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Svizzere: Yes, That’s Italian for Hamburgers

Burgers (in a variety of flavors) in an Italian Market

Burgers (in a variety of flavors) in an Italian Market

Grilled meat — generally ground beef — patties are rarely called grilled meat patties, perhaps because it’s a long mouthful for a quick dish. There are several explanations for the English language term, hamburger, my favorite being that it derives from the grilled meat patties served to immigrants crossing the Atlantic on the Hamburg line in the 1800s.

Many of the immigrants had never seen anything like them before, continues this explanation, and therefore called them Hamburgers, a name they continued to use in the Americas. And since hamburgers are tasty if made with good quality meat, and easy to cook, soon everyone was making them.

In Italy hamburgers are instead called Svizzere, which is the feminine plural of Swiss (sing. Svizzera); according to Antonio Piccinardi it’s a “Milanese term indicating a pan-fried ground meat patty, similar to a Hamburger.” Why the Milanese should have called a ground beef patty a Svizzera is beyond me, but they did, and Svizzere were already quite common in Italy before companies like McD’s began to introduce American-style fast food.

And now in every Italian supermarket and butcher’s shop you will find a considerable variety of ready-to-cook Svizzere, including moderately fatty beef, lean beef, beef with pork, beef with turkey, beef with chicken, and many Svizzere with different kinds of herbs and flavorings mixed through the meat.

And, of course, you will find ground beef, both leaner and less lean, in addition to ground veal and ground pork.

To be quite honest, unless you are pressed for time, you will likely be better off buying ground meat and making the patties at home. Why? Because you can tailor the meat to your taste, combining leaner and fattier grinds to get it just the way you like it, or using a mixture of meats, say beef and pork sausage. And you can also add other ingredients to the ground meat, from cooked onions through soy sauce, and also herbs and spices such as parsley or garlic, or paprika.

In terms of grind you will want meat that’s not too finely ground, and unless you are on a rigidly lowfat diet, you should select meat that’s not too lean: fat helps to keep the meat moist as it cooks, and as a result a Svizzera made from overly lean meat will be dry and rather chewy.

Mix the ingredients you choose to include well, and shape the mixture into patties, figuring that 500 g of ground meat (1 1/8 pounds) will yield 4 burgers about 3 inches (7.5 cm) across and a little more than a half-inch (1.2 cm) thick. Don’t make them too thick, because they will contract as they cook, becoming thicker in the process.

Come time to cook Svizzere, if you are pan-frying them with a Teflon-coated pan and have used meat that’s not too lean, you can simply heat the pan and cook them with no additional fat. If you are instead using leaner meat that might dry out, you should drizzle a drop or two of olive oil over the patties before you cook them.

If you are using cast iron, which (I find) nicely sears the surfaces of the patties, forming a zesty crust, you will need to grease it lest the patties stick. The other indoor option, if you have a hearth, is to cook them over the coals.

Outdoors? The grill, and here the flame source is up to you; I prefer hardwood or lump charcoal, but gas will also give good results. I wouldn’t use charcoal briquettes, because they can contain all sorts of things, including sawdust.

Last thing: Cooking Burgers.

Commercially prepared ground meats can be contaminated with e. coli bacteria: if they are present on the surface of a piece of meat the grinding process will spread them throughout the ground meat, at which point the ground meat, if eaten raw, could cause food poisoning whose effects range from the uncomfortable to the fatal (especially in children). Since e. coli bacteria are neutralized by cooking, always cook burgers made from purchased ground meat thoroughly. They should be well done, no pink in the middle, and certainly no blood.

If you want to enjoy the luxury of a rare burger, buy a piece of beef, sear the outsides to eliminate bacteria, and grind it yourself (go in pulses if you are using a food processor), adding fat to taste (figure 10 – 15% by weight) and washing the grinder well when you have finished.

Do not serve rare burgers made with commercially ground meat. It’s simply not worth the risk.

Having said all this, some Italian Svizzera Recipes:

Italian Burgers With Creamy Sauce, Svizzere Gustose
These burgers are served with a creamy sauce that gains zing from some mustard, and will be quite nice in the spring.

Italian Burgers with Spinach,  Svizzere e Spinaci
Blended spinach and ham are a nice addition to ground beef in these burgers, and provide a welcome variation to the more standard theme.

Breaded Hamburgers, Svizzere in Cotoletta
The cotoletta alla Milanese, a breaded fried cutlet, is one of the quickest and easiest (and most popular) meat dishes in Italy. It’s just a step further to fry up a burger, but here we have an added twist: it’s stuffed with ham and cheese, and the latter melts delightfully.

Pizzaiola Style Hamburgers, Hamburger alla Pizzaiola
Carne alla pizzaiola, cutlets cooked in a tomato sauce of the sort that goes over pizza, is one of Naples’s signature dishes. It is only natural to do the same to a hamburger.

Chained Italian Hamburgers, or Double Bacon Burgers: Hamburger Incatenati
American-style fast food has become quite popular in Italy, and it’s only natural that Italians should begin making hamburgers at home too. This clearly derives from some of the things one gets from the takeout window, but builds nicely upon the concept.

Creamy Anchovy Italian Burgers, Hamburger All’Acciuga
Anchovies have the delightful freshness of the sea, and are very tasty in these burgers.

Summer Burgers, Svizzere Estive
Here we have burgers with tomatoes and eggplant, and while the recipe will work well if you use a griddle over the stove, it will be even nicer if you do it outside, over the coals.

Kyle’s Burgers
These aren’t exactly Italian, but all my Italian in-laws, even those who normally recoil from Svizzere, ask for more.

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Summer Burgers, Svizzere Estive

The word for “hamburger” in Italian is Svizzera (Swiss), and no, I don’t know why. But they have been popular since long before the arrival of the Double Arches, and Italians have a great many ways of preparing them. Here they are with tomatoes and eggplant, and while the recipe will work well if you use a griddle over the stove, it will be even nicer if you do it outside, over the coals.

  • 4 hamburgers, beef or a mixture of meats if you prefer
  • 4 3/4-inch (1.5 cm) thick slices of eggplant, of the diameter of the patties
  • 4 sun-ripened plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into rounds
  • A pinch of oregano
  • 2-3 leaves fresh basil, shredded
  • A teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by seeding and slicing the tomatoes, and put them in a bowl with the oregano, basil, balsamic vinegar, and three tablespoons of olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix well.

Salt the eggplant slices and let them sit in a colander for 10-15 minutes. Rinse them and pat them dry.

If you are preparing the dish indoors, heat your griddle. If you are outside, you will want hot but not really searing coals. In any case, grill the eggplant slices 3-4 minutes per side. Transfer them to a plate, season them with salt and pepper, and drizzle the remaining olive oil over them. Then turn the slices so both sides are coated with oil, and let them rest.

In the meantime cook the burghers on the griddle or over the coals until done, turning them once or twice. Season the burghers when they are done, and put them on four plates. Top each with a slice of eggplant, and a quarter of the tomato mixture.

Serve with crusty bread (hamburger buns may not be the best idea here), and a light zesty red wine, along the lines of a Bardolino.

More about Svizzere, Italian hamburgers, and other recipes.

Creamy Anchovy Italian Burgers, Hamburger All’Acciuga

Americans are for some reason put off by anchovies — when I was in college I often ordered anchovy pizza and none of my friends ever wanted to partake. Their loss, because anchovies have the delightful freshness of the sea, and are very tasty in these burgers.

  • 1 1/3 pounds (600 g) ground beef
  • 3 slices American-style day old bread (white or as you prefer), crusts removed and discarded
  • Milk
  • 2 salted anchovies, boned, rinsed and patted dry
  • 1 cup (50 g) freshly grated Parmigiano or Grana Padana
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 yolks, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • A pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
  • The juice of half a lemon, and the remainder of the lemon washed and finely sliced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Put the bread in a bowl and add milk to cover. Let sit 5 minutes, and then drain away the milk and squeeze the excess from the bread, which will be a moist but not dripping paste.

Put the ground meat in a fairly large bowl and add to it the bread, eggs, a pinch of nutmeg, grated cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well, and shape the mixture into four fairly thin broad hamburgers.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a skillet and cook the hamburgers. When they are done remove them from the pan to a serving plate and keep them warm.

While the meat is cooking, whisk the two egg yolks with the lemon juice.

Upon removing the hamburgers from the pan, crumble the anchovies into the pan drippings and stir them about with a fork to dissolve them. Reduce the heat to low (make sure the pan is not too hot, or the eggs will set), stir the emulsified yolks into the pan, and cook for a minute, until the mixture thickens. Spoon it over the burgers at once, and serve, garnished with the finely sliced lemon.

More about Svizzere, Italian hamburgers, and other recipes.

Chained Italian Hamburgers, or Double Bacon Burgers: Hamburger Incatenati

American-style fast food has become quite popular in Italy, and it’s only natural that Italians should begin making hamburgers at home too. This clearly derives from some of the things one gets from the takeout window, but builds nicely upon the concept.

  • 1 1/3 pounds (600 g) ground beef, shaped into 8 thin hamburger patties
  • 8 thin slices of flat pancetta  (it looks similar to bacon, which would work if need be)
  • 1/4 pound Swiss cheese or Fontina, thinly sliced and then chopped
  • A medium onion, peeled and finely sliced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Wooden toothpicks
  • 4 hamburger buns, split and toasted, or 8 slices toasted whole wheat bread

Heat a non-stick pan and quickly brown the pancetta, removing it and cooling it before the pieces have become so crisp that they will shatter when bent.

Heat the butter in the skillet, and simmer the sliced onion for 7-8 minutes, stirring it occasionally. You want it to become golden, but not brown.

Lay four of the burgers on your work surface and distribute the onions and the cheese evenly over them.

Cover with the remaining patties and press down to help join them together. Wrap each burger with two slices of the pancetta, using toothpicks to hold them in place.

Grill the burgers until the meat is done and the cheese has melted, flipping them carefully to keep from tearing the pancetta.

Carefully remove the toothpicks, put the burgers in the buns, and serve at once with a tossed salad and potato chips. A wine? Something zesty, and I might go with Bonarda or a Lambrusco di Sorbara.

More about Svizzere, Italian hamburgers, and other recipes.

Breaded Hamburgers, Svizzere in Cotoletta

The cotoletta alla Milanese, a breaded fried cutlet, is one of the quickest and easiest (and most popular) meat dishes in Italy. It’s just a step further to fry up a burger, but here we have an added twist: it’s stuffed with ham and cheese, and the latter melts delightfully. Very tasty at lunch, especially with a tossed salad.

  • 1 1/3 pounds (600 g) ground beef
  • 2 slices cooked ham
  • 4 slices Fontina cheese (if it is available where you live, another option might be Jack cheese with jalapenos)
  • An egg, lightly beaten
  • Breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • Salt to taste

Divide the ground beef into eight parts and shape them into eight equally sized disks about 1/3 of an inch (8 mm) thick.

Put four of them on your work surface and put half a slice of ham on each, covering it with a slice of cheese.

Trim the ham and the cheese so they don’t overhang the disks, and set the other four disks of ground beef over them. Press down and work around the edges to make four sealed ground beef patties.

Dredge the patties in the beaten egg, and then in breadcrumbs, pressing down gently to make the crumbs stick.

Heat the butter in a non-stick skillet and cook the burgers for about 10-12 minutes over a medium flame, carefully flipping them several times.

Serve at once with a tossed salad and a bright wine, for example an unoaked Barbera D’Asti or, if you want to be a bit more exotic, a Rossese di Dolceacqua or a Bonarda Vivace.

More about Svizzere, Italian hamburgers, and other recipes.