As a child, I had a pretty diverse group of friends. With surnames like Papadakis, Rylewski, Patel, DeAngelis and McCarthy (me), we were like a motley crew of pint-sized United Nations members. Either that or a living Benetton tableau. It seemed like each name brought with it a unique culture and cuisine and, of course, endless opportunities for dinner invitations.
Some of my favorite childhood memories involve watching my friend’s nonna expertly make this simple rustic dish with gnarled hands that moved as if operating from muscle memory. Dried herbs were rolled between hands to awaken oils, fresh basil was torn in bunches and a pot of thick tomato sauce goodness roiled and bubbled on the stove–it was a well-choreographed orchestra. Bistecca alla pizzaiola, or steak pizzaiola, was one of those dishes that looked complicated but couldn’t be more simple to make. It’s perfect in its simplicity and serves a delicious primer to the rustic cooking of Naples where the dish is claimed to have its origin.
BISTECCA ALLA PIZZAIOLA
4 thin-cut ribeye steaks on the bone (1/4″ thick)*
1 28-oz. can San Marzano tomatoes
5 – 7 garlic cloves, minced
1 small onion, diced
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 Tbsp fresh thyme (optional)
A few fresh basil leaves
Salt, Pepper, Chile flakes, Flat-leaf parsley, Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
*The steaks should be room temperature so remove from the refrigerator at least 15 – 20 minutes prior to cooking.
The beauty of this dish is the fact that it is a one-pot meal but you should still take care to use a heavy-bottomed skillet or cast iron pan because of their ability to maintain the high heat needed to get a proper sear on the meat. I used my Emile Henry braiser and it worked like a charm.
Start by heating your pan over medium-high heat while you season the steaks. Season liberally with salt, pepper, and 1/2 tbsp of dried oregano. Pat the seasoning into the steaks, pushing the steaks out as thin as possible with your hands.
Once the pan is hot enough to properly sear the steaks (lightly lower the steak into the pan and if it hisses loudly it’s ready), add enough olive oil to lightly cover the pan and add the steaks. Sear on each side very quickly, about 1 minute per side, and remove from the pan. Set aside while you finish the sauce.
Add a little more oil to the pan and add your garlic and onions. Fry until lightly golden brown, add a heavy pinch of chile flakes and the thyme (if using), remaining oregano and then add the tomatoes (crushed by hand or pre-crushed). The liquid in the tomatoes will sizzle and pop, so stand back until it settles down or cover with a mesh splatter guard. Use a wooden spoon to scrape the crusty bits off the bottom and cook on medium heat until it reduces into a thick, rich sauce.
Once the sauce has reduced into a thick, pizza sauce-like consistency, add the meat back in and cover with the sauce. Take care to allow the meat to simply reheat not further cook. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning if necessary. Turn off the heat and top with a generous handful of chopped parsley and a few basil leaves. Garnish with some crusty grilled bread.