Osso Buco: Hole in the bone at the Velvet Hammer
I first heard this term in 1976 at the old Velvet Hammer bar on 7th St. and Maryland. I had arrived in Arizona after a three-month stint in Cripple Creek, Colorado.
I had worked at the Imperial Hotel there, as a prep cook, dishwasher, busboy and server. I had gone to the Hammer to meet some people that I befriended there; who called Arizona home.
The chef at The Imperial Hotel was Peter Kuyper. He met us there with one of his friends from the Biltmore where he acted as Sous Chef between summers jobs spent at Colorado or Wyoming, resorts.
In the 1970’s the population of Phoenix dropped drastically in the summer. A few restaurants even closed for the summer. There was very little traffic and no waiting lines anywhere. The snow birds all left and the few year-round residents were free of the overcrowded roads and hustle and bustle that the fall would bring.
I was fairly new to the professional kitchen at that time, but having been raised in the food business in New York, I was eager to learn all that I could. I listened intently as these professionals talked food over draught beers.
The subject of Veal came up and the Chefs talked of many Veal dishes; until someone mentioned Osso Buco. They talked about what it took to create a perfectly braised Veal shank.
Someone at the table asked what the name Osso Buco meant.
Chef Kuyper explained in his thick Dutch accent, that it meant hole in the bone. Seeing my incredulous look, he explained that the heart of the dish was the shank bone surrounded by meat.
The hollow portion of the bone held the marrow which was considered quite a delicacy. He explained that the dish was served with a tiny fork to be used to remove the braised marrow while eating the melt-in-your-mouth braised veal surrounding the bone.
This intrigued me. Over the next twenty years, I worked in many of the finest restaurants in Phoenix and read everything that I could get my hands on about food: Childs, Beard, Claiborne, Pepin and the Holy Grail of cuisine the, Larousse Gastronomique. I practically memorized it.
I would experiment with Hollandaise and Demi-glace at home, while my friends were at the river or Dutch John’s bar. I became a capable chef and eventually ran a number of local kitchens.
Years later in the mid-nineties, I had a scrumptious dish of braised Lamb Shank at Mr. Louis’ restaurant, Milano’s on Camelback Rd. It was succulent; the tender meat almost falling off the bone; bathed in a rich brown mushroom-wine sauce. Exquisite! I experimented with Lamb and Veal shanks until I found a method that met my high standards.
When preparing my version, I can occasionally find Veal shanks at AJ’s Fine Foods. Lamb shanks are plentiful around Easter when butchers are prepping legs of lamb for the holiday. Shanks are cross-cut from the leg of Veal, Lamb or Pork. They are usually cut about two or more inches thick, each surrounded by a generous portion of meat.
I just celebrated my twenty-eighth year in Arizona on September 29th, of this year.
In reflecting back, I recalled all of the fine restaurants that are now gone. Vito’s Scampi, Monk’s Garden, Etienne, the Pavilion, Chez Louis, Trader Vic’s, Paul Shank’s gracious dining at the Safari resort, la Chaumiere, Dean Short’s New London Company and many others. This melancholy reflection spurred me on to find the best Osso Buco in Phoenix.
I began listing all of the possible restaurants that may have it. Avanti was once the only place I would risk for my beloved dish. Since then I had heard in asking around that Christo’s prepared a splendid version.
I called Tomaso’s on a Sunday morning and the gracious Tomaso himself told me that of course it was available.
I called Pronto Ristorante and a pleasant young woman told me that it was their specialty. I called Lombardi’s and reached a very confused young woman who though I wanted a take-out menu. She transferred me to a gentleman who told me that they only had it in December and January. I asked, why only at these times?
He said, “It comes from a very large leg.”
I asked, “Don’t you bone-out your own legs of Veal for your Veal dishes?” “Yes.”, was his only answer.
There are a limited amount of shank portions available on any given leg of Veal. Most restaurants that serve a lot of Veal will freeze them until they have enough to run a special.
I called Marco Polo and a friendly young man told me that it is a standard on their menu. I phoned Los Cascio’s and I was told that they had it occasionally as a special and that they offered Veal and pork, versions. I had heard of Pork Osso Buco only recently.
I was enjoying a cocktail at Feeney’s and noticed it on the menu board at the entrance. I was curious. Louis Panos was gracious enough to explain that he was able to secure this cut of pork from a local food vendor. After showing it to me in its uncooked state, I was intrigued. I had never heard of this version but Louis assured me that it was as good or better than the Veal. Now that’s a tall statement!
About five years ago; unable to find any Veal shanks, I tried an improvised version using fresh turkey legs. I cut them across the bone just as one would veal. Turkey makes a rich gravy so I thought that I might be on to something. The result was quite palatable; but that rich falling- off the- bone texture can only be had with meat.
There are a few running arguments about Osso Buco; whether to use red wine, white wine and some even question if tomato should be an ingredient at all.
I always use tomato and a mirepoix of vegetables for the braising.
Some serve Osso Buco on noodles, some rice and some Risotto. I have even served it on a bed of couscous. I prefer a creamy Risotto. I always use mushrooms in the sauce and always strive for a rich demi-glace sauce prepared from the cooking liquid. I have used white wine and when doing so, I prefer a Pinot Grigio; although I have had excellent results with Merlot and Pinot Noir.