When Roberto Donna was growing up in Torino, one of his jobs in the family business was to prep the ingredients for tonnato sauce, by hand. Tuna packed in olive oil, capers, anchovy fillets -- all had to be painstakingly passed through a fine-meshed sieve. 35 years later, he is still sending up thanks for the advent of the blender -- with a flick of a switch, the savory paste is ready in under thirty seconds. "Thank you for the blender!" he proclaims, head tilted back.
We are in the chef's kitchen in his private residence, taking a cooking class covering 5 regions of Italy. This dish, vitello tonnato -- roast veal with tuna sauce -- happens to be from his home region of Piedmont. While the convenience of the blender is gratefully accepted, there are no shortcuts when it comes to the second component of the sauce: mayonnaise from scratch. We focus on it in the class, working in twos: one to slowly dribble olive oil into a bowl containing a mixture of eggs, lemon juice and salt; the other to whisk it into an emulsification. Since I have had some experience with home-made mayonnaise, I cleverly pass the task of whisking to my partner. It takes a strong biceps and patience to keep whisking without changing direction. And I am full of encouraging words to keep him going! Myself, I concentrate on learning to dribble rather than pour.
In my own childhood, vitello tonnato was my least favorite Italian dish. No, that is not accurate. I despised it. I mean, veal and tuna -- really? I remember it as greyish meat, most likely left-overs, slathered with a garish dressing. So while I am excited to perfect the art of home-made mayonnaise in the class, I do not have high hopes for the dish that will result. I am glad once we finish with the sauce (by folding the tuna mixture into the mayonnaise) and move on to the pasta dishes.
Unbeknownst to me, I am about to have a radical change of heart. The vitello is the first course we sit down to once the meal is ready. It is a starter, served at room temperature. The roast veal has been sliced thin and fanned out on each of our 10 plates, the sauce generously ladeled over it. It only takes one bite for me to realize that this is not the vitello tonnato of my youth. The important thing is that the veal has been perfectly cooked to a rosy pink especially for this particular purpose (not warmed up left-overs after all), and the proportions of the tuna, anchovies, capers and mayonnaise have been expertly balanced to enhance both each other and the veal. It's one of those magical moments where flavors soar above their individual components and all you can think is "genius!"
This, I suspect, is the genius of regional cooking done right. If it is true that there is no such thing as "Italian food", but only dishes from the distinct regions of Italy (as Donna has made a point of saying), then it makes sense that the best preparations of a particular dish are going to be made by chefs that grew up in the region of origin. Later, I check the other courses on offer -- and yes, Chef Donna does teach one focused exclusively on the Piedmont. I am so there!
My plate after finishing the vitello tonnato. I had such low expectations from this dish that I didn't even bother taking a picture of it before eating.
Making pasta is a team effort
Here is the recipe for Vitello Tonnato sauce, provided by Roberto Donna:
2 Egg Yolks
1 1/4 Cups Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 Tbsp. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
1/4 tsp. Salt
For Remainder of Recipe
1 (7 oz. Can) Imported Tuna (packed in olive oil)
5 Flat Anchovy Fillets
1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3 Tbsp. Freshly Squeezed Lemon Juice
3 Tbsp. Capers (soaked & rinsed if packed in salt, drained if in vinegar)
White Wine (to thin the sauce)
Make the mayonnaise.
Drain the canned tuna, and put it into a food processor together with the anchovies, olive oil, lemon juice, and capers. Process until you get a creamy, uniformly blended sauce.
Remove the sauce from the processor bowl and fold it gently, but thoroughly into the mayonnaise. No salt may be required because both the anchovies and capers supply it, but taste to be sure.
And here are groceries coupons you can use to practice the recipe at home.
Other dishes taught in this class:
Pasta all’Amatriciana (Rome)
Pappardelle w/ Mushrooms (Tuscany)
Polpette alla Napoletana (Naples)
Torta di Ricotta (Sicily)
You can get more information on the cooking classes from Roberto Donna's website
Or through Professionals in the City