Vitello tonnato. Pronounce it, as an Italian would, trippingly off the tongue. Translate the traditional dish into English — veal with a tuna-flavored mayonnaise — and that initial mellifluous charm fades fast.
"It's such a delicate dish, but such specific, strong flavors," British chef Ruth Rogers said. "Once you start describing it, it becomes more complicated than it is." That's why, on the menu of London's River Cafe, this antipasto from Italy's Piedmont region comes with no description. It probably doesn't need one; she's been serving it there, unchanged, since 1987, when she opened the restaurant with Rose Gray .
Vinny Dotolo, the Los Angeles-based chef and restaurateur, considers vitello tonnato a forerunner of surf and turf. "You get that brininess, but tuna carries a bitter quality with it in a weird way," he said. "And I think that's a good thing." At Jon & Vinny's, the modern pizza joint he opened with partner Jon Shook, he presents the tonnato without the vitello, or any other meat. A recent visit found the sauce — made of anchovies, capers, lemon, egg yolk and olive oil — spooned over wood-grilled shishito peppers garnished with sesame seeds.
Dotolo is one of many chefs taking creative liberties with the dish and, more specifically, its fish-enriched condiment. Like other sauces — bagna cauda, chimichurri or romesco, to name recent examples — it appears to be having its meme moment. Where before people applied the flavors of Caesar dressing to everything from kale to potato chips, now they tonnatize with abandon. It has been swooshed onto seared swordfish and raw tuna. About 10 miles from Jon & Vinny's, at Bestia in downtown Los Angeles, there is a crostino topped with veal tartare and, you guessed it.
Lately, the thing to do is to pair it with vegetables, which is Dotolo's preference. He has seen it with regular bell peppers, green beans, beets and — one he strongly recommends — chicories. "Tomato tonnato" has an especially nice ring to it and is another natural fit. In his 2017 cookbook "Six Seasons," chef Joshua McFadden of Portland, Ore., includes a slightly adjusted version of the sauce; he eschews the anchovies for a mellower, cleaner bite. It shows up in four of his recipes — with charred broccoli, sugar snap peas, radishes and string beans. Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine in San Francisco alter tonnato more aggressively in the cookbook named for their restaurant: Dried mushrooms and garlic put in an appearance, and potatoes are deployed as a thickening agent. The resulting sauce goes down first on the plate to become a fixing point for blanched Brussels sprouts leaves showered with shaved bottarga. At Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, those flakes of gray mullet roe and the tonnato accompany the same vegetable, with a notable difference: The sprouts are fried for crispiness.
Rolando Beramendi, an importer of Italian specialty foods based in San Francisco, is less than thrilled with the "very strange things" being done to the iconic Italian dish. "I think they are using the word tonnato for anything that's a mayonnaise with tuna in it. . . . This is a prime example of a recipe that has lost its meaning," he lamented over email. As the title of his new cookbook, "Autentico," might indicate, he is an unabashed classicist.
So is Rogers, who avoids the modern riffing, too. "I congratulate the people who are doing it," she said, slyly gracious with just the right amount of condescension. She orders it at Harry's Bar in Venice, if at all.
Beramendi is similarly selective. "I don't eat it unless I am at my friend the Contessa's house in Sardegna or in her home in the Principato di Lucedio, because nobody makes fresh mayonnaise from scratch anymore, and I know with her, she does," he said. It is from this friend, the Countess Rosetta Clara Cavalli D'Olivola, who dug up her old cookbooks, that he learned the history of vitello tonnato, or the one he chooses to believe. "There are as many disparate stories about the origin of the dish, as pretty much any dish of Italian food," he said.
It dates to the 18th century, when Italian merchants who stopped in Marseille and Nice for salt would use some of it to pack buckets full of anchovies, which they could price lower than the fresh fish and sell to those who couldn't afford the latter. In local dialect, Beramendi explained, the dish is called 'vitel tonnè.' 'Vitel' means veal and 'tonnè' is a derivation of 'tanne,' "which today means 'conciato,' or preserved, tanned, cured," he says. As it turns out, tonnato, nominally, has nothing to do with tuna. "It was, at that time, made with anchovies packed in salt, not canned tuna, as it became later on."
Beramendi is struck by another inconsistency: Vitello tonnato is known as a specialty of Piedmont, a northwestern region of the country. But many of its defining ingredients — olive oil, anchovies, capers and tuna — aren't produced or grown there. They would have been brought to the area by the same merchants on their salt runs.
Why Piedmont? And when did tuna emerge as the sauce's predominant fish? Answers to these questions aren't forthcoming. By the end of the 19th century, when Artusi Pellegrino published his "The Art of Eating Well" (1891), "tonnè" had morphed into "tonnato," and tuna had become the sauce's definitive element. The recipe in the American edition of the cookbook calls it "a northern Italian summer dish, traditionally served by the Milanese on Ferragoto or Ascension Day (August 15)."
Pellegrino's vitello tonnato is the standard on which modern-day iterations are based. Funnily enough, his preparation may not have been the norm in Milan's kitchens. If Anna Del Conte is to be believed (and why should Britain's Italian-born maestra of her native cuisine not be?), not only does that city prefer heavy cream to eggs in its sauce, but this style of tonnato also was the first. "In the Milanese version, known as vitel toné," she wrote in "Gastronomy of Italy" (1987), "when cooked, the meat is carved and coated with a sauce made with mashed preserved tuna, anchovy fillets and capers diluted with the pureed cooking juices, lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of cream. The Piedmontese version, influenced by nearby France, is made with mayonnaise instead of cream." The other distinguishing difference, she added, is that while in Piedmont the dish is always served cold, in Milan, it's eaten hot.
According to Beramendi, the newer, better-known version was forgotten during the war years and resurrected "with the arrival of one of the most important ingredients of the American food invasion during the late 1970s and 1980s: Mayonnaise!"
Although Pellegrino's work wasn't published in English until 1996, home cooks outside Italy would have been introduced to his method for making vitello tonnato in 1954, when Elizabeth David wrote "Italian Food." She edited out the anchovies, and, an early advocate for repurposing the sauce, noted that her "Tunny Fish Mayonnaise" was "excellent for all kinds of cold dishes, particularly chicken or hard-boiled eggs, for sandwiches or for filling raw tomatoes for an hors d'oeuvre."
Rogers and Gray, who often consulted David's recipes to develop their own, turned to Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cook Book" (1976) for their vitello tonnato. Unlike Rogers, a stickler for the traditional pairing of veal with the sauce, Hazan, who acknowledged that meat's superior flavor and texture, offered less-expensive turkey breast and pork loin as more than acceptable alternatives. And while Hazan, the legendary cookbook author from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, blends her tuna into the sauce in a food processor, at the River Cafe, they stir the fish into their mayonnaise.
What everyone agrees on is the importance of having the very best olive oil and tuna you can find. Although the dish is a summertime institution in Italy, the tonnato itself is composed of pantry staples. Those, like Dotolo, who would dare flout convention are doing so year-round, and why not? You can make the sauce anytime. Now is as good a season as any, and, with apologies to strict constructionists, I've come up with enticements: recipes for four variations on tonnato. The first two are slightly modified, by-the-book renditions of the Milanese and Piedmontese sauces; the remaining two are more interpretive. Each has been assigned a veal-free dish and comes with suggestions for additional applications.
Of course, if you want to pair your tonnato with vitello, you certainly may. It's a duo that will always taste as good when eaten as it sounds when spoken.
Druckman is a New York food writer and cookbook author. She will join our live chat with readers at noon Wednesday, Jan. 10 at live.washingtonpost.com.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the title of Rolando Beramendi's book. It is "Autentico." This version has been corrected.
More uses for this tonnato sauce: Serve over roasted red peppers; chicories; dandelion or mustard greens; and pork.
MAKE AHEAD: The tonnato Milanese can be refrigerated up to 3 days in advance. The leeks can be cooked, cooled and refrigerated a day in advance.
Adapted from "Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes: The Best of Anna Del Conte," by Anna Del Conte (Vintage, 2006).
For the tonnato Milanese
One 5- to 6-ounce can or jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil
4 olive-oil-packed anchovy fillets
¼ cup no-salt-added chicken broth
¼ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon sugar, preferably superfine
Juice of ½ lemon, or more as needed
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
For the leeks
4 large leeks, white and pale-green parts only, tough outer layer removed
Freshly ground black pepper
One 4-ounce piece slab bacon, cut crosswise into ¼ -inch thick (1-by-¼ -inch pieces; may substitute very thick-cut bacon)
10 ounces frozen peas, defrosted and patted dry
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
For the tonnato Milanese: Drain the tuna, reserving the 4 tablespoons of its oil.
Combine the tuna, anchovies and broth in a food processor; puree for about 1 minute, until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed. Add the heavy cream and sugar and continue to puree, gradually adding the lemon juice, the reserved tuna oil and the extra-virgin olive oil (to taste). Taste and add more lemon juice, as needed, and season lightly with salt and pepper. The finished sauce should have the consistency of a thick vinaigrette. The yield is about 1 cup.
For the leeks: Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Salt the water generously. Add the leeks and cook for about 15 minutes, until meltingly soft (a knife should easily slide all the way through). Drain and transfer to paper towels to cool. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Line a plate with a few layers of paper towels. Create a single layer of bacon pieces in a large cast-iron skillet. Place over medium heat; cook the bacon for about 15 minutes, or until most of the fat has rendered out. Transfer the bacon to the plate to drain. Reserve 1 teaspoon of the fat, then wipe out the pan.
Return the skillet to the stove over medium-high heat. When it's hot, add the reserved bacon fat. Add the peas and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have begun to char. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper.
To serve, arrange the leeks on a platter. Drizzle the tonnato sauce over them, starting with 4 tablespoons, and add more to taste. Scatter the peas and bacon on top. Garnish with the tarragon and chives.
More uses for the sesame tonnato sauce: Serve with crudites; with lamb, veal or pork chops; with thinly sliced roasted flank steak; and with roasted or grilled eggplant.
MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. The dressed noodles can be refrigerated for a day or two.
From food writer and cookbook author Charlotte Druckman.
For the sesame-tonnato sauce
One 5- to 6-ounce can/jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil
½ cup tahini
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar, preferably superfine
¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
For the noodles
4 scallions, light and dark parts separated, both thinly sliced
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
1½ teaspoons ground Sichuan pepper
12 ounces dried spaghettini
Fish sauce (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted/roasted sesame seeds
¼ cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped
For the sesame-tonnato sauce: Drain the tuna, reserving ½ cup of its oil. Combine the tuna, tahini and fish sauce in a food processor; puree for up to 2 minutes, to form a smooth, thick puree. Stop to scrape down the sides, as needed.
Add the sugar and continue to puree, gradually incorporating the rice vinegar, the reserved tuna oil and the extra-virgin olive oil (to taste). The sauce should have the consistency of smooth hummus. The yield is about 1½ cups.
For the noodles: Combine the scallion white and light-green parts, crushed red pepper flakes and the Sichuan pepper in a mixing bowl or serving bowl.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt the water generously. Add the spaghettini and cook according to the package directions (until al dente), then drain, reserving ½ cup of the pasta cooking water.
Add the pasta to the bowl right away, plus ½ cup of the sesame tonnato. Toss to incorporate, followed by ¼ cup of the reserved pasta water; toss again to coat. Taste and add more sauce and more reserved pasta water to reach your desired flavor and consistency. (We used 2 tablespoons more of each, in testing.) Taste and add a little fish sauce, if desired.
Top with the scallion greens, sesame seeds and peanuts. Let the noodles sit for a few minutes, allowing the flavors to develop as the pasta cools. Serve at room temperature.
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