Poached Fresh Tuna Marinated with a Caper and Anchovy Sauce

Tonno alla Moda del Vitello Tonnato

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Are you familiar with what is easily the greatest of all Italian cold dishes, vitello tonnato? It is composed of poached veal sliced quite thin and layered lasagne-style, each successive layer of veal covered with a sauce made of canned tuna (packed in olive oil), mayonnaise, anchovies, and capers. It must marinate at least 24 hours, during which time the flavors of tuna and veal interpenetrate, each dissolving into the other, and producing something that is like no other dish of meat or fish in its tenderness and sweetly piquant taste. (The recipe is in my previous book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.)

Finding myself at John Haessler’s splendid seafood shop in Long Island’s Hamptons at a moment when a side of fresh yellowfin tuna was being sliced, I decided to use the principles of vitello tonnato to glorify not a piece of veal, but the tuna itself.

At home I cooked the tuna in a vegetable broth, taking care to cook it briefly and gently so that it would not dry out, which is the fate of overcooked fresh tùna. I prepared a little sauce with olive oil, garlic, anchovies, capers, lemon juice, and mustard. I cut the tuna into domino-shaped pieces, spread the sauce over them, covered the dish tightly with plastic wrap, and left it out to try at dinner, 8 hours later. The tuna was as I had hoped, nearly melting in its tenderness and its taste breezily fresh, lightly piquant, and appetizingly fragrant. Once we started nibbling, it was difficult to hold back. But hold back we did because I wanted to see if, like vitello tonnato, it would improve after a day or two in the refrigerator. In fact a similar exchange between the tuna and its condiments took place, and it became an even more perfectly integrated dish. Please, don’t eat it icebox cold but at the comfortable temperature of a not-too-warm dining room or a pleasantly ventilated patio.

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  • 1 celery stalk
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled
  • ½ medium onion, peeled
  • ¼ cup wine vinegar
  • Salt
  • 1 pound fresh yellowfin tuna, cut into 1-inch steaks
  • 1 teaspoon very finely chopped garlic
  • 2 to 3 flat anchovy fillets, chopped very fine
  • 2 tablespoons chopped capers
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon mustard
  • Black pepper ground fresh


  1. Choose a sauté pan or other shallow broad pan that can accommodate the vegetables and the fish. Put in the celery; carrot, onion, vinegar, a pinch of salt, and enough water to cover the fish later. Turn on the heat to medium high, cover, and boil the water for 10 minutes.
  2. Put in the tuna steak; when the water resumes boiling adjust heat so that it simmers gently, set a cover on the pan, and cook for 8 minutes.
  3. While the fish is cooking, put in a bowl the chopped garlic, anchovies, and capers, the lemon juice, the olive oil, the mustard, salt, and liberal grindings of black pepper. Beat and stir with a fork to combine all ingredients smoothly.
  4. When the tuna is done, retrieve it with a slotted spoon or spatula, pat it dry with kitchen towels, and cut it into slices 1 ½ inches long.
  5. Choose a deep glass or ceramic dish, either rectangular or square, that can contain the tuna in a single layer without overlapping. Lightly smear the bottom of it with some of the caper and anchovy mixture. Put in the tuna slices, laying them flat in a single layer, and cover them with the remaining caper and anchovy sauce, spreading it smoothly with a spatula. Cover with plastic wrap. Leave at room temperature and serve 6 to 8 hours later. It is even better if refrigerated and served 1 or 2 days later. Always return it to room temperature before serving.