Blu Aubergine Blog


The name itself is a puzzling one. It roughly translates to "tuna-ed veal." It actually sounded full-on disgusting to me before I ever tasted the dish, back in my days as a college student studying abroad in Tuscany. Then I tried it. Let's just say it became an instant favorite. Now, if it's summertime, and it's too warm to eat a hot main course, I'll always go for the tonnato -- from Sant Ambroeus in Southampton to Trattoria Ponte Sisto in Rome, this is my hot weather order of choice. And sometimes, if I'm feeling ambitious, or I'm having guests, I'll make it myself. It's always best that way, isn't it?

Vitello tonnato is a dish that the north of Italy can lay claim to, specifically the Piemonte region. It can also be made with pork (as in the photo above) or turkey, but veal is the classic. It's served at room temperature or chilled, which makes it an excellent summertime main course.

It's traditionally prepared a day in advance, to let the flavors really combine well. The cut of veal used is generally the eye round (a cut from the hind leg), sliced thin once it's cooked and has "rested" for a day in the fridge. The meat is braised in water/white wine/vinegar with some herbs and spices, or stock, or if you're really going thorough and old-school, you add olive oil-packed Italian tuna to the cooking liquid, and this braising liquid then becomes the base of the sauce -- this way the flavors of the two star ingredients blend and meld into a tastier whole. A homemade mayonnaise is then prepared by whisking together egg yolks, vegetable and olive oils, and a touch of vinegar as the basic base, to which the tuna is added. There is some argument as to whether or not the sauce gets slathered over all slices so that they may marinate in the sauce for several hours, or it the cooked veal gets sliced and served alongside a slightly thicker sauce for you to dip into or spread on the slices as you like. There is no argument, however, that capers are a must when serving.


For the veal:

  • 2 - 2 1/2 pounds lean veal roast, preferably top round, firmly trussed, or turkey breast or pork loin
  • 17-ounce container top-quality Italian tuna, shredded
  • 1medium-size white onion, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1rib of celery, roughly chopped
  • 1carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1bay leaf
  • 3 sprigs parsley
  • 1 ½cups dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 10black peppercorns

For the tuna sauce:

  • 2egg yolks
  • 1cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 112-ounce container top-quality Italian tuna in olive oil, finely chopped, with its oil
  • 2anchovies, rinsed, dried and minced
  • 1tablespoon caper brine
  • Lemon juice
  • veal broth (see above)
  • Kosher salt to taste


  1. Truss the veal with cotton string, so that it resembles a roast. Place the meat in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven and cover with tuna, onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, parsley, wine, broth, salt and pepper, then heat over a high flame until it comes to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to very low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the veal reaches 130 degrees.
  2. Remove meat to a large, nonreactive bowl, strain the broth over it, cover and allow the meat to cool in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. (Discard the solids.)
  3. While the meat cools, put yolks in a medium bowl and beat with a wire whisk. Begin to add oil as you beat, a thin stream at first, adding more as each bit is incorporated. When a thick emulsion forms, you can add oil at a slightly faster rate.  The entire process should take 5 to 7 minutes, and you may not use all of the oil.
  4. Add tuna, anchovies and caper brine to a food processor, and pulse. Add the mayo and pulse to puree into a thick mixture. Add a few tablespoons of the veal broth to thin the sauce slightly. Add lemon juice to taste, and more broth if the sauce needs thinning. Taste for salt. The sauce should not taste overly mayonnaise-y but should be reminiscent of the best quality mayo.
  5. Remove the cooled veal from its broth, untie and cut across the grain into very thin slices. Smear the sauce on the bottom of the platter. Arrange the veal slices neatly on a platter with the edges of the slices overlapping, and spoon the tuna sauce over the top. You can place another layer of veal and repeat, but don't do more than two layers on one plate. Cover and return to refrigerator overnight or until ready to use. Garnish with capers or fried capers, lemon, hard-boiled eggs, or sprigs of parsley. Alternatively, you can slice the veal and serve the sauce in the center of the plate or on the side.
  6. Return to room temperature before serving.


Capers are a curious little flower bud. Their briny touch of heat adds an interesting hit of flavor to sauces, salads, and main courses to which they're added. Caper bushes grow in harsh, semi-arid environments in Morocco, southeastern Spain, Italy, throughout the Middle East, and in parts of Asia and Australia.

The plant thrives in intense daylight and temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade in the summer -- though it doesn't do so well in cold and frost. Once it takes hold it acts much like a weed, growing through the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, creeping over ancient walls in Rome, and snaking between cobblestones and fortifications in Marrakesh and Damascus.

The caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to classical Latin capparis, which was borrowed from the Greek kápparis -- the origin of which, much like the plant itself, is unknown but most likely Asian. A different theory traces kápparis to the name of the island of Cyprus (Kýpros), where capers grow abundantly. The Sicilian islands of Salina and Pantelleria are justly famous for their capers in salt. There, rustic, often unpaved roads are lined with makeshift (and sometimes not-so-makeshift) stands selling local capers, often manned by a young boy who picked the capers himself.

The island of Salina is the perfect place for every step in the caper production process, since the salt, too, often comes from the island's own salt flats (hence the island's name). It's the good fortune of nature that capers pair so well with the fruits of these islands: seafood from the surrounding Mediterranean, as well as vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers for which the cuisine of Sicily is renowned.

The caper buds, when ready to pick, are a dark olive green and roughly the size of a kernel of corn. They're plucked from the bush at the bud's base, then placed in a jar and brined in sea salt, or pickled in a salt-and-vinegar solution, and then eventually drained.

Here, we're picking the little guys from a couple of bushes in the walled back yard of the B&B my friends Monica and Marcello run in the Salento region of southern Puglia, Italy. It was June and every day when we awoke, new buds were ready to be picked and put in a small jar, sotto sale("under salt"), as the Italians say. This way they're perfectly preserved for future use -- though it's best to know a little in advance when you're going to need them for cooking, as they do well with several soakings in water to remove the powerful saline intensity they pick up from the salt. 

Harvesting capers can be a labor-intensive, arduous process on a larger scale, since they're too small and delicate to be plucked by machine. It's all done by hand, which is what makes them a pricey comestible. The smallest, called nonpareil, are the most prized of the bunch, and the most frequently used in cooking. Mustard oil (known as glucocapparin) in the capers is released from each bud, which accounts for the bite capers have. When this oil is released, the enzymatic reaction forms rutin, resulting in the crystallized white spots you often find on the surface of the bud.

If left to flower and come to fruit, caper berries are created, which are almost a cross between a traditional caper (bud) and an olive, with lots of tiny, crunchy seeds inside. The caper berries are usually pickled and are often served in Southern Italian and Greek aperitivi and mezze -- perfect pop-in-your-mouth cocktail snacks that, much like briny olives, help to fill the tummy while working up a thirst.

Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially in Sicilian and southern Italian cooking. They're used in everything from salads and pasta salads to meat dishes, fish preparations, and pasta sauces. Two of the most famous uses for capers are in chicken piccata and pasta alla puttanesca.

The latter, of course, is famously named supposedly because it was a pasta dish that was relatively easy for Neapolitan prostitutes ("puttane") to prepare for their clients...(yes, everything -- everything -- in Italy seems to come with a side of pasta!)...the thought being that every single Italian pantry contains, at the very least, canned tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, and dried pasta. Whether this is true or not is a different story, but I've always loved this culinary origin tale, mostly because it paints the working girl-client relationship as more than just a business transaction, but as one during which they actually break bread, share pasta, have a few laughs, maybe a glass of wine.

Which leads me to this fun fact about capers: in Biblical times, the caper berry was supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The Hebrew wordabiyyonah (אֲבִיּוֹנָה) for caperberry is quite closely linked to the Hebrew root אבה, which means "desire" (the word even occurs once in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes). Ancient desire, the Wailing Wall, gorgeous Sicilian islands, friendly prostitutes in it turns out, the little caper is a mighty flower bud, finding itself in places sacred and profane, arid and lush, throughout history. Something to chew on.    

RECIPE: Lenticchie e Salsiccia

It's a classic central Italian pairing: Lenticchie e SalsicciaLentils and sausage. It reminds me of trips out to Umbria, usually in the fall or winter, and sometimes early spring. We'd spend a Sunday afternoon in Orvieto, enjoying the gorgeous churches and small shops, as well as some surprisingly sophisticated restaurants, in this hill town an hour outside of Rome. Or, we'd head out for a weekend in the country to a friend's house on the Tuscan-Umbrian border, just taking in the view and building fires and looking up at the stars after a full-table feast of simple, local fare. Or we'd visit friends in Citta' di Castello, not far from Lake Trasimeno, sharing a lunch al fresco with lots of local, juicy, dark Sagrantino di Montefalco wine.

Umbria is Italy's only landlocked region that doesn't share a border with another country. Its name echoes ombra, the Italian word for "shadow" -- and it seems to have always been in the shadow of its better-known neighbors, like Tuscany and Lazio. But the region has so much going for it, including the beautiful topography and a history as rich as its cuisine. One of its famous local foods is the Umbrian lentil, which is tawny brown and roughly the size of the tiny green French Puy lentil. Umbrian lentils are often featured in local dishes, and are a great foil for the rich game featured so prominently in this region.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention another great Umbrian contribution to Italian cuisine, which is the concept of the norcineria. There's no direct translation for the word, but it's basically a 'meat emporium,' including and especially pork products, fresh and cured. Norcia is a town in the province of Perugia in Southeast Umbria, nestled between Spoleto and Ascoli Piceno (in the Le Marche region). 

The town is famous for its meat emporiums, and so this kind of shop all over central Italy has taken on the moniker norcineria. I did once make it to "ground zero" in Norcia on a trip to my ex's childhood home near Ascoli Piceno, and we picked up some delicious pancetta and a few other items to cook for dinner at his mother's house. But the important thing is not procuring these meats in Norcia itself, but rather the significance of the quality norcineria, wherever you may find one. I often went to the Norcineria Viola in Rome's Campo de' Fiori, as it was close to home and they had a great selection, offered up assaggi (samples), and the owners were a hoot. 

If you're lucky enough to be cooking the following recipe in Italy, a norcineria would be the prime spot to pick up some delicious, house-made sausages. And if you don't have a go-to 'meat emporium' -- well, a butcher (preferably Italian) or Italian specialty store would be second-best. But anywhere you trust the sausage makers qualifies; the quality is key. And a tip: generally speaking, though Tuscany is the next region over, this dish does not use Tuscan-style sausages, which contain fennel seed. Try and use sausages without that anise flavor...if you're sticking to tradition, that is.


4 TBS. olive oil

1/2 large onion, finely chopped

3 carrots, chopped into small dice (1/8 inch)

1 celery stalk, chopped into small dice 

2 cloves garlic

3 cups Umbrian lentils (or Puy lentils), washed and sorted through to clean

2 sprigs rosemary

8 Italian sausage links, sliced in half lengthwise

1/3 cup hearty Italian red wine, Sagrantino if possible

1/2 cup water

Flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

Salt + pepper to taste

For the lentils:

- Warm the oil over medium heat in a wide saucepan with some depth (and one with a fitted lid). Add the garlic cloves and infuse the olive oil for a minute or so. 

- Add the chopped carrots, celery, and onion, and cook to soften, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and cook another minute. 

- Add the lentils, stir well, and cover with cold water until submerged and with a bit of water above the lentils. Bring to a boil, add a couple of small sprigs of rosemary, and cover. Turn down the heat to low and let simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the lentils are cooked through and most of the liquid is absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

*Lentils can be cooked in advance to this point*

- When the lentils are almost ready, or you're reheating them, heat a grill pan or a frying pan over medium-high heat, and add enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. - Brown the sausages on both sides, making sure not to crowd the pan (we want them seared, not steamed).

- When sausages are fully browned, toss in the red wine and the water and let the liquid cook down and bubble up for a few minutes. Then cover, an cook for another 10 minutes or so.

- Plate the warm lentils on a serving platter, and then place the sausages on top of the bed of lentils. You can either use the wine gravy as is, or add a spoonful of a dijon mustard and whisk that into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- Pour the sauce over the sausages and lentils, and sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Buon appetito!

RECIPE: Ribollita (Tuscan minestrone bread soup)

There are few things better on a bitter cold day, or evening, than a bowl of ribollita, the cool weather Tuscan bread soup. It's made with a Tuscan minestrone base, to which stale bread is added -- preferably the tasteless, salt-free crusty bread that became a staple in Tuscany when an overwhelming majority of citizens refused to pay a steep salt tax. It's even been used to clean precious frescoes in Tuscan churches, as its texture is similar to a sponge (its stand-alone taste is fairly similar, too). 

How is a Tuscan minestrone different from your average minestrone, you may ask? It shares all of the basic vegetables, like celery, carrots, and onions, of course. But Tuscans, like their mangiafagioli (bean-eaters) moniker suggests, often add cannellini beans to dishes, for added heft, starch, and protein.

Their minestrone is no exception, so they use beans to replace the tiny pasta tubes that the rest of the Italian peninsula uses. They also add Tuscan kale (or lacinato), what in Italian is called cavolo nero (black kale) or cavolo laciniato (fringed kale). This is sliced or hand-torn into strips that get thrown into the minestrone, adding color and great nutrients and fiber to the soup. 

The thing that turns Tuscan minestrone into ribollita (which literally means "re-boiled") is the addition of bread. The Tuscans are a thrifty bunch, not ones to let bread go to waste simply because it's stale. So they have a series of bread-thickened soups in their culinary repertoire to make the most of it. Ribollita is the wintry version, and it's one of my all-time favorites. It freezes well, so you can make a huge pot of it during, say, a February snowstorm. You can eat it until (and if) you get sick of it, and freeze the rest for another blustery night.


(Serves 4-8)

6 TBS. Olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 onion, chopped into medium dice

1 carrot, chopped into medium dice

2 stalks celery, chopped into medium dice

3 cloves garlic

2 cups cooked or canned cannellini beans, drained

4 whole peeled tomatoes or 1 15-oz. can peeled tomatoes

8 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock

1 sprig fresh rosemary

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 bunches chopped cavolo nero (black kale)

1 small loaf Tuscan (unsalted) or crusty peasant bread, preferably a day old

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese

Salt & pepper to taste

- Warm 6 TBS. of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When it's hot, toss in the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic. Sprinkle with a dash of salt and pepper and cook, stirring so the vegetables don't stick, until they're softened, about 5 minutes.

- Add the tomatoes and beans, stir and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broth and the rosemary and thyme, and cook for 15-20 minutes, so the flavors meld.

- Add the kale (and remove the herbs if you'd like), and stir to blend. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- Tearing the bread with your hands into bite-sized chunks, slowly add the bread to the broth, mixing to absorb the bread every 10 pieces or so. You may not use the whole loaf, but you may. The consistency should be a thick porridge. Let the soup cook another 15 minutes or so, simmering on low, so the bread breaks down and becomes integrated into the soup a bit. Taste to adjust for seasoning.

- To serve, ladle into bowls, drizzle generously with the highest-quality extra-virgin olive oil you can find (Tuscan is most relevant here), and sprinkle with grated parmigiano cheese.

Note: Like most soups, this one is even better the next day, or even the day after that. Since it's ribollita (re-boiled) anyway, it keeps very well for several days in the fridge, or for 2 months in the freezer.

SEASONAL INGREDIENT + RECIPE: Artichoke: The Prickly Sign of Primavera


Few vegetables say spring like the artichoke. For me, in Rome, it was always the ultimate sign of la primavera, especially where I lived in the Jewish ghetto, which is known for its numerous restaurants specializing in the deep-fried "Jewish style" artichokes in-season. In the U.S., California provides almost 100 percent of the nation’s artichoke crop. Castroville, in Monterey County, calls itself “The Artichoke Center of the World,” and is host to an annual festival held since 1959, which celebrates the perennial thistle. Still, fifty years seems like a drop in the bucket, when we consider the fact that artichokes have been consumed in the Mediterranean region since the sixth century B.C.

From There to Here: A Brief History of the Thistle

Cynara cardunculus, the globe artichoke, is thought to have originated in Northern Africa. Its name comes from the Arabic al-kharshuf or ardi-shoky, meaning “ground-thorny,” which became carciofo (car-CHO-foe) in Italian. A relative of the cardoon, the artichoke was cultivated in Sicily during the Greek occupation, as early as 500 B.C., and eventually made its way to mainland Italy.

It reached Naples in the 9th century, and was supposedly brought north to Florence in the 1460’s by Filippo Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine banker who’d been exiled to Naples by the Medici family. From here, it traveled further north to Venice and then into southern France, reaching Avignon by about 1532. The artichoke spread throughout Europe to eventually flower in Henry VIII’s gardens in the 1540’s, though it had probably always been a staple in the Southern Mediterranean regions historically touched by Greek, and later Arab, influence: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Southern France.

It was the French who first introduced the artichoke to 19th century Louisiana, and therefore to the American table, though Spanish immigrants are the ones credited with bringing the vegetable to California, where it’s flourished ever since.

When In Rome…

It’s the Roman artichoke, the carciofo romanesco, the Cynara scolymus: a gorgeous, deep purple-and-green globe. Synonymous with the celebrated Roman Spring, it's perfectly paired with Easter specialties like baby lamb, fava beans, asparagus, and spring peas. Anyone who has ever tried an artichoke in The Eternal City knows that there may be no better place on earth to eat one. It is the single most popular vegetable in Rome, and has become the city's culinary symbol.

The two most common local artichoke preparations are alla romana – Roman-style, slow braised in oil and wine with wild Roman mint and pecorino cheese, and alla giudea – Jewish-style, deep-fried twice so the crispy outer petals open up but the heart remains tender within. Unlike botanically similar varieties found elsewhere, the romanesco artichoke is eaten young, before it gets woody. This allows a greater portion of the flower to be edible, though local cooks generally pare down the leaves quite a bit. Romans tend to go straight for the tender heart.

Cooking with Carciofi 

Romans believe artichokes reduce cholesterol, cleanse the liver…and are an aphrodisiac to boot. Whatever their benefits may be, nutritional or otherwise, artichokes are labor-intensive but well worth the work.

A trip to any Roman market in the spring months will reveal numerous carciofare, or artichoke trimmers, in quick action with gloved hands, a sharp knife, and a container of water with cut lemons floating in it: the acidulated water keeps the chlorophyll oxidation to a minimum, so the artichokes remain green and beautiful. Look for artichokes that are heavy for their size, with tightly-packed leaves.


4 artichokes

2 lemons

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 TBS. Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley

4 TBS. Chopped fresh mint or mentuccia

½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

1 cup dry white wine

2 TBS. Minced olive oil-packed anchovy fillets (optional)

salt & pepper to taste

extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 1-2 cups)

-Fill a large bowl with water and squeeze the juice of one of the lemons into it.

-Trim artichoke stems, cut the top of the artichoke bulb off, and peel the outer leaves of the artichoke.

-Carefully scoop out the choke with a melon baller or paring knife.

-As each artichoke is trimmed, put it into the acidulated water.

-In a small bowl, combine the garlic, parsley, mint, bread crumbs, and anchovies, if using. Season with salt & pepper.

-Pat dry the artichokes, stuff the stuffing mixture into the cavity left by the choke and between the leaves. Close leaves over filling.

- Place artichokes stem-up in a baking dish and add 1 part olive oil to 1 part white wine to 2 parts water, to almost cover artichoke bulb.

- Cover and cook until tender when tested with a toothpick/skewer, about 45 minutes to an hour (either in oven or on the stovetop).

- Can be served warm or eaten at room temperature, kept in the braising liquid. Serve with lemon wedges.

Restaurant Review: LOCANDA VERDE (New York, NY)


Tribeca isn’t lacking in great eateries, but this Italian straddling the rustic/refined line is a welcome addition to the nabe. It’s many things to many people: a great lunch spot for the eclectic local work crowd, and a relaxed crowd-pleaser in the evening – the kind of place where expense accounters, local celebrities, and Manhattanites from further afield come for a reliably delicious Italian-esque meal. Renowned pastry chef Karen DeMasco (formerly of Gramercy Tavern) even turns out pastries and savory-sweet goodies for breakfast. The style is a mix of authentic, accomplished Italian food – traditional dishes tweaked ever-so-slightly for the local palate, or the chef’s amusement, or both – with Italian-American comfort food staples like Chef Andrew Carmellini’s  “ grandmother’s ravioli.”

The dining room is a series of different spaces, cavernous yet warm, with ultra-high ceilings more reminiscent of farmhouses in Umbria or the Maremma than a converted industrial space in downtown Manhattan. I headed to the ladies room at one point, and as I descended the stairs I was immediately swept away to an upscale dining experience (or a combination of experiences) I'd had in Umbria, Tuscany, and Le Marche, both by the aesthetics of the space and the smell of a wood-burning fireplace I'd not smelled anywhere outside of Italy. (I'm still puzzled as to where that exact smell was emanating from, and how...)

To begin to sate your appetite, start with a crostino appetizer like the simple sheep’s milk ricotta with herbs, or go for the Sardines in saor (a classic Venetian dish) – wonderfully paired with homemade focaccia that’s lifted with the addition of lemon. A classic fritto misto is made all’Americano with Ipswich clams and rock shrimp, species native to these shores of the Atlantic. Then, pull yourself away from the appetizers, since the pasta is well worth saving room for. Those aforementioned ravioli are delicious (and, we suspect, much lighter than Carmellini’s grandmother’s original version). So are the orechiette with broccoli rabe and duck sausage, a sauce more pesto-light than anything, lacking both the kick and bitterness of the signature pasta preparation of Puglia, but tasty anyway. Sides include a delicious sauteed spinach with chickpeas and ricotta salata (see photo).

The stuffed mountain trout (photo at right) main course with lentils and pancetta is in homage to landlocked Umbria, and beautifully presented. The garlic chicken is a simple, wonderful joy, meriting the inclusion on the menu of a fowl usually limited to staff meals in Italian restaurants. And when the porchetta sandwich is available…well, just make sure you order it. Period.

At left, savory thin-sliced porchetta  with caramelized onions and vinegar-cured peppers, spices...fantastico.

Desserts are well-executed if a little staid, but desserts were never a strong point of Italian cuisine. With DeMasco’s talents (and they’re evident in the savory breads and the like coming out of the kitchen), I’d like to see her apply some of that Midwestern sensibility that Carmellini wields so successfully, tothe desserts. If there’s one thing the American tradition has perfected – well beyond the Italian tradition – it’s sweets.




377 Greenwich St (corner of N. Moore and Greenwich).