Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

My Tuna-Pusher Nonna Got Me Hooked on This Spinach Salad

by 
Greg Presto
January 20, 2021

I just checked, and there are 78 cans of Callipo tuna on the shelves of my pantry cabinet. I’m not a hoarder or a bodybuilder. Instead, I’ve got nearly four score of these bright red cans, adorned with gold lettering, because they come from Maierato, the southern Italian town my grandparents left for Pittsburgh in late 1951.

When she boarded the ship for the United States, pregnant with my mother, my grandmother says her hometown — then with a population just under 4,000 —was losing jobs. The Callipo tuna cannery, though, has been a constant employer. The company was founded in 1913, and today employs more than 400 people, operating not just the tuna processing plant, but a small resort and an ice cream business. (The ice cream is not, thankfully, tuna-flavored). When you visit Maierato, it seems almost everyone who doesn’t own their own business works for Callipo in some way. 

So my Nonna buys a ton of the company’s little red cans. Her predilection is so fierce, our little 4’ 11” tuna trafficker even has family smuggle them in from Canada (don’t tell customs) because they’re a better deal there. Here in the U.S., this tuna isn’t cheap, running as much as $8-10 for a three-can sleeve. So when cousins come to Pittsburgh from Toronto, they bring her flats and flats of these miniature cans — 24 cans in a package, each 80 grams of perfectly pink tuna in velvety, locally-produced olive oil. She gets more than anyone can reasonably eat, and for the loved ones in her orbit who live outside Pittsburgh, she presses cans and cans of it into our hands to take home. When I lived really far away in Kenya for three years, she even sent my parents with a suitcase half-filled with these little red jewels.

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It helps that the tuna is fantastic. My wife has sworn off all other cans since trying it a decade ago. So it's a challenge — but also a joy — to come up with more ways to enjoy our ever-growing stockpile of tinned seafood. I make tuna burgers, tuna sandwiches, spread it on crackers, eat it on rice with some balsamic vinegar. But the main way I’ve been enjoying it in the past few years is in this spinach, cannellini bean, and tuna salad. Reserving some of the olive oil in each can acts as a base for the dressing, with lemon juice adding acidity. The beans make it hearty, the red onion adds bite and crunch, and the grape tomatoes brighten the whole thing up with color. It’s a big bowl of delicious spinach that’s perfect for a hearty lunch or side dish for dinner. It’s a snap to make, and helps put a dent in that always-growing pile of cans.

But most important, for me, it’s a way to say, “I love you, too.” Whether you make yours with the same tuna — or another high-quality tuna packed in olive oil — it’s a simple recipe to serve to those you love, too.

The "I Love You, Nonna" Spinach Tuna Salad

Prep Time: 7-10 minutes
 | 
 | 
Serves 1-2

Ingredients

1 5.6-oz. can of tuna packed in olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced (I like quarter-moons)

1 box (5 oz) of Fifth Season spinach

1 cup grape tomatoes, halved (I recommend halving the tomatoes before measuring, but it's not essential)

1 15.5-oz can Cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

2-3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Prep Time: 7-10 minutes
 | 
 | 
Serves 1-2

Ingredients

1 5.6-oz. can of tuna packed in olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced (I like quarter-moons)

1 box (5 oz) of Fifth Season spinach

1 cup grape tomatoes, halved (I recommend halving the tomatoes before measuring, but it's not essential)

1 15.5-oz can Cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

2-3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Ingredients

1 5.6-oz. can of tuna packed in olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced or pressed

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced (I like quarter-moons)

1 box (5 oz) of Fifth Season spinach

1 cup grape tomatoes, halved (I recommend halving the tomatoes before measuring, but it's not essential)

1 15.5-oz can Cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

2-3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

1. Drain the tuna, but reserve about 1 tsp of the olive oil.

2. Combine the tuna, spinach, onion, tomatoes, and beans in a large salad bowl, and gently fold together. 

3. Whisk together the reserved oil, 2 Tbsp. lemon juice, red pepper flakes (if using), and crushed garlic in a small bowl.

4. Toss the dressing into the salad. I actually find that stirring it with a fork works better than tossing, but see what works for you. Season with salt and pepper. Add more lemon juice if you like.

About the Author

Greg Presto

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