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The Greatest Pasta Sauce You've Never Tasted

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Check out this recipe for a great pasta sauce!

Check out this recipe for a great pasta sauce!

A Secret Onion-Based Sauce From Naples

To the uninitiated, it may seem that there are only three basic ways of serving pasta. By far the most popular is with some sort of tomato-based sauce, but it is also seen in restaurants in various cream sauces, such as Alfredo or Carbonara, or in a triturated herb mixture such as Pesto Alla Genovese.

The basil, pine nut, Parmigiano, and garlic combination steeped in olive oil and served at room temperature atop a steaming plate of delicious pasta has become an Italian restaurant staple. Therefore, whenever most people think of Genovese sauce, they automatically think of green.

Yet there is another and very different Genovese pasta sauce, this one based on, of all things, onions! It is virtually unknown outside of the Neapolitan province of Campania.

The Origin Story

Even transplanted Neapolitan restauranteurs seem to immediately delete it from their public repertoire when they set up restaurants outside of Naples or even outside of Italy. Is it because this sauce is too good to be shared with the outside world? Or could it be that proud Neapolitans don't want anyone to know that the tastiest sauce in Naples bears the name of faraway Genoa?

The Genoese origins of this sauce are somewhat of a mystery. In the Renaissance period, Naples and Genoa were the two leading ports on the Italian boot and there was a lot of intermingling between the Neapolitans and Genoese. Some of the earliest forms of Genovese sauce in Naples were 16th-century versions of French mirepoix (known in Cajun cuisine as The Holy Trinity), diced carrot, celery, and onion stewed with a cut of beef or veal. However, over the centuries, the celery and carrot diminished in proportion and onion took over the dish. But what onion! A properly prepared Genovese has the color and aroma of the finest French Onion Soup, dark brown and irresistibly savory but with the thick consistency of a Bolognese tomato sauce!


  • 3 pounds (1.5 kilograms) approx. of chuck, blade, or other inexpensive beef or veal. Tie it into a roll if feasible.
  • 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) pounds medium yellow onions, finely sliced
  • 1 small-medium carrot, finely sliced
  • 1 small rib celery, finely chopped
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 4 rounded tablespoons finely cut parsley
  • 4 tablespoons bacon drippings (you can substitute this with canola or other vegetable oil)
  • 4 tablespoons canola or other vegetable oil
  • 4 tablespoons Extra Virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • 4 ounces (150 grams) Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste


Don't you dare throw it all in together at once! Another secret of Genovese is the timing of the ingredients. The process is simplicity itself, but mind the clock!

  1. Get the biggest pot you have, but make sure that it has a nice thick bottom. Copper is best. Thin aluminum pots will burn the sauce. Pour the 4 tablespoons of canola or other vegetable oil into the pot, followed by all the onions. Cook at medium heat and keep turning until all onions are beginning to become translucent.
  2. In a cast-iron frying pan, heat up the bacon drippings until they're almost smoking. Now place the beef roll in the pan (watch for sizzling splatters) and turn it until it forms a lovely light brown crust all the way around.
  3. Remove the beef roll from the pan and place it into the onion pot, covering the beef with onions and pouring the beef/bacon drippings into the pot. Deglaze with a little dry white wine if necessary. Turn to a medium-low simmer so that the juices from the beef and onions don't evaporate and leave the pot dry. Add a bit of water throughout the process if necessary. Now go to the beach, shopping, wash the car, whatever as you don't need to do much for another 6 to 8 hours. Just don't burn the sauce!
  4. About one hour prior to dinner, remove the beef roll. Let it rest. Add the carrots and celery, give it a good stir, and leave it alone.
  5. About 15 minutes prior to dinner, add the parsley (and wine if desired). Gently shred the beef roll, removing any obvious gristle that survived the cooking, and stir it back into the sauce.
  6. This is critical. About 3 minutes prior to serving, add all the salt and pepper as well as the extra virgin olive oil. Give it a quick stir and then pour it over the plates of steaming pasta. Ziti and Penne are preferred, but this works with anything except spaghetti. Now grate enough Parmigiano to cover the sauce with a layer of cheese and pop under the broiler/salamander for a couple of minutes, just enough to melt the cheese.

And that's what makes Naples' Genovese sauce the best sauce you've never tasted!