Vitello tonnato is one of my summer specialties. But when I told Teresa about it, she turned me down cold. “That’s such a weird dish,” she said. The version I was bragging about was more properly a maiale tonnato, since it was actually cold thin-sliced roasted pork loin instead of veal I’d smothered in tuna sauce that day.
Is that weird? All I know is it’s a classic Italian preparation. And every time I make it, I want to sit down and eat the sauce with a spoon.
The sauce is one of those things that’s way better than it has any right to be. Christopher loves it, too, though he’d never have tasted it had I told him I was whipping together mayonnaise with tuna, capers, and anchovies to serve over cold meat. Guests love it. I never tell them what’s in it.
“But,” Teresa continued, with words that would change my life, or at least my summer, “I just saw a recipe for tomato tonnato.” I heard nothing else after that. All I could think of was how I’d wasted 57 years, never having had enough creativity to serve slices of ripe in-season tomatoes with what Melissa Clark calls “liquefied tuna salad.”
A look around the internet revealed that many people who are much wiser than I have been savoring this dish forever. Helen Rosner, writing in the New Yorker in June, called tomato tonnato — she meant the tuna, anchovy, and mayo part of the combination — the sauce of the summer.
I got to work making up for being late to the party.
Local heirloom tomatoes are coming in at farmers’ markets and so now — I mean right now, today — is the time to make this dish.
I usually make my own mayonnaise for the meat version of the dish. It’s not hard to do in a blender and good tomatoes certainly deserve homemade mayo. But there are times to say the heck with it. It’s August and the new blow-up kiddie pool that my sister-in-law and brother-in-law gave me for my birthday beckons. Tomato tonnato can be thrown together in minutes with commercial mayonnaise and that’s the direction I’m leaning at the moment.
The main thing is to use solid albacore tuna packed in oil, the best you can find (I like Tonnino brand, which comes in a jar and is available at Friends’ Marketplace in Orleans).
Serve the dish with hunks of good bread so you don’t waste any sauce and a wine that’s hefty enough to stand up to the bold flavors. We are fans of chilled reds in the heat of summer and a glass or two of cold Valpolicella Classico or a sparkling Lambrusco would go perfectly with this.
Spread out a blanket or set up a little makeshift table in the shade of a tree, ideally somewhere that catches a breeze, set out the tomatoes and wine for a friend or two and you’ll have arranged the perfect summer afternoon.
Lunch for 2 or 3
5 oz. canned or jarred tuna packed in oil, drained (an extra ounce or so from a larger jar is fine)
2/3 cup commercial or homemade mayonnaise (recipe below)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
5 anchovy fillets, rinsed
3 Tbsp. capers, drained
1 garlic clove, peeled
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
5 Tbsp. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Pinch cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
2 lbs. large, very ripe tomatoes
Put all the ingredients except the tomatoes in a blender and puree, scraping down the sides as necessary, until you get a creamy, uniformly blended sauce. It should be quite tangy and highly seasoned. The sauce should be slightly thinner than mayonnaise so that it will coat the tomatoes. If it’s too thick, add more lemon juice, one teaspoon at a time. Refrigerate until needed (the sauce can be made up to 4 days ahead if you’re using commercial mayonnaise).
When ready to serve, cut the tomatoes into thick slices and arrange them on a platter. Spoon the sauce over the tomatoes to cover them generously and garnish with some combination of sliced pitted black olives, capers, chopped parsley, sliced basil leaves, or anchovy fillets.
Makes about one cup
1 large egg at room temperature
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
¼ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup canola, grapeseed, or safflower oil
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
In a small food processor or a blender (or use an immersion blender and a tall, narrow container) process the egg for 30 seconds and then add mustard, vinegar, and salt. Process for an additional 30 seconds, scraping the sides and bottom.
With the blender or processor running, slowly begin to add the oil, one drop at a time, allowing it to emulsify, until about a quarter to a half of the oil has been incorporated. When the mayonnaise begins to thicken, add the oil in a thin stream. Once all the oil has been added, scrape the bowl and blend for a few seconds more. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or lemon juice as needed.