(THE WASHINGTON POST) - Vitello tonnato. Pronounce it, as an Italian would, trippingly off the tongue. Translate the traditional dish into English - veal with a tuna-flavoured mayonnaise - and that initial mellifluous charm fades fast.
"It's such a delicate dish, but such specific, strong flavours," British chef Ruth Rogers said. "Once you start describing it, it becomes more complicated than it is."
That is why, on the menu of London's River Cafe, this antipasto from Italy's Piedmont region comes with no description. It probably does not need one; she has 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 flavours 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. 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, Oregon, 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 from the 18th century, when Italian merchants who stopped in France at 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 could not 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 is 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 was not 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 flavour 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 is a duo that will always taste as good when eaten as it sounds when spoken.
Leeks With Tonnato Milanese
Vitello tonnato's origins most likely lie in Milan. There, the tuna sauce is made with cream. Anna Del Conte thins out hers with a combination of chicken stock and some of the braising liquid from the veal.
In the vitello's absence, the poultry stock does all the work. The tonnato becomes a replacement for the vinaigrette that would normally top leeks. Charred sweet peas and smoky, salty bacon get thrown in to build a more dynamic dish.
More uses for this tonnato sauce: Serve over roasted red peppers; chicories; dandelion or mustard greens; and pork.
The tonnato Milanese can be refrigerated up to three 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 141g - 170g can or jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil
4 olive-oil packed anchovy fillets
1/4 cup no-salt-added chicken broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tsp sugar, preferably superfine
Juice of 1/2 lemon, or more as needed
1 to 2 Tbs 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 113g piece slab bacon, cut crosswise into 0.5cm thick (may substitute very thick-cut bacon)
283g frozen peas, defrosted and patted dry
1 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon, for garnish
2 Tbs finely chopped chives, for garnish
1. For the tonnato Milanese: Drain the tuna, reserving the 4 tablespoons of its oil.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Return the skillet to the stove over medium-high heat. When it is 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.
7. 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.
Nutrition | Per serving (using 1/4 cup tonnato): 240 calories, 11 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 390 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
Crispy Sweet Potatoes With Tuna-Anchovy Mayonnaise
In this preparation, the condiment is left thicker, like an aioli, and accompanies smashed, pan-fried sweet potatoes in a re-envisioned Spanish patatas bravas.
More uses for this classic tuna-anchovy mayonnaise: Serve with sliced tomatoes; hard-cooked eggs; or a Nicoise salad.
This mayonnaise contains raw egg, so if that presents a health risk for you, use pasteurised eggs; brands such as Davidson's are carried at some large supermarkets.
You will have tuna-anchovy mayonnaise left over, which can be refrigerated for up to three days.
Adapted from The River Café Classic Italian Cookbook, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers (Michael Joseph, 2009).
For the tuna-anchovy mayonnaise
1 large egg yolk, preferably pasteurised
Finely grated zest and 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice from 1/2 lemon
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbs brine-packed capers, finely chopped, with 2 tsps brine reserved
6 olive-oil packed anchovies, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
One 198g - 226g can or jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil, drained
For the potatoes
450g sweet fingerling potatoes
10 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 large clove garlic, coarsely chopped
A few sprigs fresh thyme
A few sprigs fresh rosemary
110g fresh chorizo, in pinches (casings removed; about 3/4 cup)
Freshly ground black pepper
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1. For the tuna-anchovy mayonnaise: Combine the egg yolk and 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment; beat on medium-high speed. Gradually drizzle in some of the oil, letting it slide down the side of the bowl. Beat until thickened, then stop. Add 2 more teaspoons of the juice, plus the reserved caper brine; this should loosen up the mixture.
2. Continue to beat (medium-high), drizzling in the remaining oil, to form a thick mayonnaise. Season lightly with salt. The yield is about 1 1/4 cups.
3. Combine the anchovies, the remaining lemon juice and a pinch of the black pepper in a small bowl, stirring to coat, then stir that mixture, and the capers, into the mayonnaise.
4. Use a fork to mash the tuna in a separate bowl, breaking it up into small pieces. Stir into the mayonnaise, along with the lemon zest, until well incorporated. Cover tightly and refrigerate until ready to use (and up to 3 days).
5. For the potatoes: Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt it generously. Add the sweet potatoes and cook for about 15 minutes, until tender. Transfer the potatoes to the baking sheet to drain. Use a spatula to crush each one flat.
6. Heat a large cast-iron skillet, gradually increasing the heat from low to medium-high. Add 3 tablespoons of the oil. Once it is shimmering, add the sweet potatoes and season them with a couple of pinches of the salt. Press the potatoes into the pan and cook for about 10 minutes, undisturbed, until their bases begin to brown.
7. Flip the sweet potatoes; add 3 more tablespoons of oil to the pan along with the garlic. Season with another pinch or two of the salt. Cook for 5 minutes, watching the garlic and stirring it, as needed, to prevent burning.
8. Flip the sweet potatoes again and add 2 more tablespoons of the oil and a few sprigs each thyme and rosemary. Cook for another 5 minutes, then flip the sweet potatoes one more time.
9. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and the chorizo. Cook for 5 minutes more to brown and crisp up the chorizo and render its fat.
10. Transfer to a platter. Season lightly with salt, black pepper and the crushed red pepper flakes, if using. Spoon a few dollops of the mayonnaise over the potatoes.
Nutrition | Per serving (using 1/2 cup mayonnaise and 6 tablespoons oil for the potatoes): 550 calories, 12 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 46 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar
Although tahini is not part of the Italian pantry, sesame seeds are used in that country's cuisine. So incorporating the paste made with those seeds into tonnato might not be as unexpected as it seems. Using that sauce for spicy sesame noodles, however, could be construed as far-flung. But it works.
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.
The sauce can be refrigerated for up to three days. The dressed noodles can be refrigerated for a day or two.
For the sesame-tonnato sauce
One 141g - 170g can/jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil
1/2 cup tahini
2 Tbs fish sauce
1Tbs sugar, preferably superfine
1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 to 2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
For the noodles
4 scallions, light and dark parts separated, both thinly sliced
1 Tbs crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/2 tsps ground Sichuan pepper
340g dried spaghettini
Fish sauce (optional)
1 Tbs toasted/roasted sesame seeds
1/4 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped
1. For the sesame-tonnato sauce: Drain the tuna, reserving 1/2 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.
2. 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 1 1/2 cups.
3. 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.
4. 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 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.
5. Add the pasta to the bowl right away, plus 1/2 cup of the sesame tonnato. Toss to incorporate, followed by 1/4 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.
6. Top with the scallion greens, sesame seeds and peanuts. Let the noodles sit for a few minutes, allowing the flavours to develop as the pasta cools. Serve at room temperature.
Nutrition | Per serving: 660 calories, 28 g protein, 75 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 790 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
Shrimp and Bean Toasts With Nori-Tonnato Spread
Made with Japanese mayonnaise, this tonnato is more pâté-like in consistency and is wonderful on toast, with or without the bean mixture spooned on top.
More uses for the nori-tonnato spread: As a dip for vegetables or pita chips; as a spread on crostini with ratatouille; or with oven-dried tomato halves and olives.
Dark soy sauce is available at Asian markets.
You will have spread left over, which can be refrigerated for a day.
For the nori-tonnato spread
3 sheets toasted sushi nori (about 7 1/2 grams total)
One 198g - 226g can or jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil, drained
3 Tbs fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup Japanese (Kewpie) mayonnaise
2 tsps dark soy sauce
For the toasts
One 439g can cannellini beans, preferably no-salt-added, rinsed and drained
283g cooked shrimp (peeled), cut into bite-size pieces
3 1/2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/4 tsp flaky sea salt, plus more as needed
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in ice water for 10 minutes
4 slices rustic bread (about 15cms long and 2cm thick), toasted
Arugula, for garnish
1. For the nori-tonnato spread: Tear the nori up into small pieces over the bowl of a food processor, letting the pieces fall in. Process until finely ground.
2. Add the drained tuna and lemon juice; puree to form a thick, pâté-like mixture.
3. Add the mayonnaise and puree until well incorporated. Add 1 teaspoon of the dark soy sauce and process to incorporate. Taste and add some or all the remaining dark soy sauce; pulse to incorporate. The yield is about 1 1/2 cups.
4. For the toasts: Toss the beans and shrimp together with 2 tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl. Season with the salt and pepper. Add the red onion and toss to incorporate.
5. Use 1 1/2 tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil to brush onto the tops of the toast.
6. Use a generous 2 tablespoons of the nori-tonnato spread to smear on each toast. Distribute the shrimp and bean mixture equally among the portions, piling it on top of each piece of dressed toast. Garnish with a small handful of arugula leaves, drizzle with the remaining extra-virgin olive oil and then sprinkle with a little flaky sea salt. Serve right away.
Nutrition | Per serving (using 1/2 cup tonnato): 460 calories, 29 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 25 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 160 mg cholesterol, 630 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar