The flavor in this Pasta alla Genovese is hard to describe with words. To say it’s a comforting, hearty and rustic dish would be true. But, it’s so much more than that – there is a certain feeling that eating this dish invokes. The most shocking thing about this dish is how obscure it is in America. Anyway, I hope by sharing this amazing recipe with you, that it will become one of your family’s favorites!
What Is pasta alla Genovese and why is it not popular In America?
Let me start by saying that this is not pesto. A quick Google search will have some recipes referring to pasta alla Genovese as pesto. That basil sauce is known as pesto alla Genovese.
This dish is from Naples, most likely brought from Genoa in Northern Italy, though it might refer to the inventor’s last name.
Confused? Yeah well, it’s a recipe that dates back at least 400 years, so the uncertainty of its origin is not surprising. Here’s another good informational source on this dish.
Pasta alla Genovese is a creamy onion-based sauce cooked with beef and a touch of wine. It has no tomato, though some modern interpretations add it. The beef can be shredded and included in the dish or it can be served on the side.
However you decide to serve it, I promise you it will be new to you (unless you are one of the few in America to know about it) and just might become your favorite recipe!
Why the lack of popularity here in America? Probably, because most of the immigrant waves that came here adopted tomato-based sauces which La Genovese lacks.
Red sauce fair is pretty much what you see in the thousands of Italian restaurants on the east coast of America and in the households of many Italian-Americans. Sunday sauce and meatballs anyone?
I hope this dish broadens your horizons. I know it has for me.
You’ll need a ton of onions for this recipe (5 pounds), celery, pancetta, chuck roast, a dry white wine, and pasta. Rigatoni, ziti, and penne all work well.
How To Make It
Each numbered pic corresponds to the numbered written instructions below.
- Begin by dicing 1 medium carrot and 1 rib of celery.
- Chop 5 pounds of onions. I know it sounds like a lot, but they reduce to form the sauce, and you need a lot for it.
- Cut a chuck roast (about 2 pounds worth) into fairly large pieces like shown. Any large pieces of fat can be cut out and discarded.
- Heat a large heavy pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. While the pot is heating up, pat the beef dry and season with salt and pepper on all sides. Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil and sear the beef.
- In batches, sear the beef on all sides (a couple minutes per side) then remove and set aside.
- Add the pancetta to the pot and turn heat to medium-low. Saute for 5 minutes then add the carrots and celery, continuing the saute process.
- After 5 more minutes, add 1 cup of dry white wine (Pinot Grigio was used) and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to dislodge all of the flavor bits.
- Add in all the onions and 1 cup of water or low sodium beef stock. Give it all a stir.
- Place all the seared beef pieces into the onions, stir and cover. Turn heat to low.
- Check the pot every 20-30 minutes, and if required add a touch of water to prevent burning.
- After 3 hours open the lid and remove the beef chuck pieces. Shred the beef if using in the sauce. If not, the beef can be served on the side or saved for another meal.
- Turn heat to medium and cook the onions to caramelize and form a creamy sauce. Be careful not to burn them, and if required add a touch more water to prevent it. Add the shredded beef into the pot and stir it all together. Taste test the sauce and if needed make any adjustments to salt and pepper.
- Serve the Genovese sauce over penne and if required add a touch of pasta water to thin.
Note – Shredding the beef is optional. Some recipes include shredded beef as I have, and others serve it on the side. Totally up to you. Serve with grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
What to serve with penne alla Genovese
These sides all work quite well:
Substitutions and additions
- Beef – Cuts labeled “stew beef” such as chuck, shoulder, bottom and top round, and pot roast can all be used interchangeably. The beef can be braised whole on top of the onions or cut into chunks as this recipe shows. As I stated before, the beef in La Genovese can be eaten as a side or shredded and mixed into the sauce.
- Pancetta – In addition to pancetta or as a substitution, use diced salami or prosciutto.
- Onions – Any type of onion is fine. I used yellow onions and a few large red ones.
- Get a nice sear on the beef to really add a good amount of extra flavor from the maillard reaction process.
- Check the onions every so often and add a 1/2 cup of water or more to prevent burning. Even with the pot covered some evaporation will occur so it’s important to check on the onions relatively frequently.
- Taste test the sauce right before dressing the pasta, and adjust salt and pepper to get the flavors just right.
- A bit of pasta water might be needed to loosen up the sauce on the pasta. Always save your pasta water!
- Any leftover sauce can be stored for up to 3 days in the fridge, or even better freeze it for up to 3 months and use it for a quick weeknight meal!
More comforting pasta recipes
- Short rib ragu with pappardelle – Short ribs braised in red wine and plum tomatoes with pappardelle.
- Lamb ragu with rigatoni – Lamb shoulder cubed, seared, and braised with red wine and rosemary and tossed with rigatoni.
- Authentic Bolognese – The classic comforting ragu.
- Sunday sauce and meatballs – The most iconic of all Italian-American dishes.
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Pasta Alla Genovese
- 1 pound penne or ziti
- 2 pounds chuck roast
- 5 pounds onion diced
- 1 medium carrot diced
- 1 rib celery diced
- 1/4 pound pancetta diced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- Heat a dutch oven or heavy pot on medium-high heat. Cut chuck roast into large chunks, pat dry, and season on all sides with the salt and pepper. Coat the bottom of the pot with olive oil (about a 1/4 cup) and sear the beef on all sides. Work in batches so as to not crowd the beef.
- Set seared beef aside on a plate. Turn heat to medium-low, then add the diced pancetta to the pot and give it a stir. Saute for 5 minutes, then add the carrots and celery and cook for 5 minutes more.
- Pour 1 cup of dry white wine into the pot and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to dislodge all the flavor bits. Add in all the onions and 1 cup of water. Give it a stir.
- Place the seared beef in the pot and cover with a lid. Turn heat to low and cook for 3 hours. Every 20-30 minutes give the onions a stir and if needed add a bit more water (approximately a 1/2 cup) to keep moist and prevent burning.
- After 3 hours of cooking remove beef pieces, shred, and tent with foil. Turn heat to medium and cook the onions down until they are creamy and soft, but not burned (about 20 minutes).
- Add the beef back to the pot and stir it all together. Taste test and make any final adjustments. Serve La Genovese over penne or ziti. If needed add a touch of reserved pasta water to the sauce and pasta to get a perfect consistency. Serve with grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Enjoy!
- Calorie info is for the full 2 pounds of beef shredded and added to the pasta. For a much lighter dish save the beef or use it for another course.
- Get a nice sear on the beef to really add a nice amount of flavor.
- Check the onions every so often and add a 1/2 cup of water or more to prevent burning. Even with the pot covered some evaporation will occur so it's important to check.
- Any leftover sauce can be stored for up to 2 days in the fridge, or even better, freeze it for up to 3 months and use it for a quick weeknight meal!
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.