I’ll never forget the first time I sat down at an Italian restaurant and saw “spiedini” written on the menu. My eyes widened as I remembered one of my favorite childhood dinners: thin slices of breaded meat wrapped around a filling of tomato, onion, breadcrumbs and cheese. My family called them spiedini and we ate them on a fairly regular basis. It had been ages since I’d even heard the word spiedini, let alone eaten them, and I always chalked them up to being the same as bysta sugu: a food that only people in my family have ever heard of.
But after I read the description, I realized what was being offered here wasn’t even remotely close to the spiedini I grew up eating. We ordered it anyway. It was a long skewer with juicy grilled chunks of swordfish, and it was delicious.
But it wasn’t spiedini. At least not in my eyes.
Turns out, “spiedini” translates to “skewers” in Italian and can refer to just about any food thats been cooked on a stick. Shish kebab? In Italy that’s called spiedini. Chicken satay? Spiedini. A corndog? Spiedini. It’s all spiedini.
But what about the spiedini I grew up with? Surely they have to be a thing somewhere other than my childhood home.
They are. These spiedini are known as Spiedini alla Siciliana; a Sicilian dish popular in my mom’s birth town of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Very different from the more common Spiedini ala Romana, which are skewers of fried bread, cheese and anchovy.
I started to crave spiedini. My spiedini. It had been so long since I’d tasted them, and I was starting to wonder if they really were as good as I remembered. Maybe it was just the memories that I missed and the nostalgia I craved. It was time to find out.
I went to two different sources for a recipe, and since they differed a bit, I had to make them both ways to see which I preferred. The first person I sought out was Mary Ann Genovese, a Sicilian-American Gloucester native who’s married to my Mom’s cousin Paul. She’s an enthusiastic cook who’s become known in our extended family for her spiedini. She sent me her recipe, and after looking it over, I noticed some things were different than what I remembered. Since Mary Ann isn’t a blood relative, it made sense that her recipe would differ a bit. So I called my Aunt Angela, my mom’s younger sister, to find out how she makes hers.
Here’s the lowdown:
Both consisted of the same basic ingredients: thin slices of top round beef (called “skinny meat” in our house) that have been lightly breaded and stuffed with a mixture of Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, tomato sauce, chopped onions, and pecorino Romano cheese.
Mary Ann’s version uses a thin slice Genoa salami in addition to the other ingredients, sautés sliced onions, and tucks bay leaves between the bundles as they bake (an old trick she learned from her Nonna).
Ang’s version, which is exactly like I remember, has no salami, uses raw minced onions and no bay leaves while baking (although we always use bay in our sauce).
The biggest difference really lies in how they’re assembled: the version I remember from my childhood had you put a dollop of filling- cheese and all- in the center of the meat, then bunch it up with your hands and secure the top with two criss-crossing toothpicks. I’m guessing this is how they got the name spiedini.
Mary Ann’s recipe has you place a slice of salami on the meat, then a dollop of the filling (breadcrumbs, onions and sauce only) on the edge, then a matchstick of cheese, then roll them up like a cigar. I suppose you could use a toothpick to secure the rolls, but it’s really not necessary. This technique reminded me of how I make braciole.
The verdict? After making and taste testing both versions side by side, Chaser and I found that, well, they’re both good. Like, really good.
Ang’s recipe was exactly as I remembered. Chaser and I both liked that the little bundles held a bit more filling than the rolled version. We’re filling people. But on the downside, they were much more labor intensive, taking a bit more time to bunch up and skewer each one.
Mary Ann’s were much easier to assemble and had slightly less filling, but were still just as tasty. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the addition of salami, but I did. I liked it a lot. It added a salty, slightly funky note that was barely discernible, but there. The bay leaves added the most beautiful perfume during cooking, but this came as no surprise since I adore the flavor of bay (bae!) in anything. I’ll definitely be making my spiedini with salami and bay forever and ever until the end of time.
Everyone wins! High fives all around!
As for the onions: to sauté or not to sauté? I say skip it. I thought using raw onions might be a little too harsh, but if minced finely, after baking in the oven they mellow out just enough. Plus, I actually like the little bit of bite they have left, it adds a nice textural contrast to the overall dish. The sautéed onions were totally fine too, but if I can get by without having to dirty another pan, I’m gonna go for it.
After making them this week, Chaser asked me why I’d been holding out on him all these years. I’m not really sure why I waited so long to make these, but they will now find themselves in our regular menu rotation. They’re just so uniquely delicious.
Below is my own recipe for Spiedini alla Siciliana, a combination of my family’s recipe and Mary Ann’s Sanfilippo family recipe. The best of both worlds. I hope you enjoy them as much as we do.
- 1 lb beef cutlets, very thinly sliced and pounded out (if needed) to be about 1/8-1/4 inch thick *
- 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil, or more as needed
- 3 cups Italian seasoned breadcrumbs, or more as needed
- 2 cups tomato sauce, any kind, though homemade is preferred
- 1 large yellow onion, finely minced
- 4 oz pecorino Romano cheese, cut into small chunks
- 20 slices Genoa salami, very thinly sliced (about 1 slice per cutlet), optional
- Toothpicks, optional
- Dried bay leaves, optional
- Arrange a work space by filling a medium, shallow bowl with oil and filling another medium, shallow bowl with about 2 cups of breadcrumbs. Working one at a time, dip each cutlet in oil, allowing the excess to drip off, and then dredge in breadcrumbs. Set aside.
- Mix together the tomato sauce, onions and cheese, then add a few handfuls of seasoned breadcrumbs a little at a time until the mixture is the consistency of runny oatmeal - but not too wet. If it’s too saucy it will ooze out when you roll these up.
- Create an assembly line by placing a stack of breaded cutlets next to a stack of sliced salami (if using), and the bowl of filling. Place a few cutlets down on a cutting board, then lay a piece or two of salami (if using) on top. Place a heaping teaspoon of filling on top of the salami, being careful not to put too much. At this point, you can choose to roll them up like cigars or bunch the meat up into a pouch and use two toothpicks to hold it closed.
- Place the spiedini into a greased baking dish. Be sure to pack them in tight, as this will help them cook evenly. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Once all the spiedini are made, spoon any extra sauce, onion, or breadcrumb mixture into any holes in the pan. Use it all up to help keep the spiedini moist, and not to waste any. If you don’t have any mixture left, you can mix together a little sauce and breadcrumbs. No need to chop more onions and cheese for this part if you don’t have any left.
- Break up some pieces of dried bay leaves and tuck them in between each spiedini. This is optional, but gives them a nice, subtle flavor.
- Cover the pan with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes or so until the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Serve hot or warm.
- * I used eye round cutlets sold as "sandwich steaks" because that’s what they offer in my grocery store, but any cut will work as long as they are nice and thin
- * Mary Ann's rule is that these should be finger food: 2-3 per person as an appetizer or 4-6 per person as an entree
- * Any cutlets that are too large after pounding out can be cut in half