The Monsù cuisine from Sicily & Naples
Have you ever learned a new word (like monsù), or found out about a new place and you wonder why you've never run across it before? And then all of a sudden it comes up constantly. Maybe that's not what's actually happening and it only seems that way because you’re now focused on the new word or place. Anyhow it happens to me all the time and it's exactly what happened with the words Monsù cuisine and Sartù.
I love all the Italian islands and especially Sicily so when I met travel designer Angela Macaluso we got to chatting about Sicilian cuisine. She told me about the Monsù cuisine and Sartù - for all the decades I've lived in Italy I knew absolutely nothing about it. Angela organizes Monsù cuisine cooking classes in noble palazzi in Palermo.
The history of the Monsù cuisine in Sicily, and Naples, dates back to the 17th century when French nobiles and princes visited Sicily and Naples and brought along their chefs, whom they called monsieur. These French chefs worked in the kitchen alongside Sicilian, or Neapolitan, chefs. It was in the kitchen that monsieur was transformed to monsù in Sicilian dialect and monzù in Neapolitan dialect.
Sicilian (and Neapolitan) nobility looked to the French chefs, or monsù, to re-interpret Sicilian and Neapolitan cuisine adding a French twist. What resulted was a fusion of the very best of the two cuisines: Sicilian and Neapolitan agriculturally-based cuisine fused with the elegance and refinement of French dishes. A few dishes form the basis of the Monsù cuisine and one of these is Sartù.
Following my chat and subsequent podcast episode with Angela Macaluso about the Monsù cuisine I saw a recipe for Sartù on the cover of one of my favorite Italian culinary magazines, Cucina Italiana. (Remember what I said before about learning something new and then it comes up again and again?)
Sartù is a rice-based timballo or timbale and the ingredients are many. It's typically made with ragù, peas, pancetta, mushrooms, mozzarella and/or provolone cheese, meatballs, sausages, hard-boiled eggs and chicken livers. Historically timballo is the name for lasagna in many regions of Italy but a timballo doesn't have to be a lasagna-like layered pasta and sauce dish. It can also be a baked rice dish like Sartù.
The joy of the Sartù is how it incorporates the French elegance brought to Italy by the monsù with local ingredients typical in Sicilian and Neapolitan dishes.
This is a dish that really wows when brought to the table so it's great for guests. It disappears quickly!
At first glance I was daunted and intimidated by the Cucina Italiana Sartù recipe and set it aside. The ingredients are many and each part of the preparation is time consuming. Sartù isn’t something you can whip up after work for dinner. It takes time and planning but when you get right down to it almost every component is simple to prepare and can be made ahead and assembled at the last minute and baked.
I've done a deep dive into Sartù recipes and there are quite a few versions, all of them equally historical in their own way.
My recipe uses a tomato-based ragù sauce but there's also an in bianco version – without tomato sauce.
About some of the ingredients
My ragù recipe makes a lot of sauce and you might use it all for the Sartù or you might have quite a bit left over. That's never a problem because you can always use it for another pasta dish - and it's better to be safe than sorry!
You can be a bit flexible with the type of cheese. Some recipes say only provolone, some say only mozzarella and I've used both in my recipe.
You can also be flexible with the meatball ingredients but my recipe incorporates the best elements for these tasty little polpettine and reflects traditional Sartù recipes.
Peas – fresh or frozen – are always part of a Sartù.
Hard-boiled eggs can’t be left out. Some recipes say to use whole hard-boiled eggs and others chopped hard-boiled eggs but I found that quartered hard-boiled eggs work well because when you slice the Sartù and serve it everyone will get some hard-boiled eggs.
Only arborio rice should be used and I definitely prefer Carnaroli - I love its consistency. Close attention to the rice cooking time is also important.
Sartù baked stuffed rice recipe
- pressure cooker
- Bundt pan
For the Neapolitan ragù sauce:
- Two medium onions finely minced
- 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ kg chuck (beef muscle)
- ½ kg pork ribs about two
- 200 g sausage (about one sausage)
- 150 g dry white wine about ¾ cup
- 2 kg tomato purée
- 2 cups water
For the polpettine (meatballs):
- 200 g ground pork twice ground
- 200 g ground beef twice ground
- 75 g grated Parmesan cheese
- 35 g dried breadcrumbs
- 2 teaspoon salt
- ½ garlic clove minced
- ¼ cup fresh parsley minced
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly grated black pepper
- 1 cup flour for dusting the meatballs
For the rice:
- 500 g Carnaroli arborio rice
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- One cup water
Additional Ingredients for assembling the Sartù (timballo):
- 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 120 g peas fresh or frozen (and defrosted)
- 75 g provolone cheese cut into tiny cubes
- 125 g Buffalo mozzarella cheese cut into tiny cubes
- 4 hard-boiled eggs quartered
- One cup dried bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons melted butter
Make the Neapolitan ragù sauce:
- In a large saucepan gently sauté the minced onion in the extra-virgin olive oil until tender and translucent.
- Add the beef chuck and sauté over a low flame for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until the meat is just beginning to brown.
- Add the white wine, the tomato purée and half the water.
- You can either slow cook the sauce stovetop (covered) for 2 to 3 hours in a heavy bottomed saucepan (or) in a pressure cooker and cook for 45 minutes.
- This is absolutely a personal choice but I'm all in favor of using a pressure cooker in the interest of time.
- As the sauce cooks stir occasionally so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the saucepan and, if necessary, add additional water.
- Once the ragù is reduced and the meat is tender and falling off the bone your ragù is ready.
- If necessary cook the ragù a little bit longer and add additional water if the ragù becomes too thick and begins to stick to the bottom of the pan.
- The meat should be completely tender and falling off the bone.
- Add salt to the ragù, to taste.
- Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside. It can be served separately with the Sartù.
- This recipe makes a lot of sauce and yields plenty of extra sauce to serve with the Sartù.
Make the meatballs:
- While the ragù is cooking make the meatballs.
- Line a large baking sheet with oven (parchment) paper and sprinkle generously with flour.
- It's much easier to shape the meatballs if your hands are damp so set a bowl of water next to the mixing bowl you use to combine the meatball ingredients.
- First, combine the ground pork and beef, grated Parmesan cheese, parsley, minced garlic clove, breadcrumbs and salt and pepper together.
- Moisten your hands and form meatballs about the size of a marble or a hazelnut.
- Set the meatballs on the floured baking sheet and roll them around until they are fully covered with flour.
- Remove them from the flour and set them aside on a separate platter ready to fry.
- Once you’ve formed all of the meatballs heat the extra-virgin olive oil in a heavy bottom saucepan.
- When the oil is ready to fry – test by flicking a drop of water in the oil and if it sizzles it's ready – fry the meatballs a few at a time without overcrowding.
- Turn the meatballs over after 30 seconds to a minute so they cook evenly and are golden on all sides.
- Remove the meatballs with a slotted spoon and place on draining paper, or on a draining rack.
- Continue frying the meatballs until they’re all fried.
- Set them aside on a separate platter.
Assemble the remaining ingredients you need for the Sartù:
- Hard boil four eggs, then shell them.
- You can leave the hard-boiled eggs whole or cut them into quarters. - I prefer to cut them into quarters.
- Shell the peas, or defrost the frozen peas.
- Finely chop the provolone and buffalo mozzarella cheese.
Cook the rice:
- Prepare the rice almost as if you were making a risotto.
- Toast the rice in a sauce pan with the extra-virgin olive oil.
- Add half the ragù and cook the rice for 17 minutes (set your timer!) until it's al dente - no longer.
- If necessary add some water ( and a bit more sauce) to keep the rice from drying out.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the grated Parmesan cheese and half of the peas.
- Set aside and let the rice cool to room temperature.
Assemble the Sartù:
- While the rice is cooling down get all the filling ingredients ready to assemble the Sartù.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (180°C).
- Generously butter a 26 cm (9 inch) Bundt pan.
- Generously dust the pan with dried bread crumbs.
- Begin assembling the Sartù by spooning ¾ of the rice mixture into the pan.
- Use a large soup spoon to gently press the rice along the sides and bottom of the Bundt pan.
- It should be about 1 cm thick on both the bottom and sides of the pan.
- Add the ingredients in layers: first the hard boiled eggs, then the rest of the peas, ⅓ of the meatballs and the finely chopped cheese mixture.
- Top the filling with spoonfuls of more the ragù.
- Add the remainder of the rice mixture on top and use the back of the soup spoon to seal the rice.
- Drizzle melted butter on top of the rice.
- Generously sprinkle the Sartù with dry breadcrumbs.
Bake the Sartù:
- Bake it for 40 to 45 minutes, uncovered.
- If the Sartù starts to brown place a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over the top.
- Remove the Sartù from the oven and let sit for 10 minutes before plating and serving.
- Before you invert the Sartù onto a platter gently shake it and use a knife to make sure it's not sticking to the sides of the Bundt pan.
- Place your serving platter on top of the Bundt pan, quickly flip pan and platter over and lift off the Bundt pan.
- Put the remaining meatballs inside the center and around the sides of the Sartù.
- Ladle some of the remaining ragù onto the meatballs and, if you like, on top of the Sartù.
- Sprinkle with a little bit of grated Parmesan cheese and serve along with the meat from the ragù and the remaining sauce.
More great stuff about Sicily and Sicilian food you'll find on my blog
An inside look at the oldest Sicilian chocolate company in Modica.
Flavor of Sicily weeklong culinary trip tp Sicily with Flavor of Italy.
Do you have a comment or something you'd like to share with me? Scroll down to the very, very end of this page to reach the Please Leave Your Comment section.
I'd love to have your feedback and questions!
I make a small commission on purchases made through links on my website. Prices are identical for you, but purchasing through my links helps support my work to bring you great recipes, podcast episodes, culinary and travel information.