My Recipe Box

True Ragu

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.

Regione: Veneto

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

Pappardelle with Venetian Duck Ragu


Regione: Emilia-Romagna

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

Fettucine with Ragu alla Bolognese


Regione: Abruzzo

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

Spaghetti with Abruzzese Lamb Ragu


Regione: Sicily

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

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, Enjoy!

Photos: Scott Phillips

posted in: Blogs, pasta, italian, ragu
Comments (6)

leemailbox writes: Domenica: Can't wait to start cooking these ragus. For the "Ragu alla Bolognese", should I keep the lid off during the 60-90 minutes of browning the meat? I'm afraid that it will dry out quickly even if I keep an eye on it. Thanks! Posted: 9:09 pm on October 29th

eselque writes: I've made the duck ragu twice now, once for house guests, who loved it as much as we did. Posted: 3:27 pm on October 8th

domenicamarchetti writes: Butteville: I am working on a veggie ragu for my next book (Glorious Vegetables of Italy). Try working from a basic sauce recipe--sauteing aromatics (onions, carrots, celery) in oil, then maybe adding mushrooms, and finally tomatoes, simmering until thickened to sauce consistency. You could add a splash of wine to boost the flavor if you like. Good luck. Posted: 10:15 am on October 5th

butteville writes: These recipes look delicious and I plan to try one instead of my usual Bolognese for our next family gathering. Question: do you have a recipe for a veggie ragu recipe for the non-meat eaters in my family?
Dianne Posted: 10:09 am on October 4th

domenicamarchetti writes: Pielove, I'm so glad you enjoyed the pork and sausage ragu. It is a favorite in our house, too. Cheers, Domenica Posted: 9:09 am on September 25th

Pielove writes: I made the pork and sausage ragu-- not only was it delicious, but the whole house smelled great for hours! My daughter insisted on the same kind of pasta as in the photo-- it turned out picture-perfect-- and my husband said it was the most delicious thing I had made in a long time! Posted: 7:32 pm on September 15th

Log in or create a free account to post a comment.

Cookbooks, DVDs & More