Osso buco. It translates literally to “bone with a hole”, but to me it’s synonymous with ambrosia, food of the Gods. An exaggeration? It’s hard to say. My first time eating Occo buco is inextricably linked with one of the most memorable nights of my life. It was in Italy, March 2011…
It was our second night in Rome and Simon was sick. Really sick. He was hotter than the lava that boils beneath Vesuvius, in a restless slumber. At the same time he had the chills and was in bed bundled up while I was doing what I could to make him comfortable. He insisted he just needed water and sleep and I relented, after a bit.
As he drifted in and out, I sat buy our B&B window looking over travel guides and checking his pulse. I lasted as a diligent bedside nurse for about an hour before I realized that I was starving and decided I’d have to venture out in search of food. I whispered my plan to Simon who mumbled something about staying close, being safe. I assured him I would and off I went.
I walked for a bit, away from the crowds, away from the tourist-filled restaurants where waiters jovially beckoned hungry travelers. I made my way down a well-lit but fairly empty street and caught sight of a warm glow pouring out of a small window, emblazoned with the word Ristorante. The exterior was non-descript with a dark stone façade and a small light illuminating a menu behind glass. The name escapes me now, years later—I blame the free wine I was given that night. I pulled open the door and walked in.
I was greeted by the owner, a round excitable man in his sixties who ushered me in from the cold with an arm around my shoulders and a stream of indecipherable Italian. I asked—in a decent accent—for un tavolo per uno and he launched into another excited tumble of sentences. I had to laugh and shake my head, trying to explain that no, I only knew that phrase. This happened to me a lot on my trip. I should have learned Italian for “No, I’m sorry. I don’t speak Italian, just that phrase”. He called a waiter over who proceeded to translate and informed me that if I was in fact dining alone they would be taking good care of me. I was whisked away to a private table near the back.
I didn’t get a menu, rather the waiter and owner— who still having a full-blown conversation with me in Italian—simply told me that I would be having the special, Osso Buco. I nodded in agreement, I was delightfully overwhelmed with the flurry of activity. Red wine was poured, no charge informed the waiter. A garlic, grilled flatbread materialized out of nowhere. No charge. Proscuitto-enveloped dried figs set before me. No charge. No charge. At one point I stopped the waiter and asked why? Why the free food and wine? Why the excessive kindness? Why me? He smiled and said, “why not?”
Ok. I shrugged internally. From then on, I simply allowed myself to get carried along in the pleasant current of the evening. I tried to not feel too guilty about Simon, miserable and ill on his vacation. Maybe I would just downplay the evening. Make it sound dull. Say the food was awful, service terrible.
By now the restaurant was pretty busy—of course I was the American who went out to diner far too early. A symphony of laughter, glasses clinking, and conversation filled the room. The owner stopped by frequently, and we chatted with the help of our translator about Rome, food, and wine.
The ossobuco arrived smelling divine—heady and intoxicating. It was resting on a bed of creamy polenta. I’m pretty sure the meat fell away from the bone at just the sight of my fork. What can I tell you about this enchanting creation? It was tender, succulent, rich—I could taste the wine it had simmered in for hours. And while I can’t entirely recall the taste now, I can recall the feelings I had while eating it. Words like ecstatic and euphoric come to mind. Even now when I think of this dish, I can recall the tone of the evening; ephemeral rapture pretty much sums it up.
My host left me to eat my meal and it’s a good thing he did because I inhaled it in a very unladylike manner. But, wait! This was back in my slightly less adventurous food days. I was still expanding my palate. So as I finished the last bite, I eyed the bone and marrow in the center of my plate with uncertainty. The waiter stopped in his tracks when he saw my hesitation. I told him I’d never had marrow before.
“No, you have to eat it!” he exclaimed and waved the owner over explaining that I had never tried it. And there they stood waiting, like stern parents, for me to do so. I’ll try anything once, so I gingerly dipped my fork in and brought a small bite to my lips. My eyes legitimately closed and I’m pretty sure I murmured mmmm softly under my breath. Embarrassing. But hey, these are life changing moments we are discussing here!My eyes popped back open and all I could do was smile, “Amazing. I have no words”. The waiter translated. The owner laughed. I spread the rest on some flatbread and finished every last bit. From that point on I was a convert.
The rest of the evening is a blur. Dessert was served. Moscato poured. A light sadness crept in. You know the twinge you feel in a blissfully happy moment, knowing full well that it can’t go on forever? The (greatly reduced) check came. I bid my farewells and I was off again, in the cold night air. Full of food but light in step. I tried to check my elation at the door. No need to rub it in. Simon opened one eye and asked me how it was. My grin nearly split my face in half. “Go back to bed,” I urged. I’d tell him tomorrow. By then his fever had broken and my night seemed like a distant fever dream. A hazy memory that has never quite dissipated.
Ok, I know it’s a long story but that night was so damn magical. I’ll never get over it! I went to the butcher the other day and bought some beef shanks and other goodies. I entreated my Instagram followers to lend me some inspiration as to what I could make with my purchase. People offered up some incredible suggestions but someone cried out Osso Buco, and was heard above all the others. But rather than try to duplicate it in any way, I truly made it my own, re-imagining a classic Milanese dish.
Please keep in mind that I really just pulled this one out of nowhere. I didn’t plan it out. I just opened cupboards and grabbed what looked good. If you have any methods or ingredients you’d like to share I’d love to hear them! There really are some many different ways you could make this your own!
- 10 oz. Canton noodles (or noodles of your choice), cooked and set aside
- Two veal or beef shanks about 1 ½-2 inches thick
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 whole onion, chopped
- 4 large slices ginger
- 6-ish cloves of garlic, rough chopped
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 cup rice wine
- One stalk lemongrass, halved and bruised with the back of your knife, or a pan, or sheer will power
- 2 dried Japanese chilies
- 1 star anise pod
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 Tbsp. (or more) Chili bean sauce (I used Lee Kum Kee)
- ¼ cup sweet soy sauce*
- 2 cups beef stock
- 2 cups water
- Thai Basil (or regular basil) for serving
- Heat olive oil in a large heavy bottomed skillet or a dutch oven. My cast iron skillet was barely large enough to hold everything.
- Season shanks with salt and pepper and sear on both sides.
- Remove shanks from pan and add in onions, ginger, and garlic, sautéing for a few minutes until onions begin to soften.
- Add in tomato paste and sauté a few minutes more.
- Pour in wine to deglaze the pan, cooking until liquid reduces by half.
- Return shanks to the pan along with the lemon grass, chilies, soy sauce, anise, chili bean sauce, cinnamon stick, soy sauce, stock, and water. The liquid doesn’t need to cover the beef shanks.
- Reduce heat to low and cook for 4-5 hours, or until the meat is falling off the bones.
- When beef is ready, carefully remove and set aside. At this time, remove the star anise, ginger, lemongrass, cinnamon stick.
- Turn up the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the sauce thickens a bit. Taste test at this point and adjust as necessary.
- Reserve about ½ cup of the sauce and set aside.
- Next turn off the heat and add prepared noodles and toss in the sauce to coat them.
- Divide noodles into to portions, top with osso buco, reserved sauce, and fresh basil.
- Sweet soy sauce is typically thicker and less salty than regular soy sauce. You can find it at your neighborhood Asian market. I have also read that you can mix regular soy sauce and brown sugar to emulate the flavor. If you do this go easy on adding it to the sauce to ensure it isn't too salty.