Panzetta, stuffed breast of veal was an Italian American Kitchen standard. The idea for resurrecting a stuffed breast of veal came to me from my friend Chris. She, like me, is a second and third generation product of South Philadelphia’s Italian Americans. We’re always trading stories and recipes and almost always we lament the loss of cherished traditions among our children. Every conversation seems to end, “in our time everyone was together for Sunday dinner. You never imagined otherwise.These days our kids don’t even live in the same city.” During one of our laments over the old days Chris asked me abruptly, “Do you remember ponzet (pon –zette)?” While the word seemed familiar, I couldn’t quite place it. “Stuffed breast of veal!” she said. Then it all suddenly made sense to me. Stuffed veal breast: I hadn’t made that since my kids were little. That was over twenty years ago. Even the veal breast as I made it for them was only a vague recollection of what I had as a child.
No one makes stuffed veal breast anymore. Stuffed veal breast was the dinner of a large family with limited resources. The veal breast little more than the thin remains of meat along the ribs of the calf after all the good pieces were removed. Back in the day, that remaining breast was one of the most inexpensive cuts in the butcher shop. To make it something substantial, you would have the butcher slice a pocket between the bones and the thin layer of flesh.You would then make a stuffing from stale left over bread and anything else you might have. Stuffings might include cheeses or chopped salami; some versions had dried fruits or greens, others ground pork, still others nothing more than the bread and some onions and garlic. For the veal breast to be edible it needed to roast or braise for hours. Once done the stuffed breast of veal provided a most tender, savory and satisfying dinner. In more recent times the economic status of most Italian Americans has distanced them from such humble and time consuming fare.
Chris’ question set me on a quest to find a traditional panzetta. The first area of investigation was the index of every cookbook I own. Not one mentioned panzetta. Switching languages I tried looking up “stuffed veal breast.” Now here I found a few recipes but of a more contemporary feel where the veal was a lean strip that had been removed from the bone. Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry” cookbook offers an excellent example of this version.
The next step was to look online. As I researched the history of stuffed breast of veal on the American and the Italian Google, I found myself at numerous dead ends. First of all, what is the correct name of this dish? I started with Google Italy where I found nothing in text search and numerous images of people with fat stomachs: in Italian, “panza” means “belly.” On American Google I found pages of people with the last name “Panzetta” but little more.
The next plan was to Google “stuffed breast of veal.” This quest rendered a good number of finds, although nowhere near what you might find for other recipes. Out of these finds, I had to eliminate the more contemporary “off the bone” recipes that I had also found in cookbooks. You Tube also provided a Julia Child and Mary Anne Esposito recipe for stuffed veal breast. Yet, none of the sites I found mentioned the term “panzetta.”
Once again I turned to Google Italy. This time I tried the Italian equivalent, “petto di vitello imbotito.” The results of this search added to the confusion. What I found was that there were three names for the dish in Italy: “Petto di vitello imbotito,” “petto di vitello farcito,” and “petto di vitello ripieno.” All three mean roughly the same thing but none of them are quite what we know in America. And none of them even suggested the term “panzetta.” One site I found in Italian seemed to hold the key to my question. The site was a list for the Italian tourist. The list was a kind of advisory that noted and translated typical things the Italian traveler in America might find on a restaurant menu. Here’s what it said:
“Breast of veal with lemon rise stuffing - Petto di vitello ripieno di riso e limone.”
I would also note that the list was quite illuminating and included numerous other dishes that we consider Italian but that for an Italian traveler would require explanation. The answer now seemed obvious to me. “Panzetta” is a word and a recipe of Italian American origin. From those I know in the Philadelphia area the word is part of the vocabulary. I would wonder if it is also the word in other Italian American communities around the country.
With my initial question answered, I set off to find the veal. Out of curiosity, I checked the meat departments of several grocery stores in suburban Philadelphia. Needless to say they did not have veal breast. At one store the meat department never even heard of it. Actually, I knew even before checking with the local stores that there would be only one place I would find the veal breast: Di Angelo Brother’s on 9th Street.
When I stopped in to the shop, Sonny, the butcher was a little surprised at my request. He noted that I was the fourth person to ask for veal breast that day. “Was there something on a cooking show?” he asked. He had no veal breast in the shop at the moment but I could order it for the next week. The wait was no problem. When I came back, Sonny had the veal waiting. I decided on the size and he made the all-important pocket. How the butcher makes this pocket is important. You don’t want the breast to be butterflied where the entire side is lifted up. The butcher should cut only a small opening and then by shimmying his knife along the surface of the breast create pocket the covers the entire interior surface. With the portion cut and the pocket made it was time to pay the bill. I can only say that breast of veal is no longer the poor man’s dinner.
The version that I set out here is what best I could recall combined with the recollections of others. As with all home foods, variations, particularly with the stuffing, are countless. Preparing the stuffing, the only thing you have to do, is easy and can be done in about twenty minutes. The cooking time, however, can be up to four hours. So, this is not a weekday dinner. If you want a special Sunday dinner, this is it.
What you need
The Mise en place : getting things together
Prepare the stuffing
Prepare the stuffing
Sautée the stuffing