If you were to ask me what my ideal lunch is, I would answer without hesitation: paccheri alla Genovese with a large piece of stewed veal shank for the first course, followed by a big ball of buffalo mozzarella (preferably from Tenuta Vannulo, an organic buffalo dairy in Capaccio) with eggplant parmigiana on the side.
The backbone of this perfect meal is the Genovese, a simple yet miraculous sauce made of meat (veal, beef or pork) and a heap of onions (red or white). Even those who say they don’t like the taste of onions are forced to recant once they taste the Genovese (after hours spent simmering with the meat, the tenderized and translucent onion slivers have no trace of the astringent smell or bite of raw onions).
With a dish so simple, it’s imperative to use only the best ingredients. For the meat, I would argue that veal, rather than pork or lamb, is best – in particular, pieces of thigh meat. As for onions, many use the sweet red onion of Tropea, a small town in Calabria, but the coppery white onion of Montoro, in the southern province of Avellino, will also do.
After simmering away on the stove, the meat and onion sauce morphs into a very sweet cream that pairs perfectly with Neapolitan artisanal pasta, like one of the many versions of penne, pacchero or hand-cut ziti from Campania – the large cylindrical pasta can better hold the sauce, allowing for a perfectly rich bite.
Even though it shares its name with the northern Italian city of Genoa (where the dish is, in fact, relatively unknown), the Genovese was born in Naples. Some say that chefs from Genoa working at the port of Naples in the 16th century were the first to make it. Another theory holds that a chef from Geneva, Switzerland, who arrived in Naples in the 18th century, was the inventor of the Neapolitan sauce, taking French onion soup as his inspiration.
Even those who say they don’t like the taste of onions are forced to recant once they taste the Genovese.
My mother used to prepare it frequently (to be honest, she often made a fake Genovese, replacing the meat with lard or two pieces of bacon), which may explain my fondness for the dish. My wife, on the other hand, believes that the onions reek havoc on a person’s breath and, as a result, makes the Genovese only a couple of times a year. But when she does, it’s outstanding.
Whenever I see the Genovese on the menu at my favorite Neapolitan restaurants, I have to order it. The best version in town, though, is the sumptuous pennette alla Genovese prepared every Tuesday for lunch at Trattoria Malinconico, a popular restaurant in the hilltop neighborhood of Vomero.
Malinconico (which means “melancholy” in English) is the last name of Pasquale, who opened the spot in 1958. At first it was only a bulk wine cellar, but then Pasquale began making a few cooked dishes – small plates that were popular with locals, which eventually grew into larger meals. Still today the trattoria is frequented by the neighborhood’s older residents, many of whom have been loyal regulars for years, as well as younger locals and workers, who often stop by for a glass of wine. (The restaurant still sells wine from the metal barrel.)
It’s a small spot and there are only a few tables (more in the summer, when some more are set up outside), so it often happens that you finish your meal having made friends of strangers.
The menu varies from day to day, and is typically based on traditional Neapolitan recipes. (The mussel soup on Friday is a particular favorite.) Though some dishes, like meatballs, sausages, and friarielli (rapini, a type of broccoli typical to Naples), are always available.
Marianna Sorrentino, the wife of Pasquale’s late son Mario, runs the show now. She makes excellent pasta with legumes (either beans or peas) and her fried anchovies are delicious, but her hands really work their magic with the pennette alla Genovese – it’s extraordinary. When I asked her why she uses pennette (a smaller version of penne), she simply replied, “They’re more practical.”
The waiter Arnaldo De Fortis Nadi, more commonly known as Nando, is reserved but nonetheless welcoming, and having been a fixture at the trattoria for over 40 years, is beloved by regulars. Giulia Malinconico, the daughter of Marianna and Mario, also works at the restaurant on occasion.
In addition to their miraculous Genovese, the trattoria also appeals to customers because it doesn’t charge an arm and a leg. “They have the best prices in Naples,” a fellow diner told me on my most recent visit, as he gobbled up the rich meat and onion sauce. It’s a royal experience – I often say the Genovese is the king of Naples – for a modest fee.