This is an unfussy dish often served in Italy during the summer, when a cold main course is welcome. The finished product is a platter of very tender, thinly sliced boiled meat covered in a flavorful tuna-caper sauce. Though it’s a very traditional Italian recipe, vitello tonnato has become somewhat fashionable in the United States, often presented as some sort of a rare roast that has been thinly sliced and topped with a mayo-based sauce to which tuna and anchovy fillets have been added.
While I like that version, my own is Italian grandma– style—the meat is simmered until completely cooked through and the sauce is thickened with tuna and hard-boiled-egg yolks. The use of two types of fish in the sauce (the name means tuna-fished veal) harkens back to a time in northern Italy when salt-packed fish were used as much for salt as for flavor. Even as recently as the 1930s, many Piedmontese families could not afford the comparatively expensive granular salt and instead used salted fish as a seasoning in pretty much every sauce.
The great thing about this dish is it just keeps on giving. The cooked meat and the sauce will last a week in your fridge and any leftovers can be turned into elegant antipasto the next day or used for a great sandwich or salad topper. Though boiled meat may sound wintry, the bright, light sauce and lean cut of beef make it a dish well suited to spring and summertime. I like serving it as a first course before a nonmeaty main, like Asparagus with Fried Eggs (page 121) or a pasta with spring vegetables.
Trim any exterior white fat or silver skin from the eye of round and place in a large, heavy pot. Add the wine, celery, bay, sage, and a healthy pinch of salt. The meat should be fully immersed in the wine; add more wine as necessary to cover. Let sit at room temperature overnight.
Remove the bay and sage, then transfer the pot to the stove top. Bring the wine to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat so the liquid is barely simmering, cover the pot, and simmer for 1 hour. While the beef simmers, put the salt- cured anchovies in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Let soak for 30 minutes, then gut the anchovies, pull the fillets from the skeleton, and set aside. Put the capers in a separate bowl, cover with warm water, and let soak for 15 minutes, then drain, rinse in cold water, and set aside.
When the beef has cooked for an hour, uncover the pot, add the soaked anchovy fillets, and increase the heat so the liquid is simmering more vigorously. Cook for 30 minutes more, during which time the liquid should reduce by half. Remove the beef from the pot, transfer to a rimmed baking sheet, and let cool to room temperature. With a slotted spoon, remove the anchovy fillets from the broth and set aside. Save the cooking liquid.
While the beef cooks, put the eggs in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water, then bring to a boil over high heat. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 9 minutes, then transfer the eggs to an ice water bath. When cool, peel the eggs and remove the yolks (the whites can be discarded or saved as a cook’s snack).
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the reserved anchovy fillets, egg yolks, tuna, soaked capers, vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. Process until
the sauce has the consistency of softly whipped cream, adding a bit of the reserved cooking liquid as necessary to achieve the correct fluffy texture but taking care not to add so much liquid that the sauce become runny. Season to taste with additional salt.
Thinly slice the cooked beef and transfer to a platter. Drizzle the sauce over, then garnish with parsley leaves. Serve at room temperature.