vitello tonnato

Vitel tonné or Vitello tonnato

”Written like this? Not ‘vitel tonné‘? Italian? It sounds French…”

This may come to mind when you see this title. Do you want to know why we call it vitel tonné? Here I explain it to you.

In some countries like Argentina and Italy this recipe is reserved only for the holidays, Christmas or New Year. In others, like the country of origin, it is an interesting and tasty entry. 

I say this because, being Argentine, the taste and aroma of vitel tonné reminds me of Christmas, and it is rare for me to eat it on an occasion other than the holidays in December. When I first saw vitello tonnato on an Italian menu I thought it was a reversion of a French recipe. Later I would understand that I was wrong, that vitello tonnato is as Italian as pizza or panettone.

Related article: Italian food: One day eating like an Italian

Few people know its real origin in Turin, Italy and its history, so here I come to tell it. And as always, I present you with the old recipe and a classic recipe for this dish.

In this article you will learn about:

The origin of the vitello tonnato

First ever written recipe for vitello tonnato 

Or I can take you directly to the recipes

Vitello tonnato alla maniera antica

Classic Vitello Tonnato


The origin of vitello tonnato

The vitello tonnato, also called vitel tonné, was born in Piedmont in the 18th century.

Vitel tonné or vitello tonnato?

Tonno means tuna in Italian, so it is sometimes believed that the name of the recipe comes from the fact that it contains tuna as if the literal meaning was: rump steak with tuna.

However, in the 18th century recipe books we find the first testimonies of “vitello tonè” (or tonné), in which the tuna is often missing. 

At that time, French and Italian were the official languages of the Duchy of Savoy and the two languages were often mixed, a dialect of French rich in Italianisms being spoken. The term “tonné” was probably understood in the sense of the French “tanné“, that is, tanned or tangled.

We owe the arrival of the tuna to the smugglers

Salt was a precious and expensive commodity at the time, even more expensive than fish. At that time the Piedmontese went to the sea in Liguria to buy sardines and tuna. However, these clever people used to hide the salt underneath the fish to trick the French and Italian customs officers into selling the salt in Piedmont. 

vitel tonné
Joaquín Sorolla ”Tuna fishing”

First the tonnato, then the tuna

According to culinary academics: “one might think that tonnato initially meant that the veal was tanned (tané) and that the tuna was added later, probably attracted by the name of the dish”.

A poor people’s recipe with a rich reputation

Unlike the contemporary recipe, in 1700 this was a poor and popular dish, cooked with the remains of meat boiled for a long time to obtain softness and to try to disinfect the raw material from the many contaminations at that time.

Between ancient and modern, the difference is in the mayonnaise

Mayonnaise was introduced in the 20th century. The success of the dish on a national and international scale, took place from the 1960s onwards by, among others, Guido and Lidia Alciati from the Da Guido restaurant in Costigliole d’Asti.

In the 1980s, it was at the top of the Italian gastronomic scene, a time of modernity and ‘culinary hedonism’, where the traditional was left aside in search of the more modern and industrial.

So between an older, local Piedmontese recipe and today’s classic recipe, the difference is in the mayonnaise, and something else. Let’s go to the recipes.

The old recipe is that of Artusi

The first recipe written for vitel tonné dates back to the 19th century, when Pellegrino Artusi formalised the recipe in his book ‘Scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene’.

vitello tonnato first written recipe
First ever writen recipe for vitello tonnato, by Pellegrino Artusi

The great gourmet of Romagna used to prescribe veal in milk, seasoned with anchovies and then boiled “with two cloves, a bay leaf, celery, carrot and parsley”. The meat was cut into thin slices and kept “in an infusion for a day or two” in a sauce made with anchovies, tuna in oil, lemon, oil and capers. Nothing was thrown away, of course: “Strain the broth and use it for a risotto”.

Vitello tonnato the old fashioned way

Some people do not know that vitello tonnato, or vitel tonné, is a pride of Piedmontese cuisine to the extent that it has two different versions: the old one and the one we all know. 

This first recipe is exactly what is made in the city of Turin: the vitello tonnato alla maniera antica, called so because one does not throw away anything that is used for cooking. 

Unlike the more classic version of the vitel tonné, here the meat is not boiled but browned first on the flame and then baked.

And instead of the classic vegetables such as carrots and onions, tuna, anchovies and capers are used, which together with the boiled eggs, will form a creamy tuna sauce without the addition of mayonnaise!

Ingredients
  • Rump steak 500 g
  • Garlic 1 clove
  • Salt up to 5 g
  • Black pepper q.b.
  • White wine 80 g
  • Whole milk 150 g
  • Tuna fish in oil 125 g
  • Anchovies in oil 20 g
  • Capers 20 g
  • Boiled eggs 4
  • Marsala 15 g
  • Vegetable broth 40 g
  • Extra virgin olive oil 40 g
Preparation
How to prepare ‘vitel tonné’ or vitello tonnato in the old fashioned way
  1. Season the meat with salt and pepper by spreading the salt on a cutting board and roll the meat like a roll for uniform seasoning.
  2. Pour 20 g of oil into an ovenproof casserole dish. 
  3. Place a clove of garlic in the pan and then add the meat. Brown the meat over a medium-high heat on all sides for 2-3 minutes.
  4. Important: This recipe is Italian, a place where the meat is eaten slightly pink. If the meat is eaten well cooked in your country, do not hesitate to double the cooking times.
  5. At this point you add the shredded rump steak or loins, anchovies and capers.
  6. Slightly break the tuna and when it is toasted and golden, add the white wine. 
  7. Once the white wine has been slightly reduced, add the milk over the mixture and not over the meat.
  8. As it is, transfer to a preheated oven at 180° and cook it for 7-8 minutes, then turn the rump steak and continue cooking for another 7-8 minutes. 
  9. Meanwhile, prepare the hard-boiled eggs, placing the eggs in boiling water for 9 minutes.
  10. Take it out of the oven, cover it with aluminium foil and let it cool down completely at room temperature.
  11. As soon as the meat has cooled down, transfer it to a cutting board and remove the garlic clove from the cooking liquid;
  12. Then pour the mixture into a mixing bowl and add the sliced boiled eggs.
  13. Process with a mixer or in a blender and add 20 g of oil, vegetable broth and Marsala. 
  14. Mix until a smooth cream is obtained, adding more broth if it is too thick. Put it in the fridge to cool down a bit.
  15. Remove the string from the meat and cut it into thin slices with a very sharp knife. 
Preparation of the dish:

Option 1: Place all the slices of meat together on a plate and add the sauce on top. 

Option 2: Place the slices of meat on a cutting board and fill every piece of meat with a teaspoon of cream, placing it in the middle of the slice. Close each slice in the shape of a half-moon and place on a serving plate.

Some lettuce leaves can be added and seasoned with salt, oil and balsamic vinegar. 

The vitello tonnato alla maniera antica is ready, you just have to try it!

Modern way vitello tonnato

This is a recipe that in the 80’s was popular on all party tables, big occasions, the first chic homemade snacks and even on cruise ships!

What makes this recipe really special is the tenderness of the meat. Ladies and gentlemen, make sure you have everything you need, today we are preparing the eternal recipe for veal with tuna sauce!

  • Preparation: 40 min.
  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Cooking time: 30 minutes
  • Dosage for: 4 persons
  • Cost: Medium
Ingredients
  • Rump steak 800 g
  • Celery 1 
  • Carrots 1
  • Golden onions 1
  • Garlic 1 clove
  • White wine 250 g
  • Water 1.5 l
  • Laurel 1 leaf
  • Clove 3
  • Extra virgin olive oil 3 tablespoons
  • Black peppercorns ½ teaspoon
  • Salt 
For the sauce
  • Eggs 2
  • Tuna fish drained in oil 100 g
  • Anchovies in oil 3 fillets
  • Capers in salt 5 g
  • Fruit of capers to decorate q.b.
Preparation
  1. To prepare the modern vitello tonnato, you start by cleaning the vegetables that will be used to cook the meat. Wash them, then peel the carrot and cut it into pieces. Then remove the tips of the celery and also cut it into pieces. Peel the onion and divide it into 2 parts. As you do this, collect the ingredients in a bowl and add the peeled garlic.
  2. Clean the meat by removing cartilage and fat filaments. In a large pan put the meat, the cut vegetables, bay leaves, 2-3 cloves and black peppercorns.
  3. Pour the white wine and then the water to cover everything. Add two pinches of salt and then the oil. 
  4. Turn on the grill and wait for it to boil, then gradually remove the foam that will rise to the surface. 
  5. Then close the lid and lower the heat slightly, leaving it to cook for about 40-45 minutes: remember that for every 500g of meat it takes about 30 minutes to cook. The important thing is that the heart of the meat does not exceed 65°, which can be measured with a kitchen thermometer.
  6. Once the piece of meat is cooked, drain it and let it cool down completely. Then remove the bay leaves, pepper and cloves.
  7. Recover 1/3 of the broth obtained and reduce it to a high heat for about ten minutes (the remaining part of the meat broth is useful for other preparations, such as a risotto).
  8. At the end of the cooking, drain the vegetables in a bowl. 
  9. Prepare the cooked eggs by placing them in a pan of water at room temperature, turn on the oven and count 9 minutes from the time the water comes to the boil. Then rinse them under cold water. Once they are cold, open them, cut them into 4 parts and add them to the bowl with the vegetables. 
  10. Add to the bowl the drained tuna, the anchovies in oil and the capers (remove the salt under running water) and a little broth. 
  11. Use a blender or mixer to process everything into a cream. Add more broth if necessary.
  12. Mix until you get a smooth cream with the consistency you prefer.
  13. At this point, the meat should be completely cold. Cut it into thin slices with a sharp knife. Place the slices and pour the cream in the middle.
  14. Finally, garnish with caper fruits, some whole and others cut in half.

Vitello tonnato ready!

Storage
  • It is recommended to consume the vitello tonnato within 1 to 2 days, keeping it in a hermetically sealed container. It is preferable to keep the cream separate. 
  • Freeze it if it is not consumed at the moment.
Advices
  • Use a slicer to make thin slices.
  • If you prefer a more cooked meat, slightly extend the cooking time in the oven.
  • Add or replace vegetables and spices with those you prefer, preferably in season. If you don’t like anchovies and/or capers, remove them.
  • Some versions use mayonnaise instead of boiled eggs, you can try adding as much as you like!

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing!

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