I first tasted this dish at the Hotel Condotti Palace. It was one of the hotels preferred by our record company in Rome (always, always a fabulous bunch of people with excellent taste) and perfectly positioned at the top of the Spanish Steps for the occasional night off. Camparigirl and I paid it a quick visit when we were in Roma during July – and it is still as understatedly elegant as ever.
One of my favourite things about the Condotti was that they had a buffet table at lunchtime. Loosely themed along ‘cucina povera’ lines – the chef would basically walk to work via the market in the morning and pick up whatever was fresh and seasonal and put six or seven dishes together. Full and robust in the winter, light and fresh in the summer.
That day, Omar Sharif – the Egyptian actor and champion bridge player, was the only other (early) diner in the bar/ restaurant. We met at the buffet and I introduced myself – telling him that my mother (who is a pretty good bridge player herself) had always admired his style. He was delighted and invited me to join him for lunch – treating me to my first Negroni ever (as an aperitif, never with food!) – and introducing me to Vitello Tonnato. It was the most delicious of lunches in all ways. Charming company, lovely food, gorgeous old-fashioned hotel dining room.
Vitello Tonnato (Veal with Tuna Sauce) first began appearing in Piedmontese cookbooks in the early 19th century. Piedmont was allied with coastal Liguria, where tuna was canned. Along with the tuna, rich green olive oil, lemons and capers — the other elements of tonnato sauce — also made their way into Piedmont. The tuna, just like the other ingredients – was treated as a condiment.
What Vitello Tonnato did not have back then was mayonnaise. That’s a recent addition. In those days, the tuna would likely have been pounded with the capers and herbs and oil to give it a creaminess. So, creating a mayonnaise to carry it is a bit of a cheat. But a delicious one.
I haven’t eaten veal in a long time, so these days I bless chicken breast with tonnato instead. And it is just as good. The bland soft meat makes a perfect landing place for the rich, salty, fishy sauce. I made this recipe for some pals who came over for dinner the other night – I am thrilled to say they literally licked their plates clean.
Poaching the Chicken
You need 6 -8 chicken breasts (not too thick) – trimed of fat and skin
- Place breasts in saucepan – cover (just – not too much) with chicken stock (either fresh – or use a good quality bottled or cubed one – not one that is too yellow or it will discolour your chicken)
- Drop in a few slivers some peeled carrot, bay leaves, chopped celery, salt, pepper and thyme.
- Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes, turning once during cooking if neccessary
- Turn off the heat and allow chicken to cool in the stock.
- When cool remove from stock and refrigerate for a couple hours so the breast can firm up – you will be slicing it relatively thinly – so make sure you have a very sharp knife.
- Strain and reserve the liquid.
Tonnato Sauce (Makes 300ml)
This is an easy, no-waste, can’t-fail recipe – really, it works every time. And produces a rich, creamy mayonnaise, coloured a golden yellow by the olive oil. But, if convenience is essential – a good store bought is always an option – just make sure it has no sugar in it. If you do go that route – add the anchovy, then the lemon, then capers and tuna – and blend together gently with a handheld mixer.
1 large free-range egg, at room temperature (my mayo in the picture is very yellow as I used three egg yolks left over from meringues made for dessert)
Juice of 1 ripe medium lemon (make sure to take out the pips)
1 can of tuna (in oil) – gently drained or substitute as part of your olive oil. Use a light meat tuna one or the sauce will be too fishy
250g good quality olive oil
4 anchovy fillets in oil, mashed (use less if anchovy is not your thing/and add a little more tuna to balance the sauce)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon capers (reserve a few for decoration)
Salt and pepper to taste
- Using a food processor or hand-held stick blender, process the egg until it is light and fluffy. (Lift a little of the mixture and dribble it across the rest: it should leave a thin ribbon across the surface.)
- Add the lemon juice.
- And the mashed anchovy fillets and capers, with a splash of the caper juice.
- Process together slowly, then, without turning off the blender, add the oil in a slow stream until the mayonnaise has the consistency of double-thick cream.
- Crumble the tuna into the sauce in batches, blending until it is smooth and creamy.
- If it is too thick, add a bit of the cooled, strained poaching liquid. Or cool water if you prefer.
- Season to taste. (check if you need a bit more lemon as well.
Refrigerate in an airtight container.The tonnato should last for a week – I love it over sliced tomato on toasted ciabatta the next day!
Spread a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of the plate
Fan the chicken slices out in slightly overlapping layers around the plate – working from the outside in
Cover the surface of the chicken with the sauce. Which should be firm enough to easily coat the back of a spoon.
Decorate with capers (make sure they are well drained)
And a dusting of cracked black pepper
If you’re offering Pollo Tonnato as a main course – make a rocket salad with a light lemon/olive oil dressing. And provide chunks of ciabatta to mop up the sauce. Great paired with ice-cold beer, a glass of white wine or prosecco.
Shake gin, campari and vermouth well with cracked ice,then strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of orange peel.