This dish is real home cooking, something that you would never find in a restaurant. It was once the sauce made by poor people in Naples for Sundays and holidays before it was supplanted by the now famous ragù. It uses the same principle as ragù—the vegetables cook for a long time with a piece of meat that benefits from long cooking. Of the three women who gave me their recipes for la Genovese, two purposefully omit tomatoes and carrots, even though their mothers and aunts always used them. I am following Liliana d’Ambrosio, who uses both and cooks the sauce to bring back the tastes of her childhood, the food of Neapolitan families for generations. When Gisa Sotis cooks Genovese, she uses red onions; Ines Pemarella puts the sauce through a food mill at the end to make a puree as soft as butter.
Perhaps there are a few Neapolitans who ponder the mystery of why this purely Neapolitan dish is called Genovese when not a hint of it exists in the cooking of Genoa, but certainly there are thousands more who just plunge their forks into what is for them the food of home. All it takes is masses of onions cooked slowly with the beef and a few vegetables to produce an irresistible sauce in which the onions almost melt to a sweet creamy mass. The grandmothers’ tradition is to serve half the creamy sauce as a first course with pasta that is somewhere in size between ziti and perciatelli and then serve the rest with the meat, which may follow immediately or appear the next day. You could, of course, serve most of the sauce with the meat and save any leftover sauce for pasta later.
When I persisted in asking why a dish from the area around Naples was called Genovese, none of the nonne could give me an answer. Domenico Manzon, an expert on the food of Naples, says that this method of cooking is definitely a Neapolitan invention which has nothing at all to do with Genoa. Its heritage is probably from the Angevins, who used rich thick sauces made with meat, vegetables, and onions.