One of my father’s favourite suppers was my Italian-American mother’s steak alla pizzaiola. He loved to eat it, but he also loved to say it - “alla pizzaiola”– to show that he (a devout Southerner who rarely ventured beyond Virginia, unavoidable business trips to New York and the states in between) knew the proper Italian name and how to pronounce it. And he never, ever failed to remind you also that he knew what the words mean’t: “in the style of the pizza maker.” Of course.
The recipe was my grandmother’s, who immigrated to New York (with husband and two year old son) from Sarno, a village in the mountains north of Naples, and, though eating in blissful ignorance during my childhood, I learned much later that La pizzaiola was one of the pillars of everyday Neapolitan cuisine.
And why not. It is simple, hearty and absolutely delicious, made with inexpensive chuck (or similar braising beef), onions and tomatoes, popped in the oven and left quietly to simmer away while the cook busies herself with something else.
My mother’s (grandmother’s) version was quite basic – add salt, pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and a scattering of thyme or oregano to the 3 ingredients above. Sometimes potatoes – peeled, then cut into small chunks - would be tucked in around the meat to cook in the tomato juices. Some families added garlic, peppers and/or capers for a bit of extra richness. Not my mother.
However she sometimes substituted pork steaks for the beef, and this is the version my husband likes best. (Did my grandmother? I shall never know.)
In “Naples at Table, Cooking in Campania” Arthur Schwartz gives a different, and much quicker version of Bistecca (o Carne) alla Pizzaiola, using small, tender steaks rather than braising beef, cooked on top of the stove rather than in the oven and ready in under an hour. Delicious, too, I am sure.
For me, Carne alla Pizzaiola is one of those familiar, reliable, make-it-with-my-eyes-closed kind of meals that I turn to when I am working at home but too busy to cook. Think of it as a no-recipe, one pan dish that you can throw together, put in a medium oven and more or less forget for an hour and a half or more. It is very forgiving.
This is how I put it together:
Carne alla Pizzaiola for two
2 pork steaks (or chops) or a piece of chuck (or other braising beef) big enough for two
1 can tomatoes, whole or chopped
1 medium onion or large shallot peeled and cut into chunks (or more, if you like)
Several small-medium potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
salt and freshly ground pepper
a sprinkling of oregano, thyme or marjoram, preferably fresh
Preheat oven to about 325F.
Put meat in a small roasting pan or low casserole and surround with chunks of onion and potato. Cover with tomatoes. Season with herbs, salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
Cook until meat and potatoes are tender, about an hour and a half. Check after an hour and add a little water if needed.