La Genovese is puree of onions flavored mainly with meat and is considered one of the greats of the Neapolitan kitchen; a dish that bears witness of superb cooking before the arrival of tomato!
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.
Today La Genovese is made with meat again and in the newly affluent Campania, it’s made with enough meat so that the meat itself , sliced and dressed with a bit of the onion sauce can serve as the second course.
A green vegetable, preferably peas will be served with it, really just to garnish.
The sauce, that tastes quite like the gravy from a Jewish-American pot roast, is the most important part and it’s served primarily with ziti or mezzani or long tubular maccheroni (a slightly larger version of bucatini, often broken into 6 or 8 cm lengths or cut into shorter lengths in the factory.
Neapolitans would find penne acceptable, too. Using water to cover the meat and onions and not relying only on the meat and onion juices for a sauce is the basics of cooking this rather old-fashioned dish.
The only contemporary thing about the recipe would be the tomato paste sometimes used to color or enhance the flavor but it’s quite unacceptable to traditionalists who insist that la Genovese predates the tomato; they’re correct.
Other Italian sauces:
Other Neapolitan pasta recipes: