Vitello tonnato is a popular Italian dish that we don’t often see in Italian-American restaurants. Traditionally it is a dish of cold, thinly sliced veal served with a mayonnaise-based sauce flavored with tuna fish, anchovies and capers. The origins of vitello tonnato are vague, but it is primarily considered to be a Northern-Italian dish popular in the adjoining regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, where it is generally thought of as a summer dish served as an antipasto or a secondo. It is also tightly associated with the Italian summer holiday of Ferragosto on August 15.
For optimum flavor, vitello tonnato is always prepared at least a day in advance of serving, and often times more. The veal is simmered in an aromatic stock, cooled to room temperature then chilled. The sauce is traditionally a homemade mayonnaise made with egg yolks, fresh tuna, anchovies, olive oil, garlic, capers and sometime lemon juice emulsified in a food processor or a blender. Today however, to save time and cost, ready-made mayonnaise and canned tuna in oil are usually used. To serve, the dish is typically prepared by first slicing the cold veal very thinly, about ⅛ to ¼ inch, and arranging the slices on a serving platter or individual plate. I use a home deli slicer for consistently thin slices. The tonnato sauce is spooned over the sliced veal to completely cover and garnished with whole capers or sliced green or black olives.
In the classic version, veal is the meat of choice, and the typical cuts are from the leg, top round or eye round. Today, veal loin is more widely available and is a perfectly suitable substitute; however, veal tends to be a bit expensive. I find that pork loin or tenderloin, which are also used in Italy, to be great and less expensive alternatives; just be careful to adjust the cooking time as pork may tend to cook more quickly than veal.
So when you’re looking for a cold meal on a hot day, try vitello tonnato with sides of cold asparagus dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette and potato salad. You’ll love it!
Vitello Tonnato – Veal with Tuna Sauce
- Heavy Dutch oven
For veal or pork
- 2 lbs Veal or pork loin
- 2 Carrots, chopped into large pieces
- 2 Stalks of celery, chopped into large pieces. Also use the leaves
- 1 Large onion, halved
- 2 cloves Garlic, coarsely chopped
- Small bunch of parsley
- 1 Bay leaf, dried
For tonnato sauce
- 1 cup Mayonnaise
- ½ cup Extra virgin olive oil
- 6 oz Tuna in oil, undrained
- 4 Anchovy fillets
- 2 tbsp Lemon juice
- 3 tbsp Capers, drained Remove stems if any
For veal or pork
- Add to a 5 or 6 qt Dutch oven or stockpot, the veal, carrot, celery, onion, garlic, parsley and bay leaf. Add enough water to completely cover the veal and vegetables then remove the veal.
- Cover the Dutch oven or stockpot and bring the water to the boil. When the water starts to boil, add the veal back in, cover the Dutch oven or stockpot and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook for about 1 hour; then check that the veal is cooked through having reached an internal temperature of about 140° F.
- Remove the Dutch oven or stockpot from the heat and allow the veal to cool in the stock. When cooled to room temperature, remove the meat from stock, cover well with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a day or two. Reserve ¼ cup of the stock.
- To serve, slice the cold veal into very thin slices, about ⅛ to ¼ inch thick. I use a home deli slicer for consistently thin slices, but a very sharp knife will work. Smear the bottom of an individual serving dish with some tonnato sauce. Place a single layer of meat slices on top of the sauce only slightly overlapping the slices, abou 6 to 8 oz, and then cover with some more tonnato sauce. Garnish with whole capers or sliced green or black olives.
For tonnato sauce
- Add all the ingredients including the oil from tuna in an electric blender or food processor and purée until smooth, then season with salt and pepper to taste. If too thick,
- Store in an airtight container and refrigerate.
Image: Vitello Tonnato is used under license from Adobe Stock © Mikko Pitkänen