Tradition be damned. This quick Italian sauce suddenly goes with everything.

Sesame-tonnato noodles (Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Sesame-tonnato noodles (Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

Vitello tonnato. Pronounce it, as an Italian would, trippingly off the tongue. Translate the traditional dish into English — veal with a tuna-flavored mayonnaise — and that initial mellifluous charm fades fast.

"It's such a delicate dish, but such specific, strong flavors," British chef Ruth Rogers said. "Once you start describing it, it becomes more complicated than it is." That's why, on the menu of London's River Cafe, this antipasto from Italy's Piedmont region comes with no description. It probably doesn't need one; she's been serving it there, unchanged, since 1987, when she opened the restaurant with Rose Gray.

Vinny Dotolo, the Los Angeles-based chef and restaurateur, considers vitello tonnato a forerunner of surf and turf. "You get that brininess, but tuna carries a bitter quality with it in a weird way," he said. "And I think that's a good thing." At Jon & Vinny's, the modern pizza joint he opened with partner Jon Shook, he presents the tonnato without the vitello, or any other meat. A recent visit found the sauce — made of anchovies, capers, lemon, egg yolk and olive oil — spooned over wood-grilled shishito peppers garnished with sesame seeds.

Dotolo is one of many chefs taking creative liberties with the dish and, more specifically, its fish-enriched condiment. Like other sauces — bagna cauda, chimichurri or romesco, to name recent examples — it appears to be having its meme moment. Where before people applied the flavors of Caesar dressing to everything from kale to potato chips, now they tonnatize with abandon. It has been swooshed onto seared swordfish and raw tuna. About 10 miles from Jon & Vinny's, at Bestia in downtown Los Angeles, there is a crostino topped with veal tartare and, you guessed it.

Lately, the thing to do is to pair it with vegetables, which is Dotolo's preference. He has seen it with regular bell peppers, green beans, beets and — one he strongly recommends — chicories. "Tomato tonnato" has an especially nice ring to it and is another natural fit. In his 2017 cookbook "Six Seasons," chef Joshua McFadden of Portland, Oregon, includes a slightly adjusted version of the sauce; he eschews the anchovies for a mellower, cleaner bite. It shows up in four of his recipes — with charred broccoli, sugar snap peas, radishes and string beans. Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns of Bar Tartine in San Francisco alter tonnato more aggressively in the cookbook named for their restaurant: Dried mushrooms and garlic put in an appearance, and potatoes are deployed as a thickening agent. The resulting sauce goes down first on the plate to become a fixing point for blanched Brussels sprouts leaves showered with shaved bottarga. At Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, those flakes of gray mullet roe and the tonnato accompany the same vegetable, with a notable difference: The sprouts are fried for crispiness.

Rolando Beramendi, an importer of Italian specialty foods based in San Francisco, is less than thrilled with the "very strange things" being done to the iconic Italian dish. "I think they are using the word tonnato for anything that's a mayonnaise with tuna in it. ...This is a prime example of a recipe that has lost its meaning," he lamented over email. As the title of his new cookbook, "Authentico," might indicate, he is an unabashed classicist.

What everyone agrees on is the importance of having the very best olive oil and tuna you can find. Although the dish is a summertime institution in Italy, the tonnato itself is composed of pantry staples. Those, like Dotolo, who would dare flout convention are doing so year-round, and why not? You can make the sauce anytime. Now is as good a season as any, and, with apologies to strict constructionists, I've come up with enticements: recipes for variations on tonnato that are more interpretive.

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Sesame-Tonnato Noodles

4 servings

Although tahini isn't part of the Italian pantry, sesame seeds are used in that country's cuisine. So incorporating the paste made with those seeds into tonnato might not be as unexpected as it seems. Using that sauce for spicy sesame noodles, however, could be construed as far-flung. But it works.

More uses for the sesame tonnato sauce: Serve with crudites; with lamb, veal or pork chops; with thinly sliced roasted flank steak; and with roasted or grilled eggplant.

MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. The dressed noodles can be refrigerated for a day or two.

From food writer and cookbook author Charlotte Druckman.

Ingredients

For the sesame-tonnato sauce

One 5- to 6-ounce can/jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil

1/2 cup tahini

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon sugar, preferably superfine

1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the noodles

4 scallions, light and dark parts separated, both thinly sliced

1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

1-1/2 teaspoons ground Sichuan pepper

Kosher salt

12 ounces dried spaghettini

Fish sauce (optional)

1 tablespoon toasted/roasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup roasted, unsalted peanuts, chopped

Steps

For the sesame-tonnato sauce: Drain the tuna, reserving 1/2 cup of its oil. Combine the tuna, tahini and fish sauce in a food processor; puree for up to 2 minutes, to form a smooth, thick puree. Stop to scrape down the sides, as needed.

Add the sugar and continue to puree, gradually incorporating the rice vinegar, the reserved tuna oil and the extra-virgin olive oil (to taste). The sauce should have the consistency of smooth hummus. The yield is about 1-1/2 cups.

For the noodles: Combine the scallion white and light-green parts, crushed red pepper flakes and the Sichuan pepper in a mixing bowl or serving bowl.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt the water generously. Add the spaghettini and cook according to the package directions (until al dente), then drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water.

Add the pasta to the bowl right away, plus 1/2 cup of the sesame tonnato. Toss to incorporate, followed by 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water; toss again to coat. Taste and add more sauce and more reserved pasta water to reach your desired flavor and consistency. (We used 2 tablespoons more of each, in testing.) Taste and add a little fish sauce, if desired.

Top with the scallion greens, sesame seeds and peanuts. Let the noodles sit for a few minutes, allowing the flavors to develop as the pasta cools. Serve at room temperature.

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Shrimp and Bean Toasts With Nori-Tonnato Spread

4 servings

Made with Japanese mayonnaise, this tonnato is more pâté-like in consistency and is wonderful on toast, with or without the bean mixture spooned on top.

More uses for the nori-tonnato spread: As a dip for vegetables or pita chips; as a spread on crostini with ratatouille; or with oven-dried tomato halves and olives.

Dark soy sauce is available at Asian markets.

MAKE AHEAD: You will have spread left over, which can be refrigerated for a day.

From food writer and cookbook author Charlotte Druckman.

Ingredients

For the nori-tonnato spread

3 sheets toasted sushi nori (about 7-1/2 grams total)

One 7- to 8-ounce can or jar good-quality tuna packed in olive oil, drained

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3/4 cup Japanese (Kewpie) mayonnaise

2 teaspoons dark soy sauce (see headnote; may substitute 1 teaspoon soy sauce plus 1 teaspoon molasses)

For the toasts

One 15.5-ounce can cannellini beans, preferably no-salt-added, rinsed and drained

10 ounces cooked shrimp (peeled), cut into bite-size pieces

3-1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt, plus more as needed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in ice water for 10 minutes

4 slices rustic bread (about 6 inches long and 3/4-inch thick), toasted

Arugula, for garnish

Steps

For the nori-tonnato spread: Tear the nori up into small pieces over the bowl of a food processor, letting the pieces fall in. Process until finely ground. Add the drained tuna and lemon juice; puree to form a thick, pâté-like mixture. Add the mayonnaise and puree until well incorporated. Add 1 teaspoon of the dark soy sauce and process to incorporate. Taste and add some or all the remaining dark soy sauce; pulse to incorporate. The yield is about 1-1/2 cups.

For the toasts: Toss the beans and shrimp together with 2 tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl. Season with the salt and pepper. Add the red onion and toss to incorporate.

Use 1-1/2 tablespoons of the extra-virgin olive oil to brush onto the tops of the toast.

Use a generous 2 tablespoons of the nori-tonnato spread to smear on each toast. Distribute the shrimp and bean mixture equally among the portions, piling it on top of each piece of dressed toast. Garnish with a small handful of arugula leaves, drizzle with the remaining extra-virgin olive oil and then sprinkle with a little flaky sea salt. Serve right away.

 

Shrimp and bean toasts with nori-tonnato spread (Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Shrimp and bean toasts with nori-tonnato spread (Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

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