As we round the bend into December, the usual ideas of what to cook turn to fantasies of holiday showstoppers. At the sleek northern Italian restaurant Casa Lever on New York’s Park Avenue, director of culinary operations Iacopo Falai offers a hearty option: osso buco, the Milanese classic in which cartilaginous veal shanks—cross sections of leg bone—are simmered until hauntingly flavorful and beginning to go slack.
Here, the dish is presented in the traditional mode: doused in bone marrow sauce, with a spoonful of the rustic lemon-parsley mash known as gremolata, and served on a bed of fragrant saffron risotto. In its decadence, the dish is like a visit from St. Nick himself, Falai says—and “who doesn’t like Santa Claus with a lot of presents?”
Falai began his career as a pastry chef in his hometown of Florence, Italy, including in the kitchen of the Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Enoteca Pinchiorri. There, he started to move from sweets into pasta and bread. “The path between being a pastry chef and a savory chef is about, I think, curiosity,” he says. “You see from your station this beautiful world, and then, little by little, you walk.”
Falai’s savory journey brought him to Laguiole, France, for a stint at Michel Bras. He then moved to New York, where he worked at Circo before opening his own Falai, which was celebrated for its deft combinations of sweet and savory flavors. He landed at SA Hospitality in 2012. Today, he oversees the group’s 12 restaurants, including Casa Lever, whose kitchen is helmed by co-executive chefs Domenico Natale and David de Lucia.
As another year’s journey winds down, elevating the humble leg bone seems right. But what to drink? From the restaurant’s Best of Award of Excellence–winning cellar, wine director Carrie Lyn Strong pulls Elvio Cogno’s Barolo Ravera Bricco Pernice, from the classic-rated 2013 vintage. Though Cogno is grounded in tradition, Strong notes that the producer has an eye to the future, exemplified by its acquisition of the Raverna vineyard—the source of this wine. The site is particularly well-suited to warmer vintages; Strong calls the move “very forward-thinking.”
She finds notes of herb, black tea and crisp red fruit in the glass, with excellent acidity and backbone. “You have the tannin structure that’s going to pull out some of that richness,” she notes, “so you can continue to enjoy this big, huge, amazing dish.”
Osso buco with saffron risotto and gremolata is a classic hit of Milanese cuisine, and while certainly a weekend project, this holiday-friendly meal demands more in the way of time than technical prowess. If you’re willing to put in the hours, you and your dinner guests will be richly rewarded. You can cook cozily while enjoying the prospect of what’s to come—sitting down to a beautiful meal with loved ones—much like anticipating the delight of waking up on Christmas morning to gifts under the tree. And Falai confirms that he does, in fact, still believe in Santa. “I believe in a lot of things,” he muses. “I still believe in human beings, believe it or not.”
Read on for pointers on making the most of your shanks.
- Veal shanks, otherwise known as the leg bone, are low-drama. Maybe it’s because they’re so fundamentally sturdy. A low, slow simmer, with the shanks covered in red wine and beef stock, melts the stiff cartilage and suffuses the meat with rich flavor and texture.
But beware of overcooking. Falai warns that it’s a mistake to think you can just leave the veal in the oven all day. If you do, the deeply flavored meat will disintegrate into the liquid, and you’ll be left with stringy, dry fibers. (Falai does concede that in this case, the broth will be ambrosial—but that may be cold comfort if you have set the table for four and have nothing much to serve beyond pumped-up beef stock.) Two and a half hours—three, tops—should be sufficient for tender but still meaty meat.
Risotto alla milanese is all about the saffron. So make sure the saffron you use is good quality. It should be a vibrant orange, with a complex, floral aroma. Cheaper and less-fresh varieties can lend a metallic character. Saffron is pricey, but it’s one of those spices for which it really does pay to buy on the higher end. You can buy just a tiny quantity; a pinch is all you need here.
Risotto is also about a very specific back-and-forth between liquid and solid. More than veal shanks, risotto does require a bit of skill, and it can take a couple tries—adding broth, letting it be absorbed, adding broth again, letting it be absorbed—to get the desired creamy-but-firm texture just right.
Try to rise above the holiday cooking stress. The most wonderful time of the year can also be among the most stressful—and never more so than in the hours before a special meal. Falai urges you to take heart and push back against the panic, taking shortcuts if you need to. “Stress is confusion,” he says. “Do not stress. I always say to people, especially when we try new dishes, cook with calmness. Cut your little corner. At end of day, we cook with love. We cook with our heart. If we all as a community start to work in that direction, I believe something good is going to happen.”
Pairing Tip: Why Barolo Works with This Dish
This generous meal calls for a wine of oomph. A high-quality Barolo, Barbaresco or other Nebbiolo-based wine will have the right combination of powerful tannins and well-balanced fruit, floral, herb and mineral notes to match.
Osso Buco with Saffron Risotto & Gremolata
Recipe courtesy of chef Iacopo Falai and tested by Wine Spectator’s Rori Kotch.
For the osso buco:
- 1 bottle red wine
- 4 thyme sprigs
- 4 rosemary sprigs
- 4 sage sprigs
- 4 large cross-cut veal shank slices, 1/2 pound to 1 pound each
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 celery ribs, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 small organic carrots, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 white onion, cut into 1-inch dice
- 3 cups beef stock or broth
For the gremolata:
- 1 lemon
- 1 cup chopped parsley, packed
- 2 tablespoons best-quality extra-virgin olive oil
For the risotto:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup Acquerello rice
- 3 tablespoons white wine
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 or 2 pinches saffron threads
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Kitchen twine
1. Add the wine and 1 cup water to a large saucepan and heat over high. Cook until reduced and the consistency of molasses, about 35 to 40 minutes. Set aside. While the wine reduces, preheat oven to 375° F and place the thyme, rosemary and sage on a 9-inch by 9-inch square of cheesecloth. Tie the cheesecloth into a bundle with cooking twine to create a bouquet garni.
2. Season veal shanks with salt and pepper on both sides. In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven large enough to hold all of the meat in a single layer, add olive oil to coat and heat over medium-high. When hot, add veal and sear both sides until well-browned, about 4 minutes per side. Remove meat from the pan and transfer to a cutting board, reserving the fond (the browned bits and drippings) in the pan.
3. Lower the heat under the skillet or pot to medium. Add celery, carrots and onion, and cook until softened, stirring occasionally, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer the veal back to the pan. Add the beef stock, bouquet garni and reserved reduced wine to completely submerge the meat, adding more stock or water if needed. Cover tightly with aluminum foil or a tight-fitting, oven-safe pot lid, transfer to the oven and roast for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, until the meat is fork-tender and falling off the bone.
4. Meanwhile, make the gremolata. Zest the lemon using a Microplane zester, or use a vegetable peeler to peel the zest into strips, then thinly chop. Chop the parsley and combine with the lemon zest and the 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Set the gremolata aside.
5. When the veal is fork-tender and falling off the bone, remove from the oven and lower the temperature to 250° F. Remove and discard the bouquet garni, transfer the veal to a plate and cover with foil, leaving one end slightly open so the steam can escape. Transfer the cooking liquid into a bowl, then strain it through a fine-mesh strainer back into the skillet or Dutch oven, pressing down on the vegetables to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Set the cooking vessel over high heat and bring the contents to a boil to begin reducing the liquid. (It should take about 15 minutes to become thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.)
6. While monitoring the reduction of the pan sauce, start the risotto. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium in a medium pot. When the oil is shimmering, add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Add the white wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated, 2 to 4 minutes. Add enough vegetable broth just to cover the rice and continue to stir. When the liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes, add more broth just to cover the rice.
At this point, transfer the covered plate of veal to the oven to keep warm. Continue to check the pan sauce, stirring with a spoon from time to time; turn off the heat when it coats the spoon.
Continue the risotto-making process—let the broth be absorbed before adding more broth, stirring frequently—until all broth is absorbed and the rice is creamy but still al dente, about 20 minutes total. Stir in the saffron, Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
7. Remove the veal from the oven; it should be just warmed through. Spoon some risotto onto each of four dinner plates and top each with a veal shank. Spoon some sauce over the veal, and top with the gremolata and a drizzle of olive oil. Serves 4.