When I arrived in New York from Italy as a young bride in 1960, one of the first dishes I cooked was tagliatelle with ragù alla Bolognese, the celebrated pasta and meat sauce of my native Bologna. At that time, my cooking skills were limited, but once I began preparing the sauce, my taste buds and memory came to the rescue. I knew how soft the vegetables were supposed to be, and I recalled the light color of the meat after it was properly cooked. I also remembered the thick consistency of the sauce at the end of its long cooking. So I chopped, minced, and measured, and let my palate take over.
Then, I sat back and waited for the final judgment. When my husband walked through the door, he marched straight into the kitchen, looked at the sauce, tasted it, and, smiling broadly, said, “Terrific! Is the pasta in the water yet?”
Cook slowly and add milk to enhance the sauce
Ragù alla Bolognese probably originated in the peasant kitchens of Bologna over a century ago. According to L’Accademia Italiana della Cucina, an organization devoted to the study of Italian gastronomy, it was first made with cuts of inexpensive beef and an array of basic vegetables. The ragù was cooked slowly with the addition of broth and milk for several hours in order to extract as much flavor as possible from the meat and vegetables. The milk tenderized the meat, while the slow cooking reduced the sauce and concentrated its flavor.
In spite of the Accademia’s explanation of what constitutes the most typical ragù alla Bolognese, each cook in Bologna believes that he or she is the true interpreter of the ragù. Everyone, however, can agree on some basic steps.
Ragù isn’t the heavy tomato and meat sauce to which you might be accustomed. Rather it’s a flavorful essence of meat, vegetables, wine, milk, and tomatoes. There’s no garlic in this ragù. Like much of Bologna’s cuisine, this sauce relies on subtle flavors. The base of chopped onion, carrot, and celery is always the same, but the type of meat and liquid changes depending on the area and the cook. Pork, beef, veal, chicken livers, and occasionally sausage, alone or in combination, are the preferred meats. In addition to milk, beef or chicken stock, as well as local white or red wine, are the principal cooking liquids.
Make the ragù once, and then improvise like my mother did
My mother, who was born and raised on a farm, favored ground pork or a little beef in her ragù. More often than not, however, the sauce she made was determined by the availability of ingredients and their expense. During and after World War II, when staples were hard to come by, she made the ragù with whatever meat she could find. In hard times like those, she used more vegetables to stretch the sauce. To maximize their flavor, she would add a few tablespoons of tomato paste diluted in water, and then simmer the mixture for almost three hours.
In affluent times and generally on Sunday (the traditional day for making the ragù), my mother added prosciutto or pancetta and a few chicken livers to the sauce. I remember waking up on Sunday mornings to the familiar, lingering aroma of the slow, simmering sauce. Later, the ragù would be tossed with tagliatelle, the long egg noodles of Bologna, or with potato gnocchi. During holidays, we would spread the sauce on wide sheets of spinach pasta and layer it with béchamel sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano for a divine lasagne alla Bolognese.
Today, I make ragù often, using a recipe similar to my mother’s. I keep it simple and use ground pork and prosciutto. If I have time, I prepare it with fresh pasta, but it also goes wonderfully with dried pastas like tagliatelle or garganelli (ridged quill-like macaroni). I’ve also made sure to pass my mother’s recipe along to my children. Through them, her traditions continue on.
Pair the ragù with fresh or dried pasta
Biba Caggiano and most Italian chefs we’ve talked to agree that fresh and dried pastas offer their own unique strengths. Fresh pasta, whether homemade or purchased at a good Italian speciality store, has a dazzlingly light quality that partners well with rich vegetable or meat sauces. The firm, toothy texture of dried pasta, which Italians refer to as al dente, gives a preparation a more sturdy, hearty base. Both homemade or dried pastas are preferable to the gummy factory-made “fresh” pastas on supermarket shelves. Never rinse either dried or fresh pasta after cooking, as this removes its surface starches which add texture to the finished dish and help the sauce cling to the pasta. —the editors
Tagliatelle, the traditional long, flat noodles of Bologna (about 1/4-inch wide and 1/16-inch thick) are perfect for twirling up the meaty ragù. Like all fresh pastas, tagliatelle only needs to be cooked for a short time in well-salted boiling water, until the noodles are soft and tender (anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 or 4 minutes, depending on their thickness and how long they’ve been drying). Boil the pasta just before serving, as it will quickly lose its delicate texture.
Short, ridged dried pastas like rigatoni and penne are also fine accompaniments for Ragù alla Bolognese. The ridges of these dried pastas catch the sauce, and the pastas’ compact shapes match the sauce’s meaty, rich texture. Another option is the nests of imported dried tagliatelle or pappardelle (now more available in U.S. supermarkets), which cook longer than their fresh counterparts (about 6 minutes), but have a wonderful texture.