from Fine Cooking 113, p. 54-59
When I was a girl, my mother and I would laugh disparagingly at television commercials for “ragù spaghetti sauce” in a jar. She knew—and she taught me—that real Italian ragù is nothing like that pasty red stuff. It’s a thick, hearty pasta sauce, made with at least one kind of meat, that’s simmered for hours until the meat is tender and the sauce is rich and savory.
That said, ragù styles differ from region to region throughout Italy. Each one is an expression of place, of the crops grown and the animals raised there, of the farmers who cultivate the land, and of the people who transform its bounty into food.
There are also as many recipes for each region’s ragùs as there are cooks in Italy. The only hard-and-fast rule I know for making a good ragù is this: Be patient. It takes time to properly cook ragù.
Through the recipes that follow, I’ll take you on a delicious journey across Italy, from Veneto in the north to Sicily in the south. Come along for the ride. It may take longer than opening a jar, but the results will be so much better.
More meat, less tomato In northern Italy, ragùs tend to be less about tomatoes and more about the meat and aromatic herbs that flavor them. Venetian ragù, for example, is made from the meat of the wild ducks that populate the lagoons and is perfumed with native bay leaf and fresh sage. Some versions of this ragù call for tomatoes, but others use broth and no tomatoes at all. Some use duck stock and the liver and giblets, while others (like the recipe below) get deep flavor from duck legs and thighs and dry red wine.
|Pappardelle with Venetian Duck Ragu|
Meats plus dairy In historically wealthy Emilia-Romagna, ragù is made from a combination of ground meats—beef, veal, and pork—and enriched with milk and cream. Ragù alla Bolognese, which originated in Bologna, in the heart of the region, is a perfectly delicious example. In the recipe below, mortadella, a smoked beef and pork sausage, brings even more rich flavor to the pot. The ragù is spiked with freshly grated nutmeg, a beloved spice from the region, and only a small amount of tomato is added.
|Fettucine with Ragu alla Bolognese|
Native game and chiles In the rugged mountainous regions of central Italy, ragùs feature native game—wild hare or rabbit, wild boar or pork, mutton or lamb. Lamb ragù, in particular, is a specialty of Abruzzo. Farmers there have raised sheep for centuries, letting them graze in mountain pastures during the spring and summer, and herding them south to the milder climate of Puglia for the winter. Traditionally, tender cuts of lamb are grilled and roasted, while tougher cuts are simmered to tenderness in ragù.
|Spaghetti with Abruzzese Lamb Ragu|
More tomato, less meat In the south, where tomatoes are meaty, fullflavored, and plentiful, it makes sense that the ragùs reflect this abundance—they’re similar to the traditional “red sauce” that most people are familiar with. Sicilian ragùs, in particular, are often made with lots of tomato and veal or pork. I’m especially fond of variations, like the one below, that add crumbled pork sausage to the mix to further punch up the flavor of the sauce.
|Pasta with Sicilian Pork and Sausage Ragu|
Editor's Note: When Domenica was featured on Fine Cooking #114's Contributors Page, she wrote that her favorite cold weather food was Garlicky Lentil Soup with Carrots & Tuscan Kale. Due to popular request, we've linked up the recipe, which you'll find on her site, domenicacooks.com. Enjoy!
Photos: Scott Phillips