If I had to mention one dish in the Italian repertoire that epitomizes elegant summer eating, this might well be it: vitello tonnato, also called vitel tonnè in dialect, which means’ tunnied veal’ or simply veal in tuna sauce. More often than not, though, it is called by its Italian name in English as well. It makes for an elegant presentation, fit for an important dinner, but it is actually quite easy to make and, if made with pork or turkey rather than veal, quite inexpensive, too.
- 1 veal roast (or pork loin or turkey breast)
For the simmering liquid:
- 1/4 onion
- 1 carrot
- 1 stick of celery
- A bay leaf
- A few cloves
- A few whole peppercorns
- One glass of dry white wine
- Enough water to cover the meat
For the tuna sauce:
- 2 whole eggs
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- About 2 cups of olive oil
- 2-3 anchovy fillets
- 1 Tb capers
- 1 can of tunafish, packed in olive oil
For the garnish:
- Lemon slices
- Parsley leaves
You begin with the meat. Classically speaking, this is a veal roast (see Notes below for the common cuts). But you can economize by using pork loin or—my favorite—pork tenderloin or turkey breast instead. Whichever you choose, prepare a kind of court bouillon by simmering the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, cloves, salt and whole peppercorns in a mixture of white wine and water, about a glassful of wine and just enough water so that the liquid will entirely cover the meat when it is placed in the pot. (To be sure, you can place the meat in the cold liquid beforehand to see if there is enough liquid.)
After the aromatics and liquids have simmered for about 10-15 minutes, add the meat, raising the heat if need be to keep the water simmering nicely but it should not boil, which would toughen the meat. I cover the pot partially to reduce evaporation. Simmering time will depend on the meat you use, but the classic recipes call for cooking the veal roast around 60-90 minutes, depending on the size and the cut. (The original cuts were suitable for long simmering, modern recipes often call for loin, which should be just cooked through.) Pork loin should take about 60 minutes or less, while the tenderloin, which is quite a ‘skinny’ piece of meat, should take no more than 20-30 minutes. Turkey breast should take about the same as pork tenderloin.
Remove the pot from the heat and allow the meat to cool completely, still immersed in its cooking liquid. This should take about an hour or so, and it results in a moister and more flavorful meat. But if you are in a hurry, you can remove the meat from the liquid and place it in the fridge to cool down quickly.
While the meat is cooling, it is time to turn to the sauce. You begin by making a mayonnaise in a blender: place the two whole eggs (not just the yolks) in a blender with the juice of half a lemon and pinch of salt.
Then turn on the blender to ‘purée’ and let it go for just a few seconds. The egg mixture will have turned frothy:
Now turn the blender on again and, with the little clear plastic ‘window’ in the lid removed, starting pouring in olive oil little in a slow but steady stream, until the eggs and oil emulsify and you get a nice, thick and creamy mayonnaise. I believe that the classic proportions call for one cup of oil per egg, but I usually ‘eyeball’ it and stop when the mayo is nice and thick, as pictured below.
By the way, this is one case where so called ‘light’ olive oil may be better than the dark green fruity kind, which would give the sauce a too strong olivey taste. Or you can use Provençale olive oil, which is more delicate.In any event, once your mayo is ready, add a fillet or two of anchovy, a spoonful of capers and a can of tunafish (preferably packed in olive oil). Blend again until smooth.
Then temper the sauce with a couple of spoonfuls of the meat cooking liquid, enough to produce a pourable but still quite quick sauce. Transfer to a bowl.When the meat has achieved room temperature, remove it from its broth, pat it dry and place it on a cutting board. Slice it against the grain into thin slices.
Now take each slice (you’ll probably need to do this by hand, otherwise use tongs) and dip in on each side in the tuna sauce and arrange the slices on a platter, each slice just slightly overlapping like so many roof tiles, in an attractive pattern. While pork tenderloin, there will be room for several rows of meat like so:
Other cuts are larger, so you will probably need to make a single row or arrange them in a circular pattern on a large platter.
Finally, finish the dish off by pouring over the top the remaining sauce. While you can serve the dish right away, it develops better flavor if you let it sit for several hours, overnight or—in some recipes—for a few days, so the flavor of the tuna sauce penetrates the meat completely. (If overnight, place the dish in the fridge; take it out and let it come back to room temperature before serving.)
Before you are ready to serve, garnish the dish with capers and, if you like a more elegant presentation, some thin slices of lemon around the edges and some parsley leaves.
If you want to save yourself the trouble or if you are worried about using raw eggs, you can use commercial mayonnaise instead of making it yourself. Just add a good two cups of mayo into the blender along with the tuna, anchovies and capers and whizz away.
Or you can try the original recipe, which did not call for mayonnaise at all. Artusi, for example, calls for passing the mashed tunafish through a sieve, then adding enough olive oil and lemon juice to produce a nice creamy sauce. You can achieve a similar effect in the blender, set on ‘liquify’. Artusi also suggests not throwing the cooking liquid away, but saving it for use in a risotto, which strikes me as good advice.
You can also simplify the dish a bit by doing what most recipes call for: rather than coating each slice of veal in the sauce, line the bottom of your platter with some sauce, lay down the slices and cover them with the rest of the sauce. The slice by slice method is my own ‘take’ on the recipe, but one that I think pays off, as it ensures that each and every slice is enveloped in the sauce, keeping it moist and lending maximum flavor.
As mentioned, veal loin is the classic meat. And the classic cuts are either the coscia (leg), girello (top round) or magatello (eye of round), all of which allow for long simmering without drying out; modern recipes sometimes call for the fesa (rump). In the US, these cuts of veal are not all that common, so veal loin can be substituted—and simmered for less time, more like 45-60 minutes than 60-90. These days, pork loin or turkey breast are common substitutes, even in Italy. And, if you ask me, pork tenderloin makes for a wonderful version of this dish—every bit as good, perhaps even better, than the original.
The origins of vitello tonnato are subject to some confusion, in part because it is typical of two adjoining but different regions of northern Italy, Lombardia and Piemonte.. According to Anna del Conte in her Gastronomy of Italy, the original version, without mayonnaise but include a bit of cream, comes from Lombardia. When it was taken up by the piemontesi, they added the mayo under French influence. On the other hand, the Oxford Companion to Italian Food has an entirely different explanation: they say that the mayonnaise version is indeed from Piemonte and the original one while the Milanese version is served hot, larded with garlic and pot roasted, the cooking liquid mixed with tunafish and thickened with a roux. And many Italians apparently believe that the dish has French origins, perhaps because of its French-sounding dialectal name, vitel tonnè, but that is apparently not the case.
It is a summer dish par excellence that can serve as antipasto or a light secondo, as you prefer. In Lombardia, strongly associated with the summer holiday of Ferragosto on August 15, but, if you ask me, vitello tonnato is just too good to serve it only once a year.