It seemed like a good idea at the time—a hike with three of my kids from Ravello down to the Amalfi Coast in March. Instead of a week in Rome, with the hectic circus of trattorias, fine dining, afternoon stops at gelaterias, a hushed tour of the Vatican and a walkabout at the Villa Borghese, we decided to bring our walking shoes and backpacks to cover as much ground as possible to feel Italy in our bones (and our feet).

The week started with one night at a nice hotel on the coast, all peach-hued walls, flower vases and long corridors. From there, a van would drop us at our starting point in the Valle delleFerriere (valley of the ironworks), from which we would wind our way up into the mountains, all slaggy rock and plunging views down the terraced mountainsides to the valleys below, dotted with red-tiled cottages.

Donkeys carry heavy loads up the stone steps.

Donkeys carry heavy loads up the stone steps.

We climbed endless stone steps, passing panniered donkeys—true beasts of burden— and treaded carefully on rough-hewn paths on the sides of outcroppings with only spindly wooden railings for safety. One evening, back in Ravello, we inched our way through the fog to Trattoria da Cumpa’ Cosimo off a cobblestone street for a true family meal: sturdy wooden tables, worn menus, rustic bread and equally sturdy pasta dishes with decent wine, all served in the local dialect.

Over time, the landscape softened. We passed olive groves, walked through a small dense forest, stopped for caffè, and picked up a hitchhiker (a small black mutt) along the way. We caught glimpses of the sea and the coast, brightly speckled with pastel homes painted onto the steep coastal mountains. With sore feet and well-earned appetites, we finally reached the town of Amalfi and made our way to a white-washed modern eatery, where I had my first taste of pasta alla Genovese.

This is not a pesto and it was not invented in Genoa. (The origins are unclear, though some suggest it was a dish brought by sailors who docked at the namesake port city.) It is a long-cooked onion sauce often served over a thick tubular pasta such as paccheri. The Genovese I was served at lunch also had thin slices of what looked to be brisket—enough to give the dish some backbone without being a stomach bomb. I loved it because it was typically Italian— pounds of onions cooked for hours with some meat thrown in if you have it: richly satisfying without culinary somersaults.

Later, we came across this same recipe at A’ Cucina Ra’ Casa Mia in Naples. For their meat they use short ribs, so we followed suit back at Milk Street. We call for 3 pounds of onions—a mandoline makes short work of the slicing— and cook them in a low oven with a classic soffritto for an hour and a half along with the beef, pepper flakes and a Parmesan rind if you have one; then uncover and cook for an additional 90 minutes. Like a long hike, pasta alla Genovese is slow but deeply satisfying.