Il Tocco, called u tuccu in Ligurian dialect, is a meat sauce originating from Genova. This Genoese meat sauce is rich and easy to prepare.
I visited Genova in 2019 as a day trip while I was in Milan. It was a short train ride, just shy of two hours from where we stayed in Milan. I wish I had spent more time in Genova because I had one of the most memorable meals of the trip there. I ate at Ostaia de Banchi, and the food was simply incredible. After I got home, I wrote to the chef and told him how wonderful the meal was. We ended up remaining connected and have kept in touch throughout the years.
He told me about this Genoese meat sauce that he referred to simply as tuccu. I was intrigued and told myself I would make it someday. Four years later, here I am with my version of the classic sauce. I’ve made this several times, and it never fails to deliver. You don’t need many ingredients, and it works best with a nice, lean cut of beef. You can use a fattier chuck, but many recipes I’ve read traditionally call for a lean cut. I’ve made it with chuck and top round. While the chuck tastes good, it can give the sauce an unctuous quality.
What is tocco:
In the local Genoese dialect, the word “tocco” or “tuccu” means sauce. Like many sauces of the world, you can certainly have different variations that may not have meat in them. However, when someone says tocco in Genova, it is universally accepted that they are referring to the classic meat sauce.
How to make tocco:
The basic premise of the meat sauce is simple with just a few ingredients: a large cut of lean beef, aromatics, tomatoes, wine, dried mushrooms, and plenty of time.
What you need:
- Lean beef: During my research, I’ve seen many recipes call specifically for a lean cut of beef. Others call specifically for chuck roast. As I mentioned, I’ve made it both ways, and they both have merit. If lean beef is good enough for Paganini, it’s good enough for me too. I use a top round roast, which you may see marketed as a London broil. Rump roasts work well, too. Use a good, thick cut since you’ll be simmering it for hours.
- Aromatics: You need just minced carrots, onion, celery, and garlic. You’ll also use bay leaves and two sprigs of rosemary. I’ve made it with thyme sprigs, and a few sage leaves in the past too.
- Red wine: I’d read online that Barbera is preferred for tocco, but Syrah works well. Aim for something that is low in tannins and a bit brighter. Sangiovese is a medium-tannin wine but is similarly acidic, so it makes for a good option as well.
- Dried mushrooms: If you’re like me, you’ll doctor recipes depending on what you have on hand. I implore you NOT to skip the dried mushrooms in this sauce. They add so much depth, texture, and flavor that you don’t want to miss out on. Traditionally, dry porcini mushrooms are used. I’ve had a heck of a time trying to find porcini mushrooms lately, so I’ve substituted them with dried chanterelles with good results. You can even use dried shiitake mushrooms, which tend to be a bit easier on the wallet.
- Canned tomatoes: You need just one big can of whole peeled tomatoes. You can also use a can of crushed tomatoes.
- Beef stock: If you don’t have beef stock, use water but you may need to add more salt to make up for the lost flavor.
How to make it:
- Step 1: Pour boiling water over the dried mushrooms and let stand for 20 minutes. Remove and chop the mushrooms; don’t throw away the soaking water.
- Step 2: Brown the beef in a little olive oil. You’ll need a wide pot since you’re cooking such a large piece. Remove it from the pot and set aside.
- Step 3: Cook up vegetables in the same pot and add the chopped soaked mushrooms.
- Step 4: Add in the wine and boil it briefly. From there, add the tomatoes and beef stock. Add the beef and place the rosemary and bay leaves in the sauce. Bring it to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for several hours or until the meat is very tender.
- Step 5: Serve it up! Slice or shred the beef and serve as an accompaniment to pasta with the sauce on top.
How to serve tocco:
I’ve read that after cooking the tocco, the meat is removed from the sauce and sliced for a main course. The sauce is reserved and used for pasta, like ravioli or pappardelle.
If you like, you can shred the meat after cooking, stir it back into the sauce, and pile it on top of pasta. You could also slice the beef and serve it with the sauce on top of creamy polenta. The possibilities are endless!
I’ve wanted to try a tocco sandwich for so long. I’d love to slice that beef into thin pieces, arrange it on an Italian roll with the sauce, and throw some mozzarella on top. Then, I would broil it until the mozzarella is browned and bubbly and finish with a few basil leaves. I think that sounds delicious, but I haven’t tried it, and I’m positive it may be blasphemous.
Making a tuccu sub
It’s now a few days later, and I woke up still thinking about transforming my tuccu leftovers into a glorious sandwich. Funny enough, I showed the chef in Genoa, and he informed me that my idea was indeed not blasphemous. He said he likes to make a sandwich with tuccu stuffed with mozzarella or scamorza, a little salad, and caramelized onion. This also sounds fantastic, and I will be trying that next time.
If you want to transform your tuccu into a sandwich, here’s what you need:
- Tuccu leftovers: You need a few thin slices of beef, about 6–8 slices, depending on the size of your roll. You also need about 2 tablespoons of sauce from the recipe below.
- Roll: I used an Italian sub roll I bought from a local shop. Use any kind of sandwich or hoagie roll you like. I didn’t keep the roll intact; I separated the top and bottom parts into two pieces of bread to make it easier.
- Mozzarella: I bought a ball of fresh mozzarella and sliced it into 4 thin slices. You can also use mozzarella straight from the bag.
- Arugula, basil, and olive oil: I dressed arugula and basil leaves in a teaspoon or so of olive oil and added a sprinkle of salt.
How I made it:
- Warm up the tuccu first. I popped it into the oven for about 10 minutes, but you can also microwave it.
- Grill the bread. This is optional, but I have a little grill pan, so I brushed the inside of each half of the roll with olive oil and grilled both pieces cut side down until golden brown.
- Assemble the sandwich. Spoon 1 tablespoon of sauce on each piece of bread. Add the sliced beef to one piece of bread and the mozzarella to the other piece. Transfer to the broiler. Broil for 2–3 minutes or until the mozzarella is bubbly and melted.
- Finish the sandwich. Pile the dressed arugula and basil on top of the beef and smash both roll halves together to make an amazing, comforting sandwich. I cut it in half before serving.
Il Tocco: Genoese Meat Sauce
- 1 cup water
- 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms or use dried chanterelle or dried shiitake mushrooms
- 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 2 pounds whole lean beef roast, such as top round or rump roast
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and finely minced
- 3 carrots, peeled and finely minced
- 3 ribs celery, trimmed and finely minced
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1½ cups Syrah, Sangiovese, or your favorite dry medium-bodied red wine
- 3 cups beef stock
- 28- ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 sprigs rosemary, thyme, or 3–4 sage leaves
- Pinch of sugar
- Salt and pepper
- Cooked ravioli or pappardelle
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional
- Basil leaves, optional
- See cooking note for other serving options
Soak the mushrooms:
- Bring 1 cup water to a boil. Transfer the mushrooms to a heat-proof bowl and cover with the boiling water. Soak for 20 minutes. After soaking, remove the mushrooms and mince them with a knife or in a food processor. Reserve the water used to soak the mushrooms.
Brown the roast:
- Pat the roast dry and season all over with salt and pepper. For a 2-pound roast, I recommend 2 teaspoons of kosher salt and 1 teaspoon of black pepper. Use less salt if you’re using table salt.
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, wide pot over medium-high heat. Add the roast to the pot and cook for 3–4 minutes per side until browned all over. Transfer to a plate.
Cook the aromatics:
- Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the pot over medium heat. Add the minced onion, carrots, and celery. Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften and begin to brown. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the chopped mushrooms to the pot and sauté for 5 minutes.
Simmer the sauce:
- Pour in the red wine. Bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, and then add the mushroom soaking water, beef stock and tomatoes. Add a pinch of sugar. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and add the beef, bay leaves and rosemary. The beef should be just barely submerged in the sauce.
- Cover the pot and simmer for at least 3–4 hours. You can even simmer it all day like a true Genoese local! Check the sauce occasionally to ensure it’s not sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Finish the tocco:
- Once the beef is very tender, remove the cover. Discard the spent rosemary sprigs and bay leaves. Continue simmering, uncovered, for another 30 minutes to 1 hour or longer until the sauce reduces to your desired thickness, depending on how you intend to serve the tocco. Break the tomatoes up with your spoon. Taste and add salt, pepper, and another pinch of sugar if needed.
- Slice the roast and arrange on a serving platter. Spoon a few tablespoons of sauce on top. Scatter a few basil leaves on the roast and finish with a spoonful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Serve the remaining sauce with ravioli or pappardelle.