Carpaccio is one of the most famous of Italian antipasti but the version most people are familiar with—thin beef slices macerated in olive oil and lemon, adorned with arugula and shavings of Parmesan cheese— is actually more precisely carne cruda all’Albese, a Piedmontese dish. The true carpaccio was invented by Venetian hotelier Giuseppe Cipiani, of Harry’s Bar fame. The story goes that Cipriani invented the dish in 1963 for a friend, Amalia Nani Mocenigo, who had been advised by her doctors to eat raw meat. (The story doesn’t explain why, but I’d be curious to know!) Rather than arugula and Parmesan cheese, he napped his dish with a sauce of mayonnaise aromatized with lemon and Worcestershire sauce and thinned out with a bit of milk. He called it “Carpaccio” after the 15th century Venetian painter, Vittore Carpaccio, whose work was the subject of an art exposition at the time, saying that the contrasting red and white of his new dish reminded him of the painter’s work.
The dish is simplicity itself, but requires best quality ingredients and a bit of elbow grease to pound out properly thin slices of beef.
Today, of course, carpaccio has become a generic term for thinly sliced raw beef or fish—or just about anything else—sauced or garnished. But it is important, I think, to enjoy the original version once in a while.
100g (3-1/2 oz.) per person of beef, preferably sirloin (see Notes), sliced as thinly as possible
For the sauce:
- A batch of homemade mayonnaise, made with one egg yolk
- A shot or two of Worcestershire sauce
- A squeeze of fresh lemon
- Salt and white pepper
- A few spoonfuls of milk, enough to achieve a sauce-like consistency
Make the mayonnaise in the usual Italian way, then season the mayo with Worcestershire, lemon juice, salt and white pepper. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings to your taste—the sauce should be very savory. Incorporate the milk, spoonful by spoonful, until you have achieved a pourable, sauce-like consistency.
Take your beef slices and, placing them between two slices of wax paper, flatten them out with a meat pounder until they are as thin as you can manage without ripping the slices. The slice should ‘grow’ to almost double their original size.
Lay the slices out on plates. (Although this is an appetizer, given the size of of slices, you’ll need a dinner plate.) Then take the sauce and drizzle it all over the beef. You should not cover the meat but rather create Jackson Pollockesque streaks of sauce across the surface of the meat, as pictured above. To get the right effect, it helps to use a squeeze bottle or an oil dispenser like this one:
Of course, if you don’t have this equipment on hand, you can simply use a spoon. Your carpaccio won’t look quite as artistic, perhaps, but it will taste just as good.
Italian recipes call consistently for contrafiletto, which translates as sirloin, but recipes in English, more often than not, call for tenderloin, the cut used for filet mignon, which will obviously be a more expensive option. In either case, you will need to get some thin slices. If you can’t get this from a butcher, then you can buy a piece of beef and slice it yourself. Most recipes recommend that you put the beef in the freezer for a few minutes to make the slicing easier, but purists would say that this alters the texture of the meat. One trick I’ve found is to use the thin beef slices they sell in Asian markets for Korean barbecue. They work like a charm, taste great and are quite reasonably priced. (I also use them to make straccetti as well.)
If you’re not up for making your own mayo at home—or have some misgivings about eating raw eggs—then you can use a cup of store-bought mayo instead. Just make sure it’s pure mayo, with no mustard or sweeteners or other additions. In the US, a brand like Hellman’s will do. I like to ‘doctor’ store-bought mayo by whisking in a few spoonfuls of fruity olive oil; this gives the mayo a more Italian flavor. Still, it’s a compromise.