Pasta alla Genovese Sauce

Guido Pedrelli
Guido Pedrelli
Italian Cuisine Expert and Food Blogger
Guido Pedrelli
Guido Pedrelli, the mastermind behind Nonna Box, has honed his culinary expertise for decades, inspired by family feasts in Emilia-Romagna. Mentored by his restaurateur nonna, he mastered Italian classics and furthered his skills with professional culinary studies in desserts and gelato making from Mec3. Today, he shares this rich legacy and authentic recipes through Nonna Box.
Expertise: Italian cuisine, Pasta, Pizza, Pastry, Dessert

Genovese sauce is a smooth blend of slow-cooked onions and pieces of meat and is considered one of the great inventions of the Neapolitan kitchen because, contrary to what its name would suggest, this traditional Italian sauce comes from Naples and not Genoa!

This delicious dish traditionally had no tomatoes added, bearing witness to the fact that there was superb cooking before the arrival of tomatoes to Italy hundreds of years ago before the discovery of the New World. We have left the tomato puree optional so you can either make it the traditional way with lots of onions or add a touch of tomato.

Keep reading to learn how to make this Genovese sauce recipe that is a slow-cooked dish from the 16th Century like the private chefs of long ago.

Kitchen tools needed

  • a food processor (optional)
  • sharp knife
  • a cutting board
  • a heavy-bottomed sauce pan or Dutch oven
  • large pot for boiling water
  • a pasta strainer

Ingredients

genovese sauce ingredients
  • Beef (600 grams/~1.1lb) –  this recipe calls for beef chuck or blade, but in leaner times in the past it was often made with scraps of beef or even just with pieces of salami and ham that were left over from other dishes. If you prefer, you can even remove the meat and serve it as a second course and just dress the pasta with the creamy onion sauce.
  • Ziti or maccheroni pasta (1lb) –  this thick and creamy onion meat sauce is served primarily mixed with ziti, mezzani, penne or maccheroni pasta. Follow the package instructions for cooking the pasta al dente.
  • White onions (2lbs) – you can use white or yellow onions to make this creamy onion sauce. Remember to finely chop them so they break down even quicker.
  • Carrots (3) – you should use good-quality carrots that have been peeled and chopped.
  • Celery (2 stalks) – clean the celery rib and finely chop it.
  • White wine (2/3 cup) – you will need a dry white wine for this recipe, even a fairly inexpensive cooking wine is fine.
  • Extra virgin olive oil (~ 3 tbsp) – you do not need to use your highest quality extra virgin olive oil for this recipe. Some recipes call for part olive oil and part lard, but we happen to prefer the taste without the lard.
  • Sea salt – kosher sea salt is great, you can use coarse salt for the past water and fine salt when flavoring the dish.
  • Black pepper – we love freshly ground black pepper for this recipe.
  • Tomato puree or sauce (1 tbsp) – the addition of any tomato sauce or puree is purely optional, and depends on if you want your finished onion sauce to be “white” or “red.”
  • Parmigiano Reggiano – a grated cheese being added to the finished pasta dish such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan cheese is not traditional but can certainly be done if you like the added flavor that the cheese provides.

How to make Genovese sauce step-by-step

Finely chop the onions, carrots, and celery. You can use a food processor if you prefer.

Remove the excess fat from the beef and chop into several large pieces.

Heat the olive oil for a couple of minutes in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat, then add all the onions and saute until soft. Next add the beef, the carrots and the celery and cook until the meat browns.

Now season with salt and pepper, cover the pan or pot and cook over a low flame, stirring occasionally for about 2 hours, occasionally breaking up the beef with a wooden spoon. If it gets too dry you can add a little water or some tomato sauce.

When the meat is well cooked, pour in the white wine and allow the sauce to simmer gently for another hour. The onions should have a creamy texture and the meat should be shredded and very soft.

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt and cook the pasta until al dente, following the package instructions.

Set aside a small cup of pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the sauce, stirring well. You can add the pasta water you set aside if needed it to coat the pasta thoroughly.

Serve hot. You can add freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan sprinkled on top, if desired.

Expert tips

The onions should release enough water to thoroughly cook the meat, but if you see that it is too dry you can simply add a small amount of water or tomato sauce so that the beef cooks properly.

Some recipes call for smashing the onions after cooking, but we find that they will break down completely by themselves if they are cooked for a long enough period of time. If your onions are still intact, then you haven’t cooked the dish long enough.

Try other Italian sauces:

Other Neapolitan pasta recipes:

Variations

  • Vegan option: In the past, people made Genovese sauce without any meat at all, for example using plenty of onions, celery and carrots to make the sauce, which was called “finta Genovese” or fake Genovese in English. This was a dish that could be eaten during days of fasting or for lent when a person had given up meat.
  • With tomato: While our recipe lists tomato paste as optional, it is certainly possible to add some tomato sauce or paste and make this dish even richer and with a brighter color. Although it was not traditionally used in this recipe, as Genovese sauce predates the “discovery” of tomatoes, it is a welcome addition that will create a rich sauce the whole family will love.

FAQs

Can Genovese sauce be kept, if so how and for how long?

Genovese sauce can be cooled in the pan and then transferred to an airtight container and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. We recommend storing just the sauce by itself and not the pasta. If you have leftover pasta, you can store it in a separate container for up to 3 days.

Can you reheat Genovese sauce?

Yes, you can reheat Genovese sauce. Add the leftover Genovese sauce to a large saucepan and reheat over low heat for several minutes until hot. Cook fresh pasta or reheat pasta by cooking it in boiling water for one minute. Then combine the pasta and sauce and serve with a dusting of Parmesan cheese.

Full Recipe

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Genovese sauce and pasta

This is one of our favorite Italian recipes, and it is very easy even though it will take you a few hours because of the cooking time involved. It is a traditional choice when you are looking to make a hearty Italian meal for the family.
Author:
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Total Time 3 hours 15 minutes
Servings 4 people

Ingredients 

  • 1 lb dry ziti or dry rigatoni pasta
  • 2 lbs yellow or white onions (finely chopped)
  • 1.33 lbs lean beef chuck (or blade) (roughly chopped)
  • 3 carrots (peeled and chopped)
  • 2 stalks of celery (cleaned and finely chopped)
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon tomato puree or a few tablespoons tomato sauce (optional)
  • Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan cheese ((optional) to taste)
  • kosher salt and pepper (to taste)

Instructions

  • Clean, peel and finely chop the onions, carrots and celery. You can use a food processor if desired but don’t over blend.
  • Remove excess fat from the piece of beef and cut into 5 large pieces.
  • Heat the oil for a couple of minutes in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat.
  • Add all the onions and saute until just soft and then add the beef, the carrots and the celery and cook until the meat browns.
  • Now season with salt and pepper, cover the pan or pot and cook over a low flame for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally and breaking up the beef with a wooden spoon if it is in clumps.
  • If necessary, you can add a little water or some tomato sauce for braising liquid if the onions don’t release enough moisture to cook the meat until tender.
  • When the meat is well cooked, pour in the white wine and allow the sauce to simmer gently for another hour, stirring from time to time. The onions should have a creamy texture and the meat should be shredded and very soft.
  • Bring a pot of water to boil, add coarse salt and cook the pasta until al dente, following the instructions on the package.
  • Set aside a small cup of pasta cooking water and then drain the pasta in a colander. Add the pasta to the sauce, stirring well. You can add the pasta water you set aside if needed to coat the pasta thoroughly.
  • Serve hot with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Parmesan cheese on top for some extra savory flavor if desired.

Notes

Some optional ingredients include adding a bit of tomato purée or a tablespoon of tomato paste if you want a hint of tomato. Some recipes call for 50 grams of diced “Napoli style” salami or diced Prosciutto crudo. You can also substitute lard for part of the extra virgin olive oil if you want an even more traditional method of cooking.
Vegan option: In the past, people made Genovese sauce without any meat at all, for example using plenty of onions, celery and carrots to make the sauce, which was called “finta Genovese” or fake Genovese in English. This was a dish that could be eaten during days of fasting or for lent when a person had given up meat.
With tomato: While our recipe lists tomato paste as optional, it is certainly possible to add some tomato sauce or paste and make this dish even richer and with a brighter color. Although it was not traditionally used in this recipe, as Genovese sauce predates the “discovery” of tomatoes, it is a welcome addition that will create a rich sauce the whole family will love.
Tried this recipe?Mention @nonnabox or tag #nonnabox!

The Origins of Genovese Sauce…

Some people say that in the 16th century, the private chefs of the Genovese merchants living in Naples made this dish.

In time merchants returned to their own homes in Genoa, but many of the chefs remained since leaving the beautiful city simply wasn’t an option. “They set up shops or stands selling food to the public, many of whom didn’t have kitchens in their tiny, one-room apartments (bassi). The sauce that was to become known as la Genovese was their specialty“.

As with all things in Naples, there are  many versions of the truth. Genovese merchants, there certainly were.

However, the Spanish Viceroys were in charge of matters in the 16th century and Naples wasn’t doing that well; the Viceroys were far more interested in themselves than in the welfare of anyone around them.

Furthermore, the rich Genovese were very rich and some doubt that a chef would choose to remain in a city so that he could cook on the street. They obviously haven’t been to Naples.

The early recipes for La Genovese are different to the modern ones, and it’s to be expected; it would frightfully boring if food didn’t evolve at all. In 1837, Ippolito Cavalcanti gives a recipe in his Cucina casarinola co la lengua Napolitana (Home Cooking in the Neapolitan Language) & it’s essentially a French glacede viande, a meat stock reduction. At that stage then, it hadn’t become an onion sauce.

It contained the French mirepoix, though: equal amounts of diced onions, carrots and celery to flavor the rich sauce. In this recipe, the onions took over with the carrots and celery really just a token compared to the onions. In Naples meat is pricey which is why cheaper cuts were for flavoring the onions, not vice-versa.

Often beef wasn’t used but rather scraps of salami and ham, a piece of prosciutto rind or a bone. Some people even began to make the sauce without any meat. Maccheroni with a sauce of only onions, a finta Genovese (fake Genovese), became a fast day-dish which it is to this day.

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