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Ragù alla Bolognese

February 13, 2011

This is as traditional as it gets. If you want to truly taste Bologna, this is about as close as you can get to a legitimate, authentic Bolognese sauce. Just thinking about it brings me back under the porticoes. To the city where I fell in love. To the city that taught me that ragù never, under any circumstance, goes on spaghetti. My mood is compounded by the fact that as I write this, Francesco has Vasco Rossi – Bologna’s answer to The Boss* – thumping in the background.

And you know what? Here’s a little something to put you in the mood, too:

Ok, now that we’re all on the same, brightly colored page, let’s talk ragù. The Italian word for meat sauce (though it can be used with seafood, as well), to the Bolognesi it means only the most important part of their culinary heritage. It’s the taste of your favorite trattoria with your friends on Friday night and your grandmother’s table at Sunday lunch. The taste of every Sunday of your life. You could eat it every day and never get tired of it. You could argue about its ingredients (chicken livers? nutmeg?) for hours. You could actually get sick at the thought of spagbol.

In other words, it could only mean this:

In Emilia-Romagna, ragù is usually served on tagliatelle – flat, long fresh egg pasta about 2 cm wide -; in lasagna with a bechamel sauce; or, occasionally, in rustic dishes like fried polenta. It’s much less tomatoey than our Anglocized (Francesco: “bastardized”) version, and has a surprising, but oh-so-essential, addition of milk.

At our house, Francesco usually makes the ragù. And when he does he cooks it for the whole afternoon, letting it reduce, adding more milk, stirring every hour or so and tasting every chance he gets. My methods are much less labored, but – I think – a streamlined version of his. I’ve even drastically cut back on my heavy handedness when adding the tomato purée. No matter who’s in charge, though, we both make it at least one day ahead so that the flavors can intensifying overnight in the fridge and – and this is key – we make a ton. It’s one of the few things Francesco agrees to freeze and it holds up beautifully. Not that it makes it to the freezer very often. We eat it on normal, eggless pasta…on thick slices of bread….straight from the pot….

And whenever we’re feeling especially domestic, we serve it on homemade tagliatelle (recipe forthcoming). We use his great-grandmother’s pasta machine to roll out the sheets and then cut the noodles by hand. The result is epic. When I asked Francesco if they were as good, he said they were awesome. When I asked him if they were as his great-grandmother’s, he said, “you’re aiming pretty high.”

Which is to say, practice makes perfect. You can take Francesco’s recipe as a guide and then make it so often – every Sunday perhaps? – that it gets better each time. I’ve still got a good few decades to go before my ragù reaches great-grandmother standards, if it ever does. But that’s just fine with me.

For now I’m happy to dip my spoon into the pot, Vasco Rossi’s horrible voice in the background and my favorite Bolognese at my side.

* Just to clarify (aka to calm Francesco), Vasco Rossi is not actually from Bologna; he’s from Zocca, a small town an hour’s drive from Bologna.


Though probably not your auntie’s Sunday gravy, this ragù is sure to become a staple. Not only is it easy, it’s really, truly authentic. If you prefer, instead of using a mixture of pancetta, beef and pork you can use just ground beef. The color of the ragù should be brown so hold off on adding those canned tomatoes. Also, a little bit of sauce goes a long way here. These quantities should be enough for 2 large lasange or to dress pasta for 8 people. I hope you enjoy Francesco’s version of his hometown’s most famous dish as much as we do.

1 carrot, 1 celery stalk, 1 onion, diced very, very small

1 lb ground beef

1 lb ground pork

1/2 lb pancetta, finely diced

1 cup red wine

½ cup tomato puree (passata)

1 – 2 cups milk (or more)

chicken stock (if desired)

a big pad of butter

In a large pot, fry the onion, celery and carrot (the soffritto) in olive oil over low-medium heat until browning. Take your time – it should take about 15 to 20 minutes – and let all the juices out.

Add all the meat, breaking it up with the back of a wooden spoon, then immediately add the wine. Turn up the heat and ook until you can’t smell the alcohol anymore and the wine is mostly evaporated. Add the tomato passata, stir really well and cook about 20 minutes more, turning down the heat to low.

When the ragù becomes dry, add butter, milk and, if you want, a dash of chicken stock, and stir again to make sure nothing’s sticking to the bottom. You can finish now or you can keep cooking it like this all day if you want, just keep adding dashes of milk and/or chicken stock if the ragù becomes very dry and make sure no sauce is burning to the bottom of the pot. When all is said and done, the ragù should be relatively dry. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg (if desired) to taste. (It’s best made a day or two ahead and kept in the fridge – or in the pot on the stovetop – until you’re ready to use it.)

Serve over tagliatelle or another pasta with grated parmigiano. If it’s too dry when you mix it with the pasta, add a generous chunk of butter. Or layer with lasagna noodles and parmigiano and top with a bechamel for a traditional lasagna.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Kath permalink
    February 14, 2011 7:37 am

    I ordered this tonight, in Bologna. And then I came home to find this post!

    • February 14, 2011 9:24 am

      You being in Bologna inspired me to write about it! We wish we could be there with you!

      • Kath permalink
        February 15, 2011 3:13 am

        I wish you guys were here too! One more night = one more delicious dinner.

  2. Brenna permalink
    February 17, 2011 4:01 am

    So I’m at Lobo last night and I see a bottle of passata and I’m like, “this will come in handy when I make ragu!” I guess this means I need to buy meat too.

  3. June 24, 2013 4:15 am

    How do you reheat the thawed ragu properly?

    Thanks for the butter tip, by the way. I was wondering why my ragu ended up too dry when being mixed with pasta.

    • June 24, 2013 7:52 am

      To reheat frozen ragu, you can let it defrost overnight in the fridge or for a few hours on the counter. If you’re in a hurry, you can plop the frozen block of meat sauce into a pan and gently heat. While it’s reheating in a pot/pan, add some butter if it looks like it’s sticking to the bottom at any point. Hope this helps!


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