Film and TV

We Make Grandma's Braciole a la FX's The Bear

The finished product: braciole with mashed potatoes. How does it compare to The Bear?
The finished product: braciole with mashed potatoes. How does it compare to The Bear? Hank Vaughn
The Bear is an FX series streaming on Hulu that tells the story of Carmy Berzatto, a young award-winning chef from the world of fine dining who returns to Chicago to help run his family’s Italian beef sandwich shop after the death of his brother.

There is plenty of built-in conflict and drama provided by the fish-out-of-water situation, unresolved family issues, a kitchen staff set in their ways and the day-to-day grind of dealing with vendors, landlords and customers. There are also the aftershocks that permeate the family caused by the suicide of his brother Michael. It’s an intense and emotional eight-episode ride.
Featured prominently in two episodes is braciole, a dish consisting of thin slices of meat coated with garlic, cheese, parsley and breadcrumbs rolled up, browned and finally braised slowly in a good tomato sauce. Not fancy enough to be the main course at a wedding but requiring more preparation than is warranted for a middle-of-the-week dinner, it is the kind of meal usually reserved for Sundays by Italians, sort of like the Sunday afternoon pot roast that used to be a common family meal for American households.

The sixth episode of The Bear opens with a flashback. The entire family, including Michael, is in the kitchen preparing braciole. The sauce slowly simmers on the stove while Michael seasons the meat that has been pounded flat. Carmy preps other ingredients, cousin Richie sits and kibbitzes, and Sugar, the sister, tries to get Michael to add raisins, claiming that was how Mom always did it. Thankfully, she’s shot down by the rest of the family, and after the seasonings are layered atop the meat, Carmy rolls it up like a jelly roll and prepares to brown it.

As in most family meal situations, and with Italians in particular, the food is not the point, really. It is a delivery system, a conduit, an excuse and the glue that brings everyone together. It provides a common goal, in both the preparation and the ingestion. Procedure-heavy dishes such as braciole, ravioli and even the ubiquitous pot roast help create memories that remain long after their aromas, tastes and textures have dissipated. The latter can be delicious but are fleeting; the former, while sometimes bittersweet, stay with us for a lifetime.

My Italian great-grandmother used to make braciole, and it’s been memorialized in a recipe book of her dishes that was transcribed from her handwritten notes. Inspired by The Bear, but hopefully lacking their familial dysfunction, I decided to prepare Great Grandma Toti’s braciole. I wanted to compare it with the dish created for The Bear (as shared in a recent Wall Street Journal article), by chef Courtney Storer, the culinary consultant and brother of series creator Christopher Storer. Great-gram’s recipe is much simpler, with fewer ingredients, and calls for a lesser cut of meat — round steak, whereas The Bear’s uses flank steak. In fact, Great-gram’s recipe is short and sweet:

One round steak; salt, pepper; Romano cheese; garlic (minced); parsley (minced); olive oil; tomatoes, cut up.

That’s it. Instructions are equally sparse: “Cut meat into large pieces, then pound thin. Add salt, pepper, cheese, parsley and garlic to each piece. Roll up and fasten with toothpick. Brown in oil, then add tomatoes to make a sauce. Serve over mashed potatoes.”

A few things are left out, like braising this in the sauce for about 90 minutes at 325°F, and … she doesn’t really explain how to make that tomato sauce. That’s common, of course, in hand-written recipes; cooks don’t think to add steps, procedures and even ingredients that, to them, are obvious and should be second nature. It can make re-creating family dishes a challenge, but that’s part of the fun. It’s never going to taste “just like grandma used to make,” but we can try.
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Braciole beginnings: cheese, flank steak, parsley, salt, pepper, tomatoes, garlic, onion.
Hank Vaughn
I decided to go with a sort of hybrid between my great-grandma and The Bear. Flank steak is so much better than round steak, so flank steak was used. The prosciutto called for in The Bear seems to be overkill, and an added expense that my great-grandparents would have eschewed in this dish. Breadcrumbs seem like a welcome addition — so sorry, Gram, those, too, were added. She likely would have used breadcrumbs from bread she'd baked, which she did several times a week.

For the sugo (what our family calls tomato sauce), I went with a sort of half-cheat: not a bottled sugo like Ragu, but also not starting from whole, fresh tomatoes. Instead, a 28-ounce can of San Marzano whole, peeled tomatoes was simply simmered in a pot along with a whole onion, peeled and halved, half a stick of butter, salt and pepper. As it simmers the tomatoes are crushed with a spoon, and after about 45 minutes it’s done. It’s simple, but it packs flavor.
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The flank steak is pounded thinly and layered with bread crumbs, cheese, parsley and garlic.
Hank Vaughn
A 2-pound flank steak was butterflied, then pounded to about one-quarter-inch thickness on parchment paper. After it was salted and peppered, panko bread crumbs, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and Romano cheeses, chopped Italian parsley and about six chopped garlic cloves were layered on top, in that order. These were then rolled up, secured with twine and cut into pieces.
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All rolled up and waiting to be browned.
Hank Vaughn
The rolls were lightly browned in some olive oil on all sides, then placed in a baking dish and just covered with the tomato sauce. The Bear adds a quartered yellow onion and red bell pepper to this. Since Great-Gram will never know, it was added here too.

Covered, it cooked at 325°F for about an hour and a half. It can be served on pasta with some of the sauce spooned over the top, but Great-Gram would almost always serve it with mashed potatoes (who would have the time to prepare braciole and make fresh pasta from scratch?), so we did here as well.
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The browned rolls are placed in a baking dish and covered with tomato sauce, then braised in the oven.
Hank Vaughn
The taste? Well… it was close. It was good. It was, however, missing something. All I did, after all, was create the delivery system, the conduit, but what was missing was the family interaction, my great-grandfather trying to put in his two cents as to how long the sugo should simmer, my great-grandmother’s laughter, the homemade red wine, the cool Minnesota breeze through the open windows. But the food itself was passable.

The final episode of The Bear is actually titled “Braciole,” and in it Carmy is again preparing this dish, but instead of doing it with his siblings in the family kitchen, he’s alone, on the set of a cooking show. Everything goes wrong, things burn, doors stick and ingredients are lost. We then realize he’s dreaming; he’s in the middle of a nightmare. Food without family is just food, not an experience.
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The finished product: braciole with mashed potatoes
Hank Vaughn
Season 2 has just been ordered, so hopefully, Carmy and his family learn to cope with Michael’s death and come together over food once again. In the meantime, does anyone have a good cannoli recipe?
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Hank Vaughn is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing and overthinking his food and drink experiences, both good and bad, from his culinary journeys with his wife across North Texas and beyond.
Contact: Hank Vaughn