The Greatest Pasta Sauce You've Never Tasted

Updated on April 15, 2016

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 unforgettably savoury Genovese sauce
The unforgettably savoury Genovese sauce
Serve with bubbling Parmigiano cheese from the broiler
Serve with bubbling Parmigiano cheese from the broiler

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 colour and aroma of the finest French Onion Soup, dark brown and irresistably savoury but with the thick consistency of a Bolognese tomato sauce!

Genovese sauce is rather easy to prepare but be ready to start it very early in the morning if you want to enjoy it for dinner. The sauce needs to simmer for a minimum of 8 hours, and 10 hours is better still! The slow long simmer is what gives Genovese its satisfying and incredibly delicious consistency. Also, don't question the amounts of this recipe, as it stands it will really only serve 4 ravenously hungry people, even though it seems you're making enough for an army.

- 3 lbs. (1.5 kg.) approx. of chuck, blade or other inexpensive beef or veal. Tie it into a roll if feasible.

- 10 lbs. (4.5 kg.) 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 oz. (150 gr.) 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 a 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 is forms a lovely light brown crust all the way around.

3) Remove the beef roll from the pan and place 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 6-8 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 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!

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Onion Love 

        5 months ago

        Wow. Just wow. I’m a lover of onions, so this recipe is the ACTUAL dream! I’m so glad I found it—I’ve never heard of it, even when I visited Naples (we weren’t the there for very long, and I was distracted by the garbage strikers emptying dumpsters into the street and the French poser thugs trying to pick up my friends...not exactly the best part of our trip). ANYWAY, I’d be willing to bet a taste of this sauce would have changed everything. I can’t wait to try it!

        Anybody who claims this sauce is bitter doesn’t know much about the chemistry of onions, which get butter-sweet when caramelized in a low, slow cook. I’m drooling at the thought.

        One question: if I brown things properly and cook in the correct order, could I let this cook all day in the Crock Pot? I don’t want to commit Italian heresy, but I don’t know if I have a pot that could handle an all-day cook on the stove. I wouldn’t want to burn the precious onions!

      • profile image

        Andrew 

        8 years ago

        This sounds awesome!

        Any experience on serving this to people who hate onions? I'm sure the long slow cooking time really transforms them, but my significant other is an avowed onion hater.

        Also curious about the answer to laila11's question. If I read correctly, you wouldn't make the sauce ahead of time if you're serving it with your braciole.

      • profile image

        Linda 

        8 years ago

        Sounds yummy. Can't wait to try it! I enjoyed reading all the comments. Poor Milady P, I think she should print the recipe and try again, she may have done something wrong.

      • profile image

        laila11 

        8 years ago

        Question! I plan on making this with your braciole recipe. Can I let the braciole simmer with the sauce as the sauce cooks, or should I make the sauce seperately(8-10 hrs) and then add the braciole - the next day - for yet another 8-10 hrs.

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        Yup. I made it yesterday and half is in the fridge! Definitely leave out the parm until the last second! :)

      • profile image

        becca 

        8 years ago

        if using this sauce with braciole, can you make it a day in advance and keep it in the fridge? also, i am assuming you leave out the parmigiano....?

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        If you follow the recipe exactly, you'll find that the reduction from the juices which are drawn out from the onions makes the perfect sauce! :)

      • profile image

        tanya 

        8 years ago

        I'm with moonlite here... where does the sauce come from if you are only sauteeing the onions and oil... im making it for the braciole so i won't use the beef. therefore its just onions? is the sauce eventually soposed to turn white? i've sauteed onions in oil before and poured it over potatoes which is amazing... but it wasn't a sauce it was more of just oil with onions...

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        Hey, Fulvio, enjoy the genovese and have a glass of lacryma christi for me! :)

      • profile image

        Fulvio  

        8 years ago

        I was born in Napoli, my mother cooked the Genovese often on Sundays.

        Recently my wife wanted to make this Genovese sauce,but I never found my mother`s recipe,then I found your recipe for her,when she was cooking it,the aroma brought me back to my childhood, I was so looking forward to eating it,& when I did I got so home sick of a time & a place so long ago,it tasted exactly the way my mother made it in Italy so long ago.

        Hal, MILLE GRAZZIE, from a native Napolitan for posting this recipe.

        P.S. we are making the Genovese tomorrow :)

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        I've always done it in the old Italian way on a conventional stove, but sure, a slow cooker would work great!

      • profile image

        Zbob 

        8 years ago

        After the initial browning of the beef and sauteing the onions, could the 6-8 hours be done in a crockpot/slowcooker? Sounds interesting, as I love beef with onions.

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        Ah, so there has been at least one American restaurant that did the true genovese! That's great to learn! Good reason to visit Philly other than eatin' cheesesteaks and watching Andy Reid sweat about getting fired. :)

      • profile image

        Gregg 

        8 years ago

        I worked for an Italian Restaurant in Philadelphia PA. We would make this sauce once a week. If i remember it was Wednesdays. The Chef was from Abuzzi, Benny his secret sauce. Also our Red Gravy, Ragu for the purest! Was the best.

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        Garlic will kill it dead. Your only hope is to roast the living daylights out of it first and then add it at the very end. Cooking the garlic in it will give you a mealy icky taste. Don't know about the herbs though, but check it out and lemme know how it works out!

      • profile image

        Elias11 

        8 years ago

        My man Hal ... This sounds greattttttt ... But just a couple Q's : would it totally destroy the taste with some garlic & a little herb de province?? Thanks and plan 2 wow my family & new girlfriend with something increadable ... Hopfully

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        Enjoy! It truly is a great sauce. :)

      • profile image

        Mike 

        8 years ago

        I remember my nana making chicken genoese on sundays. Oh, it was delicious. The version that she made was not as complex, and in fact, she did start with all of the ingredients in the pot at the start! It was a wonderful sauce, and I still make it from time to time. When I can get a breast of veal, I'll make it with that. Thanks for the recipe, and for sharing.

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        Lu: Yup, definitely.

        Love2Cook: I love crossrib for this.

        Andrik: You can technically substitute any other mammal or poultry protein, but it really won't be the same. If you can't do bovines at all, you might want to try venison with it.

      • profile image

        YaGottaLoveComments 

        8 years ago

        To MiladyP - Do you hate your dog? One with supreme intelligence such as you would know that onions are toxic to dogs and eating onions can cause hemolytic anemia. Why do you want to kill your dog?Sounds 'yakkie'.

        Michelin stars? How did you guess the spelling of Michelin? Nice work!

        Oh yeah, the sauce is excellent. Not 'disguisting', lovely 'union' taste.

      • profile image

        Andrik  

        8 years ago

        Thank you for sharing this amazing recipe, i'm drooling while reading and i want to find out, is there a substitute for beef for people who can't eat beef?

      • profile image

        Love2Cook 

        8 years ago

        what cut of beef is best? how many servings does this make?

      • profile image

        MoonLite74 

        8 years ago

        This sounds wonderful and I apologize if this is extremely silly but I am confused as to where the sauce comes from if we're only sauteeing the onions and beef? How does it get saucey? Can't be from the wine and water alone? I too am using this for the braciole and realize this is not a tomatoe based sauce? Am I missing something?

        Thank you!

      • profile image

        Lu 

        8 years ago

        Just to be sure, I'm not supposed to cover the pot during the 8-10 hours? I just cover the beef roll with as many of the onion as possible?

      • profile image

        Tommy echos 

        8 years ago

        This sauce actually brought tears to my eyes as it was cooking because the smell was so familiar to me as my Nonna and mother used to make this for me when I was young, I used to stay in the kitchen or close by it just so I could fill my senses with it's wonderful smell and waited with bated breath until I could get my 1st forkful that you for providing the reciepe as my Nonna is long gone along with her reciepe

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        MiladyP: Well, I hereby revoke your Michelin stars (which you have like I have Olympic gold medals) since you obviously didn't read the recipe. Did you decide to cook it for 20 minutes? When cooked properly there is NO sharp or sour taste. I suggest your dog peed in it when you weren't looking. Now lay off those narcotics... they're messing with what's left of your mind. :P

      • profile image

        MiladyP 

        8 years ago

        There is only one word to discribe this sauce...

        DISGUISTING!!!!!!!!!!

        It is soooo bad even my dog, who eats garbage, won't eat it. It's to yakkie!!!

        It's just bad tasting unionflavour, sour, rotten and sharp. Nothing else. Even half a bottle of honey couldn't get te rotten taste of it away.

        BAD BAD BAD!! just disguisting. No wher near some Italian sauce!!!! Schame one you to spoil our time and money with this rubbish sh**. Next time you want to be funny DON'T!!!

        yours

        MiladyP

        2 times Michelin star chef on italian cuisine

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        8 years ago from Toronto

        Deano, try it out and let me know what you think!

        Mike, don't ever add water to it. Leave it covered at first if you want as it all depends how much time you want it to take. If you leave the lid on it may take 12 hours to form into a thick creamy consistency. With lid off it can take about 6-8 or so.

      • profile image

        Mike 

        8 years ago

        This sounds friggin amazing. The chuck roast in my fridge that was intended for chili, now has a new destination. One question, do you cover this while it simmers for 8 hours? Or do you just let the liquid evaporate and add water as needed?

      • profile image

        Deano 

        8 years ago

        Drooool.... this sounds sensational!!! I have a 3 legged cast iron pot that I will use to try out this recipe. Thanks for sharing!!!

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        9 years ago from Toronto

        You are absolutely right, as I have so long believed that there was universal agreement EVOO should never be heated that I've taken it for granted in this recipe. I've edited it above, so as you see, you should add the olive oil just before serving! Thanks!

      • profile image

        Mack 

        9 years ago

        At what point to add the extra-virgin olive oil? Sorry for maybe dumb questions

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        9 years ago from Toronto

        Genovese is really only popular in the heart of Naples proper, and is virtually unknown outside the city center. It's very strange considering that it's such a delicious sauce!

      • profile image

        Bunni 

        9 years ago

        This sounds absolutely wonderful! I can't wait to make it. My grandmother is from a little village outside Naples, but she never taught me this one. I have also made braciole many times and never used raisins. I dont like them but I wasn't taught to make them that way anyhow. But I do love them!! In my Nonna's sauce, mmmmmm!

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        9 years ago from Toronto

        Yeah, it's hard to understand how a culture which is fully dedicated to stripping you of your money, your luggage and your shoes, can be so damn hospitable and with such incredibly tasty food! :)

      • profile image

        Jim 

        9 years ago

        OMFG! This sounds AMAZING. I too had this in Naples back in the 90's. Wasn't too happy about all the people trying to scam us, but the little old man that walked us through the streets took us to an amazing place where we never even saw a menu. They just kept bringing out the food!

        Thank you!!!!

      • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

        Hal Licino 

        9 years ago from Toronto

        Kathleen, yes, you can chuck the chuck if you're bracioling.

        Susan, this is the pure downtown Naples recipe. The original, one and only! :)

      • profile image

        Susan 

        9 years ago

        I've had this in Naples! In a provate home! For years, I've bee trying to find the recipe! Thank you!

      • profile image

        Kathleen 

        9 years ago

        This sounds terrific! Can't wait to try it. One question, if I will be putting braciole into the sauce should I omit the beef chuck?

        Thanks,

        Kathleen

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