That Tonnato Sauce

This Foodie Friday, I want to write about one of my favorite summer dishes, vitello tonnato. When I first had it at some fancy lunch many years ago, I thought it was something thought up by a clever chef. As it turns out, it isn’t a new dish at all. One can find it in the 130-year-old Italian cookbook Science In The Kitchen and the Art Of Eating by Pellegrino Artusi (it’s on page 271 of my edition).

The dish is veal, generally a shoulder or rump portion, that’s been boiled and thinly sliced. It’s topped by a sauce that’s basically a tuna and caper-infused mayonnaise. Trust me – it tastes a lot better than it sounds. The veal is really just a canvas for the sauce in my book.

I was pleasantly surprised when one of my friends emailed my a recipe for a vegetable plate of crudites that was served with a sauce that wasn’t called tonnato sauce but absolutely was the same as what one would put on the veal down to the capers and anchovies in the sauce. The chef described it as a “garlicky aioli bolstered with oil-packed tuna.” Uh, yes, please.

It got me thinking about special sauces since the tonnato sauce is clearly special to me. Every business needs a special sauce if it’s not going to be a commodity. If you’ve not done a competitive set analysis, that’s a great place to start to see how you’re different. Then ask yourself why you exist. What’s the problem you’re solving and why is your solution unique/better? Check your assumptions against what your customers and employees think. 

Is your sauce really yours? Can it be duplicated or is it unique and defensible? Back in the day, we used to call something that you marketed around a USP – Unique Selling Proposition but I think your secret sauce is more than that. It gets to the heart of what your business is, including the culture. It’s what makes you you!

You can put tonnato on sliced pork tenderloin, vegetables, and of course veal. I suspect it’s great on grilled foods – veggies and proteins. As I’m thinking about it, it’s not far from a Caesar Salad dressing but with tuna. You see? Once you have a secret sauce, you can’t really tell how far it will take you!

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