By Kaitlin Steinberg
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By Eating Our Words
"If you don't like it, there's the door. Pay your bill and go. And don't come back," says Alex Salmassi, the owner of Portofino Ristorante Italiano, pointing to the exit. I seem to have a knack for getting myself thrown out of restaurants.
This time, the fracas is over a plate of osso buco. Instead of the usual marrow bone enveloped by tender veal, I was served two small rounds of meat surrounding four skinny bones. So I asked the waiter if this was osso buco, or if he had brought me another dish by mistake. And I also asked him what kind of rice they used in the risotto, because it looked weird.
My impertinence earned me an audience with the owner who, as it turned out, was eating dinner a few tables away.
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"You have a problem with the osso buco?" the slender, dark-haired young man began. I explained that I was used to a single large shank in my osso buco, not a collection of bones, but he quickly cut me off.
"Let me ask you something: What is osso buco?" Salmassi said, as if he were dealing with a small child.
"Veal shank," I replied.
"And how is it cooked?" he asked, his head moving backward and forward like a rooster's.
"It's braised," I said.
"And what's in the sauce?" he continued with his little quiz.
"It can be cooked in all kinds of sauces," I told him.
"No," he said adamantly. Then he delivered his big punch line with a whispered rage reminiscent of early Al Pacino. "When you know what osso buco is, then you can talk to me about my osso buco."
"You trying to tell me I don't know what osso buco is?" I countered in disbelief.
"This is our signature dish; everybody loves it," he said.
"This pile of skinny little bones is your signature dish?" I asked, gesturing at my plate. That's when Salmassi pointed to the door. Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted.
I took Alex Salmassi's advice to heart. Not only did I pay the entire bill and leave (after tipping the waiter generously), I also took some time to learn exactly what osso buco is.
According to Barron's Food Lover's Companion, osso buco is an Italian dish made of veal shanks braised with olive oil, white wine, stock, onions, tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, carrots, celery and lemon peel, and it's traditionally served with risotto. There are lots of variations, such as white osso buco made without tomatoes. And countless other versions are served by modern Italian restaurants in the United States, which seldom follow the strict formula.
Portofino's risotto, made with long-grain rice instead of the traditional arborio, is awful. And their osso buco sauce has too many tomatoes in it. But regardless of the risotto or what's in the braising sauce, the osso buco I was served at Portofino was made from a poor cut of meat. Maybe Salmassi figured if he threw me out, his problems would go away.
But while I was waiting for the bill, I asked the busboy to pack up the plate of osso buco in a Styrofoam to-go container. A few days later, I took that container to the corporate headquarters of Martin Preferred Foods, one of the state's top veal suppliers. Without mentioning the name of the restaurant, I showed the meat and bones to sales and marketing manager John Walker and sales rep Mike Disney and asked them for their observations.
"If you ordered osso buco for $24.95, and this is what you were served, what would you do?" I asked the veal experts.
"I'd send it back," said Disney.
Opening a veal supplier's brochure, they showed me photos of veal shank and explained the grades. Top-end restaurants use only the tender, meaty hindshank for osso buco, Disney said, pointing to a picture of the thick marrow bone surrounded by veal I expect when I order osso buco. At Martin Preferred Foods, they get around $11 a pound for the good stuff.
"Cost-conscious restaurants" substitute the foreshank for the hindshank, the meat man continued, pointing to another picture. The foreshank is a tougher cut from the calf's front shin that can be identified by the pair of bones that run through it. It sells for around $7 a pound.
"So this must be foreshank," I said, pointing to the squarish bones in my Styrofoam container.
"Yes," Disney agreed. But the foreshanks in the catalog were nearly as big as the hindshanks. And the ones served to me at Portofino were much smaller. I asked how that could be.
"They probably aren't center-cut," he told me, referring to the meatier, thicker part of the shank. A restaurant that's really cutting corners also can buy the entire foreshank cut "end to end," he said. But when they do, they get smaller end scraps along with the pieces cut from the center.
So how much does end-to-end veal shank go for? "We don't even sell it," Walker told me. When pressed, he estimated it might cost somewhere around $5 a pound.
Odds are most of the customers who order osso buco at Portofino get a decent-sized veal foreshank. But I had the great fortune to get a portion made up from two smaller end pieces. And no one who knows osso buco is going to be happy with such scraps.