The name genovese on a menu might immediately make you think of pesto, but in Campania, genovese refers to a sauce of slow-simmered onions that originated in Naples. Italian-Americans may know it as onion gravy. Think of this sauce as an extra rich French onion soup, served over pasta.
The story of genovese goes that merchants from Genoa introduced it to Naples, both maritime cities during the Renaissance, and the recipe stuck around even after the Genovese sailors left. Strangely, you won't find genovese outside of Campania and it didn't make the leap to Italian restaurants abroad.
Like ragù, the other great Neapolitan sauce, there's no one orthodox recipe. It requires only a hunk of stewing beef and lots and lots of onions. Some add a squirt of tomato paste. A little celery and carrots may also be added for flavor. Some cooks go rogue and add bits of salame or prosciutto rinds. If you want an extra decadent version, use beef short ribs and slow cook them along side the onion. The beef fat will render and add even more flavor.
I was inspired to make it after a recent trip to Naples when I had meatballs covered with genovese at Tandem, a restaurant which specializes in ragù. When I returned to New York, I asked Umberto, a native Neapolitan who works at Teitel Brothers on Arthur Avenue, if genovese was something he makes at home.
He eagerly gave me his mother's recipe for genovese which I tested at home. It's no surprise to me that his recipe is very close to Arthur Schwartz's recipe for genovese in his peerless cookbook "Naples At Table". Anyone with a serious interest in Italian cooking must own this cookbook as well as "The Southern Italian Table."
Take Umberto's advice and make sure you use a very good pentola, a dutch oven, to get a perfect caramelization. And once the meat and vegetables are all stewing, don't touch them at all for two hours, no matter how tempting it might be to lift the lid or stir it around a bit. To make sure the onions release their sweetness, they must reduce to liquid without being touched.
Genovese or Onion Gravy Recipe
4 tbs olive oil
2 lbs chuck roast (purchased from an Arthur Avenue butcher)
4 lbs white onions, cut in half and then thinly sliced)
1 small carrot, chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
8 cups warm water
1 tbs of tomato paste
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 cup of dry white wine
Place a dutch oven over a low flame then cover the bottom with the olive oil. Put the meat in the center and surround it with the chopped onions, celery, carrots and salt. Add 8 cups of warm water. Stir once and then cover the pot for two hours without disturbing the mixture. (Umberto's strict warning!)
After 2 hours, open the pot and flip the meat over with tongs. Stir the vegetables together and then let everything continue to cook for an additional hour. The onions will evaporate and create a creamy texture reminiscent of French onion soup.
Remove the meat to a separate plate (it should be fork tender) and raise the heat under the onions. Pour in the white wine and stir vigorously. Add the tomato paste and then stir frequently over 10-15 minutes until the sauce thickens. (If it gets too thick, just add a little water.)
Serve your genovese sauce over ziti or ridged penne with the meat as a second course. If you like, sprinkle grated pecorino cheese over the top of the pasta before serving.