21 February 2013

AUNTIE PASTA: Pasta alla Genovese

CHIAVARI, Italy – It seems a little odd  to talk about a pasta recipe from Naples that is called alla Genovese, but pasta alla Genovese is one of the most popular dishes in Naples and Campania, and in spite of its name it doesn’t have anything to do with pesto or even Genova for that matter.

Pasta alla Genovese 
The Genovese in this case refers to a onion and meat based sauce that is slow cooked until the onions become creamy soft and the meat falls apart at a touch. As for the name, it seems there are several versions starting with one that talks about the many Genovese trattori that were found in and around the port of Naples in the late 1600’s. The chefs at these restaurants would often prepare a slow cooked dish of onions and meat to which the Neapolitans would add pasta. It sounds logical, but in reality there are no beef dishes in traditional Ligurian cuisine, nor is there any trace of any dish that even resembles this one to be found anywhere in Liguria.

But Genovese is a name as well as a place, a so another story tells of a monzu (chef) named Geneva (Geneve – consequently Genovese), who introduced this variation of ‘onion soup’ to the Court of Naples or in some other aristocratic setting. We’ll never know. These food oddities happen. You’ll also find a, a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich in Naples called a Parisian and Venetian pastry. The why and wherefore of the names long lost in the culinary history of the city.

The Real Deal
The recipe below is the basic recipe. You’ll find others that call for white wine or a little tomato, and still others that add diced guanciale or pancetta which is should be sautéed before adding the onions. The point is that you can add whatever you like to the base recipe and it’s still good.  And don’t be afraid of the amount of onions called for, they cook down and become the essence of the sauce. What is important is to use good quality onions, sweet red onions would be best.

This dish can be made with beef, veal, pork or a combination of them. Spalla, which is similar to chuck roast is often used but chuck steak, pork shoulder or pork or veal shank – stinco di maiale or stinco di vitello can be used as well.

You’ll find pasta alla Genovese on the menu in just about every restaurant and trattoria in Naples. This recipe calls for paccheri but other types of pasta like ziti, rigatoni or penne and pennoni work just as well. Actually, any type of big, fat pasta works well with this dish because it can carry the sauce better.

Pasta alla Genovese
500 grams (1 lb.) of beef, veal and/or pork cut into cubes
1 kilo (2 lbs. or more) of good quality red or white onions thinly slices
2 carrots
1 stalk of celery
Extra virgin olive oil
White wine ½ glass (optional)
Freshly grated parmigiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy stock pot, brown the cubed meat in olive oil, then add the carrot, celery, spices and cook for a few minutes. Add the finely sliced onions, a little water and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook ever so slowly over low heat stirring occasionally.  

After three hours you’ll have a thick, slightly sweet and succulent sauce.  Remove the meat and transfer the sauce to a large frying pan. Cook the paccheri ­­(or other pasta) according to the directions on the package, when it is al dente, drain it well and add it to the sauce in the frying pan.

At this point you can add whatever spices you like, a little fresh rosemary or marjoram would be nice, and a little salt and pepper if it needs it. Stir the pasta and the sauce together, so that the pasta is well covered by the sauce and absorbs its flavor. Serve with parmesan cheese. The meat can be served along with the pasta or as a second course.  

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