If the butcher offers to pound your meat, by all means, let him.

That’s what Brad Spence advises, anyway. Spence may be a renowned pro chef — in 2010, he opened Italian trattoria Amis with Marc Vetri and he’s now partner and culinary director in the Vetri Family restaurant group — but he’s also an avid home cook (Twitter search “@chefbradspence #homecooking” for proof).

“A good butcher knows his meat better than anyone,” he says. “If he offers a different cut, you might want to take that advice, too.”

That’s what happened last Wednesday, when Spence took an afternoon break to show friend and Rome-based author Katie Parla around Philadelphia’s Ninth Street Italian Market in advance of a cookbook dinner at Amis later that night.

Parla and Spence talk meat with Joe Cataldi at Cappuccio's
Parla and Spence talk meat with Joe Cataldi at Cappuccio’s Credit: Danya Henninger

Picking up ingredients to make Parla’s involtini di manzo (beef rolls; see recipe below), the pair stopped into Cappuccio’s at the corner of Ninth and Kimball and asked for an eye round roast.

“Sorry, don’t sell that here,” was the matter-of-fact response from Joe Cataldi, 52, who’s worked at the shop on and off since he was 10. “It doesn’t have enough fat in it.”

“Top round?” Parla countered.

“Don’t have any right now. What do you want it for?”

“We’re making involtini—” Parla began, before Spence cut her off: “Braciole. We need it for braciole.”

“Oh, brazshool,” Cataldi said, nodding appreciatively. “You should use bottom round for that, it has just enough marbling. After you simmer it in the gravy, it’ll be like butter. Like butter! You want I should cut and pound it for you?”

Shopping for ingredients for the cookbook dish was really an excuse, anyway. The real reason Spence took Parla to Ninth Street was so he could show it off.

A scene like this was very unlikely to play out in Rome, Parla noted. As romantic as it is to think all of Italy buys food at small, specialized stores handed down through generations — like those that make up Philly’s Italian Market — that’s no longer the case in the Eternal City.

“Most people go to the supermarket, or maybe the alimentari  (kind of like a corner bodega), which mostly just stocks big-name brands, nothing made by hand,” she said, explaining that the industrial revolution in the second half of the 20th century turned most Roman city-dwellers into factory workers. By necessity, they valued speed and convenience over quality goods when it came to keeping their families fed.

Walking into the original Di Bruno Bros., a tiny, 77-year-old cheese cave that carries upwards of 250 kinds at any given moment, she sighed. “Most places in Rome are not like this. A curated selection is so unusual,” she added, as cheesemonger Rocco Rainone began handing over samples of some of his current faves.

Spence and Parla taste cheese samples from Di Bruno Bros.' Rocco Rainone
Spence and Parla taste cheese samples from Di Bruno Bros.’ Rocco Rainone Credit: Danya Henninger

Originally from the Princeton area, Parla moved to Rome when she was 22 because she’d studied Latin in college, and “always wanted to go.” Fourteen years later, she’s still there. She’s made a career out of writing about and teaching culinary arts, and her work has been published in the New York Times, the Guardian, Food & Wine, Bon Appetit and a long enough litany of other prominent publications to make just about any food writer jealous.

Her latest, “Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City,” has a foreword by celeb chef Mario Batali, and it’s apparently selling like gangbusters. When Parla mentioned a second printing was already underway, not three weeks after the initial release date, Spence was shocked.

“You might actually make money on this book!” Spence said, mouth agape. “That doesn’t usually happen. I’ve seen Marc [Vetri]’s royalty checks from his cookbook….”

Samples of prosciutto are also forthcoming when you shop at Di Bruno Bros.
Samples of prosciutto are also forthcoming when you shop at Di Bruno Bros. Credit: Danya Henninger

The duo stepped into Fante’s to browse the huge selection of cookware and kitchen tools — “How many kinds of peelers does one person need? This is awesome” — and then walked back along the outdoor stalls, where vendors hawked huge piles of produce at absurdly cheap prices. Spence said he wouldn’t recommend buying veggies there (like the celery and carrots needed for the involtini/braciole), but “it would do in a pinch, and you can’t beat the price.”

A lot of the produce used at his restaurants comes from Ian Brendle’s Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Pa., Spence said, but the Vetri Family purposely stays away from the term “farm to table.” Told about the recent expose by the Tampa Bay Times, which found dozens of Florida restaurants and bars were outright lying to customers about the source of many of their ingredients, Spence shook his head.

Veggies sold at the stands that line Ninth Street 'will do in a pinch'
Veggies sold at the stands that line Ninth Street ‘will do in a pinch’ Credit: Danya Henninger

“I don’t doubt it,” he said. “You just can’t get local stuff all year round. I mean, if people want to eat potatoes and beans all winter, I can do that.”

What Spence likes better than potatoes and beans, any time of year? Sausage.

As they walked into Fiorella’s Sausages, just east of Ninth and Christian, Spence and Parla both grinned. Behind the counter was fourth-generation proprietor Dan Fiorella, his wife Trish, and the same giant meat scale and brass National Cash Register that have served the shop for more than 110 years.

Dan Fiorella shows off his sausage
Dan Fiorella shows off his sausage Credit: Danya Henninger

After some introduction, during which time it seemed like Fiorella might never have heard of Marc Vetri, everyone traipsed into the back to see the four-foot-wide hallway that doubles as the sausage-making room.

“The most sausage I ever made in one day was 1,200 pounds!” Fiorella said proudly when Spence asked about volume. The sausage-maker and the chef discussed whether the seasoning happened before cutting or after (after), whether extra fat was added to the grind (no) and what cut was used — “Pork shoulder butt? Thought so,” Spence said. He asked for three pounds of the cheese sausage variety, and Fiorella measured out the bulging links with bare hands before wrapping them in paper to go.

Asked his favorite restaurants, Fiorella named Italian market classics like Ralph’s and Villa di Roma. “I don’t like these new restaurants with names I can’t pronounce,” he said. “And if I don’t understand it, I’m not eating it.”

Before leaving, Spence dropped an invitation for Fiorella to come do a class in the show kitchen upstairs at Vetri. “Or maybe you could do an Industry Night!” he said, explaining that on the first Monday of every month, Amis invites a guest to co-host a late-night feast for food biz workers. “Although, maybe that’s past your bedtime?”

“How old do you think I am?” Fiorella retorted, before saying, “I’d love to do it. We’ll take a nap.”

After a stop at Isgro’s for filled-to-order cannoli, where Spence introduced Parla to another fourth-generation owner, Michael Isgro, it was time to head back to Amis and start getting ready for the cookbook dinner — around 120 people already had reservations.

Parla and Spence doing their best impression of  South Philly Italians in animated conversation
Parla and Spence doing their best impression of South Philly Italians in animated conversation Credit: Danya Henninger

“The best part of the Italian Market is just walking around and checking out what’s available,” Spence said. “I never come here knowing what the hell I’m going to get. I just look at what’s good, buy it, take it home and cook it up.”

Katie Parla’s involtini di manzo (beef rolls)

makes 6 involtini, plus 2 cups sauce for pasta

1 pound rump roast, cut into six equal slices
Sea salt
6 thin slices prosciutto
1 carrot, julienned
1 celery stalk, julienned
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
Freshly ground black pepper

Lay the slices of beef flat on your work surface and season with salt on both sides. Place 1 piece of prosciutto over each slice of meat, followed by 3 or 4 sticks each of carrot and celery at one short end of the meat. Roll the meat around the vegetables, forming a medium-tight involtino. Use kitchen twine or a couple of toothpicks inserted flush with the meat to keep the roll closed.

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the involtini and brown them on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Remove the rolls from the pan and set aside.

Add the garlic to the same pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until it just turns golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes. Add the wine and cook until the alcohol aroma dissipates, about a minute. When the sauce begins to simmer, return the involtini to the pan. The meat should be mostly covered by the tomato sauce. Cook, covered, until the meat is fork-tender, about 1½ hours, checking occasionally to be sure the meat is at least two-thirds submerged and adding water if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately or allow the dish to rest in the refrigerator for up to 3 days to allow the flavors to develop.

Rolling the involtini
Rolling the involtini Credit: © 2016 by Kristina Gill / Used with permission

Reprinted from Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. Copyright © 2016 by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...