The core of Italian cooking is simple ingredients that are given enough time and attention to shine. If you've ever watched a YouTube video of an Italian grandma making "sauce" then you know that it takes two days to cook down pounds of tomatoes into a simple and yet complex sauce. Genovese sauce is another Italian classic out of Naples. Lots of onions and chuck roast are cooked down for hours with a splash of wine and a soffritto. You wind up with a slightly sweet and rich onion sauce with fall apart beef. As it's name suggests Genovese sauce is traditionally served over a large cylindrical pasta such as Rigatoni alla Genovese.
For this dish, you are going to need a very large pot. I like using an 8 quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven. The cast iron helps keep the heat consistent and even. There are 4 pounds of onions here so you are going to want something large enough to hold all of that plus 2 pounds of meat and be able to put a lid on it!
Of course, the normal things you need for making pasta as well (if you're serving it that way). A strainer and a large stock pot!
- Soffritto: This is just minced celery, carrot and onion. The onion will be covered on it's own for this recipe. Read more below about the magic of soffritto! You just need one stalk of celery and one carrot, so if you have a bin at the grocery store that sells them loose check that out! I don't recommend adding any more. It'll start to become a more dominant part of flavor profile when we are really just looking to add complexity. Pro-tip: Trader Joes sell mirepoix/soffritto pre-diced in their prepared foods section.
- Pancetta - Sauté the soffritto and the pancetta together and you'll get the caramelization faster with the fat from the pancetta. Can't find pancetta? Use a nice fatty cut of bacon.
- Chuck Beef Roast - Part of the beauty of Genovese is that it is delicious and cheap. I always look for a really pretty cut of chuck roast that is nicely marbleized with fat throughout. You're going to be cooking it down for hours so it will be pull apart tender. Can't find chuck roast? Sub out rump roast, pot roast, or bottom round roast.
- Onions - The onion sauce is what makes this dish as they break down into a delicious sauce with a creamy texture! Don't go for sweet onions, plain ol' white onions will do and it will be sweet enough. BEWARE. Slicing this amount of onions is very painful. Pull out all of your onion slicing tricks for this one. I highly recommend a mandolin to make quick work of it. Kenji from Serious Eats recommends this one, which I love. I tried using a food processor, but the sauce wasn't as good at the end and quite a bit more watery. Just push through the pain and wear some goggles!
- Bay Leaves - Ok, you may be wonder if you really need these, but I promise you they really do add flavor and complexity! Don't believe me? Next time you make rice, add a bay leaf to the water. You'll be able to tell the difference.
- Dry White Wine - You always need an acid in a dish to round out the flavor, and this dish uses dry white wine! Personally, I keep a small box of white wine in the fridge so I can add it as desired to different dishes.
- Pasta - This dish is classically served with a large cylindrical pasta like rigatoni, penne, or ziti. Personally I love rigatoni. If you want to find out more about which pasta you might like best check out this article about the difference between all three! Pro-tip: Reserve a bit of the pasta sauce to add to the sauce if it gets a bit too dry or cooked down.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese - In Rome, I went on a food tour where I visited a cheese shop. After I tasting all the different styles of parmesan... I will never go back to the green bottle of pre-grated again. Get a microplane and a wedge of the real stuff. The difference in taste is worth it.
What is a Soffritto?
Every cuisine has it's own name for soffritto. The French call it a Mirepoix and in New Orleans they swap out the carrot for green bell pepper and call it the Holy Trinity. Simply mince roughly equal parts of carrot, onion and celery and sauté them in butter or oil until caramelized, golden and starting to brown. At it's core, soffrito is a base of caramelized flavor that adds umami and richness that will elevate even your more basic dishes. In Genovese sauce it helps give complexity to a sauce that is basically just onions! Read more about all the things you can do with soffritto and why it's the base of so many classic dishes!
One this dish is on your list of go to meals, you may be wanting to mix it up. If you'd like to get a bit more umami with a hint of tomato, you can add a teaspoon of tomato paste. If you're wanting a bit more in your face Italian flavor, add a few minced teaspoons of fresh marjoram and thyme.
How to Serve
You've done it! But now there are a few things that you should know about the best way to serve Genovese sauce. Traditionally, the creamy onion sauce would be served over pasta. Then for the second course (or another meal) you would serve the meat on it's own.
When I first encountered this meal on a food tour in Rome, they served it to me in a new way. For a few euros, I had a small sandwich of Genovese inside of bread triangles (I believe they called triangoli). My recommendation would be to serve it initially out of the pot over pasta with a small portion of the meat. Then use the rest of the meat for sandwiches with some of the remaining sauce. This is my grandmother's favorite way to eat Genovese sauce!
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Rigatoni alla Genovese | Genovese Sauce
- 6-8 quart Dutch oven with lid
- Large pot for boiling pasta
- Strainer for pasta
- 1 rib celery (finely diced)
- 1 carrot (finely diced)
- 4 ounces pancetta
- 3 pounds chuck beef roast (salted for 24 hours before cooking)
- 4 pounds yellow onions (sliced)
- 3 bay leaves
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 pound dry rigatoni pasta
- freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (to taste)
- 1 hour to 24 hours before cooking, sprinkle kosher salt over the beef and allow to rest in your fridge.
- Preheat an 8 quart cast iron dutch oven over medium high heat. Add diced celery rib, carrot, and pancetta. Saute until pancetta is browned. Can use a bit of virgin olive oil if it's starts to stick.
- Add chuck roast. Brown each side for 5 minutes. Add sliced onions and bay leaves and cover. Lower to medium heat. Simmer for 20 minutes stirring occasionally.
- After 20 minutes reduce heat to medium low heat and simmer for 2 ⅕ hours stirring occasionally and turning the beef. Add the white wine and simmer for another 30 minutes.
- After adding white wine, start a pot of boiling water and prepare the rigatoni according to the package instructions.
- Once the piece of beef is tender you can either shred or remove and slice. Serve over rigatoni and top with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and black pepper as desired.
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