La pizzaiola is one of the pillars of everyday Neapolitan cuisine. This simple dish is a great solution for times when you want solid sustenance but don’t want to cook anything elaborate. A bit like slapping a piece of meat on the grill, only tastier.
The name of the dish, carne alla pizzaiola, translates loosely as ‘pizza-style meat’. That’s because of the tomato and oregano, a combination not as ubiquitous as non-Italians often imagine commonly associated with pizza. The dish goes by various names—manzo alla pizzaiola, fettine alla pizzaiola, bistecca alla pizzaiola—but, more often than not, simply ‘la pizzaiola’.
There are two ways of making this dish, quick or slow, depending on the kind of meat you are using.
For each dinner guest:
- 1 beef fillet
- 1/2 small can of tomatoes
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
- Salt and pepper
- A pinch of dried oregano
- Olive oil
The Quick Method
If you are using tender, lean beef, then you want to opt for the quick version of la pizzaiola. In Italy, they sell thinnish (but not paper thin) slices of beef called fettine di manzo or just fettine. If you can’t find anything like that, you can use boneless steaks. If they are any thicken than say, 2 cm (1/2 inch) then you should cut them into half thicknesses. In either case, pound your slices with a meat pounder or the back of a heavy skillet. Pat each slice dry to ensure good browning.
Add enough olive oil to nicely coat the bottom of a heavy skillet. Turn the heat to high and, when the oil is very hot, quickly brown the garlic, taking care that it does not burn. Then add the beef slices and sear them quickly on each side. They should be just lightly caramelized. Don’t crowd the slices which would impede proper browning. You can do them in batches if need be. Remove the slices as they brown.
Don’t crowd the pan, mi raccommando….
Add an ample amount of best-quality canned tomatoes, which you can simply crush with your hands, to the oil. (In the summer, if you have really good ripe fresh tomatoes, just chop them up roughly and use them instead.) Lower the heat, season with salt, pepper and a nice sprinkling of dried oregano. Now, a word of advice: don’t go wild with the oregano. Even if it gives the dish its characteristic ‘pizza’ flavor, a little dried oregano goes a long way. You want its aroma to complement but not to overwhelm the taste of the meat.
After the pizzaiola sauce has simmered for a minute or two, add back your beef slices and any juices they may have exuded. Continue to simmer for about 10 minutes, until the sauce has reduced nicely and the meat is fully cooked through. You want to keep your sauce simmering at a moderate pace—not too slowly or the sauce will not reduce, but not too quickly either, which would tend to toughen the meat.
I usually love my beef ‘barking’ rare, but this is one dish where the meat really should be well done. The beef needs time to absorb the flavor of the sauce. And, for whatever reason, tomato sauce and rare beef do not really pair very well.
The Slow Method
The above method is perhaps the most common way of making la pizzaiola these days. The original recipe, however, used a rather tougher cut of beef, cooked slowly. According to the authoritative Jeanne Caròla Francesconi, author of the classic La cucina napoletana, the typical cut is called the colarda, taken from the rear leg of the steer. This is a cut that is not often found even in other parts of Italy. In other places, the costata (rib) or noce, a fillet taken from the inner thigh, are used. In the US, I’d use the kind of cut you’d use for a pot roast like a bottom round.
All the ingredients are placed together in a Dutch oven, covered, and simmered over low heat for about an hour. Add a bit of water or white wine if the sauce gets too thick. This method results in a wonderfully savory version of the dish, but it does not lend itself to a ‘spur of the moment’ approach.
Notes on La Pizzaiola
The measurements are really pretty loose in this dish. You may want to make ample sauce, which is wonderful with pasta, either as a first course to the meat or for another occasion, or just for mopping up with some crusty bread, something Italians call fare la scarpetta. The sauce from the slow method is, of course, much more savory.
Variations abound, in particular for the quick method. For a lustier sauce, add olives, capers, anchovies and/or a bit of red pepper flakes. Some recipes, including Francesconi’s, recommend adding a bit of white wine, which gives the sauce a little ‘zip’. Some recipes head in the opposite direction and omit the oregano and other flavorings in favor of a pure tomato sauce. (Frankly, that sounds a bit dull to me.) Some modern recipes will substitute the classic soffritto of onion, carrot and celery for the garlic. This produces a more ‘refined’ but less characteristic flavor. Not all recipes call for the initial searing of the meat slices, but I find that it lends a nice depth of flavor.
And if you are feeling particularly extravagant, try a gratinéed version of la pizzaiola. Arrange the cooked slices in a baking pan, nap them with the sauce and lay over slices of mozzarella. Place the pan under a broiler just long enough to melt the cheese, then serve. The basic method is very versatile. You can prepare other sorts of meat or even fish using the la pizzaiola method. Older veal, for example, does well, as do chicken or turkey breast. As for fish, choose one with nice, firm texture that will stand up to the assertive sauce. Say some swordfish, tuna or mackerel, cut into ‘steaks’. And you can even make hamburger patties this way!