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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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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.

Italian Burgers with Spinach, Svizzere e Spinaci

A Svizzera is a pan-cooked Milanese hamburger, and while they are generally served with a sauce of one kind or another, there are other variations as well. Here the ground beef is combined with ground ham and finely chopped spinach. In addition to pan-frying them per the recipe, you could grill them.

  • 1 pound (450 g) ground beef, not too lean
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) boiled spinach, squeezed dry (frozen spinach, thawed and blanched, will work perfectly)
  • 1/4 pound (110 g) sliced cooked ham
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Put the ground beef in a bowl.

Blend the spinach and the ham until they are quite finely and uniformly chopped

Combine the beef, spinach, ham, and beaten eggs. Mix well, seasoning the mixture with a pinch of salt.

Divide the mixture into four patties, and flatten them to about 3/4 inch in thickness (2 cm).

Heat the olive oil in a skillet large enough for the patties to lie flat and cook them, flipping them once or twice, until done. As an alternative, you could cook them over the coals.

Serve with a tossed salad and a bright fruit wine, along the lines of a Bardolino or a Dolcetto.

More about Svizzere, Italian hamburgers, and other recipes.

Risotto alla Milanese

Risotto alla Milanese, With Saffron

Risotto alla Milanese, With Saffron

Artusi remarked, a little more than a century ago, that the preparation of risotto alla milanese is best left to the Milanese, and then gave three recipes — likely for those too far from Milan to leave the preparation to the Milanese.

It is true that the dish offers a great chef an excellent opportunity to showcase her talents, but a home cook can do very well with care.

To serve 6:

  • 3 cups (600g) short grained rice, e.g. Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
  • 1 1/2 quarts (1.5 l) good meat broth, simmering
  • 2/3 cup (120 g) unsalted butter
  • 2 1/4 ounces (70 g) beef marrow (get this from your butcher, or an oriental market), minced
  • A small onion, finely sliced
  • 1 cup (250 ml) dry white (not oaky) wine, warmed
  • A packet of saffron pistils (about 0.1 g — powdered will do, but pistils are much better)
  • 2 1/3 cups (120 g) grated Parmigiano (half this if you are using the risotto as a bed for ossibuchi)
  • 6 sheets real gold leaf (quite optional, as garnish for a truly extravagant meal) – another option for garnishing is 6 chives

Place the saffron pistils in a bowl to steep with some of the meat broth.

In a casserole, simmer the finely sliced onion and the beef marrow in half the butter over an extremely low flame for about 10 minutes; the onion should become translucent but not brown.

Remove the onion and marrow with a slotted spoon and set them aside. Sauté the rice over a moderate flame for 7-10 minutes, stirring constantly lest the rice stick and burn. About a minute before the rice is done, return the onion mixture to the pot.

Stir in the wine and cook, stirring, until it has evaporated. Next, stir in a ladle of the hot broth, and once most has been absorbed, another, stirring and adding liquid until the rice is almost at the al dente stage.

Stir in the saffron pistils, the remainder of the butter, half the cheese, turn of the flame, and let the risotto sit covered for a minute.

Then serve it, either as a bed for ossibuchi or as a first course, with the remainder of the cheese on the side. If you are serving the risotto with the gold leaf, divvy it into individual portions in the kitchen and carefully lay a sheet of gold over each.

Note: The gold leaf was introduced by Gualtiero Marchesi, one of Italy’s most popular and influential chefs. It does add a unique touch to the dish.

How to make risotto, Illustrated