This is a dish from Naples with no apparent link to Genova. It dates back centuries and its exact origins are now lost in time but it maybe nothing more complicated than the name of the person who first perfected it because Genovese is a common enough last name in Italy. However, given the similarity of certain words in Neapolitan and Genovese dialects, notably the local word natives of both cities use for sugo (sauce), it’s more likely that at some point in history this recipe was created in Naples by someone recently arrived from Genoa. Anyhow, whatever its genesis, it is widely respected today as a classic Naples dish though you don’t see it very often in the rest of Italy and we’ve yet to see it on a menu in Tuscany.
Pasta alla Genovese is a simple inexpensive dish but it needs time. Note that we didn’t say it takes time because there is nothing really to do while it simmers away for hours but it needs time. About 3 ½ hours in fact so the quantities below are for 4 or 5 people because this dish is much better when prepared in a decent quantity and you can then freeze some if you are only a twosome.
Ingredients for 4-5 people:
600 g (21 oz) beef, cut into no more than 8-10 big pieces (see note 1 below)
500 g (17 oz) short pasta (see note 2 below)
1.2 kilos (2.6 lbs) yellow onions, roughly chopped
2 ribs of celery, finely diced
1 medium sized carrot, finely diced
2 bay leaves
1 small glass white wine
knob of butter (see note 3 below)
extra virgin Italian olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano DOP
1. The piece of beef should be a secondary quality cut like top round which is lean but a little tough because it’s from an area of well exercised muscles of the leg and rump of the cow. Anything from the neck and shoulders like chuck (or braising steak in the UK) will have too much fat and anything higher quality is a waste and will probably melt away. Also, with a cooking time of over three hours it’s important not to chop the beef into small pieces.
2. In Naples this dish is always served with ziti which traditionally was made only as a long pasta shape that you had to break into smaller pieces yourself at home. In the 1990 film "Sabato, Domenica e Lunedi" the most famous Neapolitan of them all, Sophia Loren, can be seen in her kitchen at dawn on Sunday breaking the ziti for a lunch later for ten people. She’s not in a good mood in that particular scene so the ziti is getting snapped a little more ferociously than required! Ziti is now made in several shorter forms like sigarette ziti or penne ziti rigate but any short hollow pasta will do.
3. In Naples they would typically add 25 grams of chopped pancetta or strutto (lard) to the soffritto to provide some cooking fat alongside the olive oil. We’ve substituted butter here but feel free to use lard if you want to be more authentic.
4. Don’t be alarmed by the huge amount of onions in this recipe. The ratio is always twice the weight of the beef.
1. Trim the beef of any large amounts of the silvery white membrane that you typically find on these cuts because it doesn’t tend to break down in the cooking process.
2. Make a battuto out of the celery, carrot and one of the onions (ie chop finely together) and add to a large casserole pan or stockpot with the butter and a generous slug of olive oil. Sautè on high heat for 2-3 minutes ( soffritto)
3. Season the chunks of beef, add to the pan pushing aside the soffritto so the meat can brown with the heat still high, another 2-3 minutes.
4. Add a small glass of white wine and let it bubble up for a minute or two to burn off the alcohol.
5. Add the rest of the chopped onions to the pan, salt them well so they can release their liquid, turn the heat down to a low simmer, throw in 2 bay leaves and put a tight fitting lid on the pan.
6. For the next three hours give it a good stir every half hour or so. If you want to put it in the oven instead of simmering on the stovetop then a temperature of no more than 150 C (300 F) should be about right. Half way through it should look a bit like the photograph below.
7. There will be a lot of liquid released during the cooking process and if there is still too much towards the end, remove the lid to allow some to evaporate but don't pour any of this delicious liquid away.
8. The onions will caramelize and become sweet and the carrot also adds sweetness; though the white wine adds some balancing acidity, as you taste the sugo towards the end of the cooking period if it seems a little too sweet then add a small amount of vinegar.
9. After 3 ½ hours when the beef starts to fall apart when pressed with a spoon and the onions have caramelized put the pasta into well-salted boiling water and grate the parmigiano.
10. Just before the pasta is ready add a few ladles of the sugo to a clean pan, turn the heat up a little then while the pasta is still a little al dente add it to the pan, mix well, turn off the heat and then add the grated parmigiano. Mix well again and serve.
Surprisingly to most people, the recommended wine for this dish in Italy is a white wine from nearby Campania like Greco di Tufo or Coda di Volpe which have plenty of acidity to cut through the sweetness of the onions. For those who prefer a red wine, something with very low tannin would be preferable, so a Pinot Noir perhaps.