your supper. OK, lets think about this. First up, they are never going to be falling apart tender, but they should be tenderish to the points of a fork. you could cook them for up to two hours (gently, gently) and keep prodding. They need to relax for a while before you eat. I’m sure the slices were thin enough, my friend sitting here has suggested you also bash them a little with a meat pounder.
      Gentle simmering, turning every now and then is the key I think. I am also going to ask my friend Jo for advice as I want them to work for you
      Rach x

      • Well, Rach,

        I can tell you that they were all eaten – every one – and there were no complaints. The sauce was sopped up completely!!! I will do them again incorporating the suggestions.

  15. okay, a meal at Cesare al Caseleto is clearly a must !
    and what scrumptious looking involtini, both rustic and elegant

  16. Ann

    Oh, delicious food for the tail end of winter. And I agree with another commenter — the sauce would be delicious on pasta. P.S. I love the word involtini.

    • rachel

      I can vouch for the sauce on pasta now (we had it today, I am on an involtini roll if you will pardon the dreadful pun).

  17. Have just read Luisa Weiss’ ode to beef rolls (hers stuffed with seasoned bread crumbs, damp with olive oil, and grilled over charcoal, in place of simmering in sauce), made during sojourns to Italy as a child, and now? This?

    I’ve never before craved involtini. Now, I cannot get them off of my mind. Probably, only one thing to do.

    • rachel

      Why have I never read that post? – I thought I had trawled Luisa’s archives? As a couple of people have mentioned (and I have now tried) the sauce with pasta and then the rolls after is a perfect family supper. x

  18. I have been living in Italy for a long time and even lived in Rome for a brief period. I know and love Italian food, yet living in one part of the country, you forget how different the trattoria food is from one region to the next, if not even from one city to the next. I love involtini yet I rarely eat them here (and when I do they are usually made with cabbage leaves in restaurants). And most of the other dishes you mentioned from your lunch never make an appearance on a Milanese table in a trattoria: the cicoria ripassata, the vignarola… you reminded me of a whole series of traditional dishes I had not thought about it a long time.

    • rachel

      It has only been eight years but I have lived and travelled hard enough to know (as you clearly do ) how extraordinarily regional italain food is. I love the way trattria stay so true to local roots – I find it reassuring in a world gone mad. I am long overdue a trip to Milan.

  19. Third time was a charm. I took your friend’s advice and and did bash the meat a little. This is delicious, a real keeper! Thanks.

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