Spaghetti con il tonno alla bolognese

We’ve spent a fair bit of time discussing the “why” of spaghetti con il tonno alla bolognese. Now it’s time to round off some of the “how”.

There’s not a great deal to this recipe, but as usual we will leave no stone unturned. Here is the recipe repeated in full:



Emilia Romagna


Ingredienti per 4 persone

  • 320 g di spaghetti
  • 180 g di tonno sott’olio di qualità
  • 1 cipolla rosata di pezzatura normale (possibilmente di Medicina)
  • 700 g di pomodori freschi (o una scatola di pelati da 400 g)
  • Sale e olio q.b.

Tagliare la cipolla a fette sottilissime e farla soffriggere nell’olio fino a che diventi trasparente. Unire i pomodori, pelati e tagliati a tocchetti, e lasciare cuocere a fuoco basso per una mezz’ora circa, fino a quando si sono completamente amalgamati. A 10 minuti dalla fine cottura aggiungere il tonno scolato e sbriciolato in pezzi grossolani. Intanto cuocere al dente gli spaghetti, su cui si verserà il condimento dopo averli scolati.

Varianti ammesse:

Due le varianti che è possibile ammettere: l’aggiunta di un tocco di sapore dato dalle acciughe (anche con le cipolle) o dal prezzemolo, cosparso con misura sul piatto già preparato.


Pasta, riso e polenta



Emilia Romagna


Ingredients for 4 people

  • 320 g of spaghetti
  • 180 g of quality tuna in oil
  • 1 red onion of normal size (preferably from Medicina)
  • 700 g of fresh tomatoes (or a 400 g tin of peeled tomatoes)
  • Salt and oil to taste

Cut the onion into very thin slices and fry it in the oil until it becomes transparent. Add the tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks, and cook over low heat for about half an hour, until they are completely mixed. At 10 minutes from the end of cooking add the drained and crumbled tuna into coarse pieces. Meanwhile cook the spaghetti al dente, on which you will pour the sauce after having drained them.

Variations allowed:

Two variants that can be admitted: the addition of a touch of flavor given by anchovies (also with onions) or parsley, sprinkled with measure on the prepared dish.


Pasta, rice and polenta


The tomatoes will dominate this dish so it is important to use the best ones we can find.

Tomatoes on the Vine

I have mentioned before that British cherry tomatoes can be superb, but the larger ones tend to be a little more suspect. They often come with that insipid, off-red, unripe look with little chance of improving once brought back from the supermarket.

The UK can be a challenging climate for tomato growers, and it would appear the imported variety don’t travel particularly well. That said, at the time of preparing my spaghetti con il tonno alla bolognese it is early July - the beginning of UK tomato season.

We’re not spoiled for choice of varieties in UK supermarkets, but make sure you pick a vine ripened tomato. I’ve gone for Waitrose “classic vine tomatoes”.

The vine, acting like an umbilical cord, keeps pumping the tomato with goodness when it could otherwise be rotting on the shelf. The goodness is quite evident. If you take a good sniff of the vine, you’ll notice that it smells more like a tomato than the tomatoes it connects.

Heston Blumenthal recommends adding the green vines as you’re preparing sauces that contain tomatoes, to enhance the tomatoey flavour. When the vine has offered its flavour to the sauce it can be discarded. I won’t be employing that trick for this dish, as I can’t imagine it’s how l’Accademia would prepare their sauce.

There’s no doubt this recipe would be assuming a more Italian variety of tomato, like plum.

Plum tomatoes have fewer seeds and pack more of a punch than our salad varieties. We’ve already sampled how good Cirio canned tomatoes are, and the recipe opens the door to their inclusion, but with so little to the preparation of spaghetti com il tonno alla bolognese it would feel like cheating to reach for the can.

If you’re preparing this dish for Christmas eve or indeed anywhere close to the festive period, do not hesitate in switching to preserved tomatoes. Out of season tomatoes are no match to the tinned variety.

In typical l’Accademia style, the recipe is vague on preparation. If we opt for fresh tomatoes we are told they should be peeled and cut into chunks but there is no mention of what to do with the seeds. I’m going to assume they should be scooped out, otherwise the discrepancy between 700g of fresh vs 400g of tinned would be hard to explain.

I will also make every effort to preserve the juice of the seed scoops. A lot of flavour lives in around the seeds so squeeze the detritus against a fine sieve, and make sure it meets with the rest of the sauce.

Like making fresh pasta, peeling tomatoes is one of those kitchen chores that can really test the amateur cook’s mettle. I actually find the whole process quite satisfying. Blanching the tomatoes in boiling water for 90 seconds, then removing to a bowl of cold water will scald the skin without cooking the tomato, and with the heel of a sharp knife you’ll be able to encourage the skin from the flesh with relative ease.

Follow this process with in-season tomatoes that you’ve allowed to ripen for a couple of days and the whole process will be a pleasure. Attempt the same task with “fresh” tomatoes on Christmas eve and you’ll be swearing your way onto Santa’s shit list.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that tomatoes should not be stored in the fridge. The refrigeration process interferes with natural changes in the fruit’s DNA, and will not allow the flavours to develop.

This probably explains why imported tomatoes are often a let down, as some level of cooling (either natural or man made) is going to take place on a winter trip from Egypt.

One final word on the matter. Waitrose will print their packaging with the tomato’s origin and even the name of the grower. So, Chris Wells of Kent, if these pomodori aren’t up to scratch, there may just be a juvenile African bush elephant knocking on your door.


L’Accademia look set for another “yellow carrot moment” in their onion recommendation. Finding a red onion is no hardship but I don’t expect I’ll easily get hold of a Medicina born one (Medicina being a town on the outskirts of Bologna).

I don’t feel remotely upset about this.

Red Onions

I have eaten oranges in Spain that were so intensely orangey, they made me question whether the oranges I’d sampled up to that point should even have been called oranges.

I have eaten chillies so ridiculously hot they have made me light headed, mildly euphoric and brought on nightsweats.

The first time I tasted a feijoa my tastebuds almost exploded, as if I’d been broken into the R&D department of Willy Wonker’s chocolate factory and had my wicked way.

However, I can’t imagine ever being “blown away” by an onion. I can’t even picture what my face would look like if I were. Possibly something closer to fear than enjoyment?

You don’t need to be fluent in Italian to suspect Medicina has something to do with “medicine”. The origins of the name are not known, but I’m going to hazard a guess there is no elixir of life pumping water into the local alliums, and these onions are in fact as benign as any other I’ve ever cooked with.

We are instructed to “finely slice” the onions, so the finished ensemble is likely to have a slightly stringy onion texture which should complement the spaghetti nicely.


If you can think as far back as our spag bol recipe, you may remember the subtext behind the cooking instructions on a jar of Dolmio.

We were told to use 400g of beef mince, not 500g. The distinction carried weight, as it elevated our meat to the higher quality pre-packaged varieties. Dolmio’s message - to those who were listening - was that their sauce deserved the best.

I believe l’Accademia is making a similar statement. They have something specific in mind when they ask for 180g of quality tuna in oil.

The likely candidates are Rio Mare and Marruzzella’s glass jarred “filleto di tonno” range. Both weigh in at 180g, both contain prime chunks of Yellowfin tuna, both have the pinkish finish of fish meat good enough to avoid the tin, but not good enough for fresh sashimi.

Rio Mare Marruzzella

The Rio and Marruzzella brands also carry canned alternatives, however the increments are out of step with l’Accademia’s expectations, at a lightweight 80g for a small tin and 160g for large.

As I’ve previously mentioned, there’s nothing remotely Bolognan about preserved tuna and nothing remotely Italian either. Rio and Marruzzella both point out their catch is from a mixture of European and non-European fish.

I went for the Marruzzella option, not least because I thought the Rio branding looked tacky. As good a reason as any for two brands which likely share the same source of overfished tuna stock.


I can’t see any reason to diverge from my current strategy of using the di Cecco brand of spaghetti. Without specific instructions this middle of the market brand is a good fit. Just remember the rules of pasta preparation I’ve already laid out and you will not be disappointed.


The recipe isn’t explicit here but it will be pointing to olive oil. This is one l’Accademia vaguery I can let go, as what else would they mean?

I would naturally reach for a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, although I’m not convinced this is strictly in line with how Italian chefs view this condiment. Extra virgin olive oil is typically used to dress salads and to dip bread into.

Olive Oil

Anytime I’ve seen Italians cook with olive oil, it will usually look a little more transparent in colour than the extra virgin variety.

The recipe (using the abbreviation “q.b." for “quanto basta” meaning “as needed”) implies this is more for the flavouring than any sautéing requirements.

We need to fry those onions, but also need to reach the required fat and oil flavour levels. This helps me to justify the use of extra virgin olive oil.

It is also interesting that after all the Italian recipes up to this point, this is the first to be explicit about the use of oil instead of butter. We’ve had a fair bit of discussion on this point already, and it will be interesting to compare this dish with the very similar (buttery) base we created for our maccheroni alla napoletana.

Varianti ammesse

L’Accademia graciously accepts a couple of variants, which change the complexion of the dish but still keep it within the yardstick of an official spaghetti con il tonno alla bolognese.

Varianti ammesse

Due le varianti che è possibile ammettere: l’aggiunta di un tocco di sapore dato dalle acciughe (anche con le cipolle) o dal prezzemolo, cosparso con misura sul piatto già preparato.

Variations allowed

Two variants that can be admitted: the addition of a touch of flavor given by anchovies (also with onions) or parsley, sprinkled with measure on the prepared dish.

I’m gutted to see “o” (“or”) in this addendum.

It’s fair to say our dishes to date have lacked a little colour, and the opportunity to sprinkle a measure of parsley on this red creation would be welcomed by my retinas.

On the flip side, anchovies are awesome.

When you can’t decide between two options, take both. This might get us on the wrong side of “authentic”, but at the end of the day, we’re being asked to recreate nothing more than “tuna surprise”.

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