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Most food historians and gastronomes agree that the earliest canonical recipe for vitello tonnato appears in Pellegrino Artusi’s landmark cookery book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Completed in 1891, it is considered to be one of the definitive works on Italian cookery and gastronomy and is still widely used by professional chefs and home cooks even today in Italy.
The fact that he included a recipe for vitello tonnato is significant. As one of Italy’s earliest champions of Italian regional cuisine, Artusi was among the first recipe writers to document recipes from across the Italic peninsula. He was born Romagna and spent most of his adult life in Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. The fact that he wasn’t Piedmontese yet was intimately familiar with the dish is an indication that vitello tonnato was already well known beyond Piedmont.
There is ample evidence of widespread cattle farming in Piedmont as early as the Middle Ages. By the 17th century, most scholars believe that ranching accounted for up to 80 percent of the local economy there. By the time Artusi was active in the second half of the 19th century, Piedmontese cattle and the famous “razza bovina piemontese” (Piedmontese breed cattle) was well established as one of the country’s top sources for beef.
It’s important to remember that cattle country in Piedmont was an extremely depressed and economically challenged area at the time (a far cry from the Monferrato and Langhe Hills that we know today). Most believe that Piedmontese merchants looked west to the coast in lean times, thus giving rise to a trade in olive oil-cured anchovies and olive oil-cured tuna, foodstuffs that were easy to transport and store in winter months. It’s highly likely that this coastal influence (as it were) is what led to the marriage of veal and the tonnato sauce (anchovies and tuna, of course, are key ingredients in the latter).
The recipe that Artusi included in his Science… and Art… closely resembles the dish as we know it today. And as we discussed above, it’s clear that the recipe was already firmly established in the Italian culinary consciousness by the time Artusi completed his book.
There’s no doubt that the dish was one of the earliest to emerge as a pan-Italian favorite, making it one of Italy’s most enduring culinary icons.
We hope you’re not fed up (excuse the pun) with our deep dive into vitello tonnato! We have one more post planned for this series: “Vitello Tonnato becomes an Italian 1980s standby.” Thanks for being here, thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing our passion for VT!