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Aug 6, 2013
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WINE WITH…Vitello Tonnato

One of the dishes we most look forward to eating when we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in Italy is vitello tonnato. Succulent slices of tender veal napped with a creamy tuna-based sauce are tasty in every season, but they are particularly delicious in warm weather when the tender, savory meat and its cool ocean-scented sauce invigorate and refresh the senses. We sometimes order the dish when we see it on an American restaurant menu, but too often the sauce seems more like tuna infused mayonnaise than the complexly textured and flavored Italian original. For that reason, we’ve worked up a recipe that seems to us a close version of the buono vitello tonnato we crave.

Vitello Tonnato

Serves 4-6

For the veal:
2-3 pounds veal roast such as top round
1 ½ cups white wine
1 carrot, cut in 4 or 5 chunks
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2-3 fresh sage leaves
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon salt
8-10 peppercorns

For the sauce:
2 hard boiled egg yolks
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 can good quality tuna packed in olive oil, with its oil
3-4 anchovies, minced
¼ cup capers (divided use)
1 cup olive oil

The veal should be cooked a day ahead to develop the full flavors that make this dish so special.

Place the roast in a sturdy, heavy bottomed pot (tie the meat with kitchen twine into a roll if necessary). Add the wine and enough cold water to just cover the meat. Add the carrots, the smashed garlic, and the sage and bay leaves. Sprinkle in the salt and peppercorns, cover the pot, and bring the contents to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 35-45 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 130 degrees for pink, or 140 for barely pink. Let the veal cool in the broth, refrigerated, overnight.

To make the sauce, place the two cooked egg yolks and the lemon juice in a blender. Coarsely chop up the tuna and add it, along with its oil. Add the anchovies and about half the capers, then pulse the mixture until it is still chunky but fairly well mixed together. With the motor running, begin drizzling in the olive oil, very slowly at first until the mixture begins to emulsify, then pour in the remaining oil in a steady stream.

If the sauce separates or fails to emulsify while you are making it, transfer it from the blender into a large measuring cup or other container that has a pouring lip. No need to rinse out the blender--simply drop a raw egg yolk into it and turn the motor on. With the motor running, begin to add the separated sauce very slowly at first, a quarter cupful or so at a time. As it begins to thicken, pour in the rest of the sauce in a steady stream.

Several hours before serving the finished dish, remove the veal from the broth and slice it as thinly as possible. (Strain the broth and save it in the freezer for future use as a soup base). Cover the bottom of a deep platter with a thin layer of sauce, then arrange the slices of meat in a single layer, edges overlapping, on top of it. Spoon the rest of the tuna sauce over the top of the meat. Cover the dish and refrigerate it until ready to serve. Just before serving, sprinkle the remaining capers over the top.

Serve the vitello with plenty of good bread and a green salad.

* * *

We found this to be a tricky dish to pair successfully with wine. Being served cold, with the meat sliced thinly, it’s quite refreshing, but at the same tastes rich and substantial. In addition, the capers, anchovies, and tuna in the sauce combine to produce delectable but fairly powerful flavors. As a result, light-bodied, delicate whites get overwhelmed, and overtly dry wines of any color tend to taste somewhat bitter. We found that the best wines were lush and supple on the palate, showed little if any oak flavor, and finished on a fruity, even somewhat sweet note. We liked whites slightly better than reds, but then we tried more whites, and the Pinot Noir we’re recommending made for a delicious match. Our conclusion, then, is that color ultimately proves less important with vitello tonnato than texture and flavor profile.


Approx. Price


Bonterra, Mendocino County (California) Chardonnay 2011


We tried three different Chardonnays, one unoaked, one oppressively woody, and this, which tastes very satisfying and shined brightly as a dinner partner. Its autumnal fruit flavors gained intensity in the finish, and any wood notes proved extremely subtle. The least expensive wine we tried, it also made for one of the best matches.

Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills (Oregon) Pinot Noir 2010


Legitimately light-bodied, with a silky, smooth texture, and bright cherry-scented fruit flavors, this was our favorite of the four reds we tried. Its softness was what made it such an appealing partner.

Tablas Creek, Paso Robles (California) Vermentino 2012


A consensus favorite among the four people who sampled the thirteen different wines we sampled, this Vermentino tastes richer and more seductive than most Mediterranean renditions. Its predominant citrus notes become ever more succulent as you drink it, and their sweetness in the finish counterbalance the aggressive flavors of the tonnato sauce.

Zuani Vigne, Collio, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (Italy) “Bianco” 2011

(Imported by Vinity Wine Company)


A blend of local and international grape varieties, this Collio “Bianco” becomes richer and riper with exposure to air, transforming itself from a rather soft, gentle quaff into something heartier and more substantial. We advise decanting it if serving it with this dish, as it made a far better match the longer it was opened.

Zind Humbrecht, Alsace (France) Pinot Gris 2011

(Imported by The Sorting Table)


As is typical for this well-known producer, this Pinot Gris tastes ever so slightly sweet, a quality that could be off-putting in other circumstances but which made for a stellar match here. It feels unctuous so almost oily on the palate, something that helped it match especially well with the rich, thick tonnato sauce.