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Spaghetti Bolognese Doesn’t Exist

The Centuries-Long Search for the Perfect Ragù

“You certainly won’t find it on any menus here, and unless you enjoy provoking disdain from your waiter, it’s best not to ask for it. Go with the tagliatelle!”

How deep is your love? My love for ragù alla bolognese is so deep that I now find myself online in the wee hours of the morning, researching the best pot to cook it in. 

My earliest memories of this ultimate comfort food come from my childhood in Sydney, Australia, well before I knew Bologna was a place. My mom would bring a handsome portion of the good stuff to the dinner table in the colder months, always to the delight of my sister and me. She had spent time in Italy in her twenties, and I guess she had sampled the real thing because even to this day, I remember her version being pretty amazing. Yes, it was with spaghetti, but we’ll get onto that later.

While pursuing my career as a musician in New York City, my mate Jasper, a fellow ragù enthusiast, and I would exchange tips and ideas for the sauce with a degree of excitement that some reserve for cars, football, or hi-fi gear. It was a search for perfection. An ongoing study, tweaking the most minute details to reach a higher level of deliciousness than was achieved with the previous batch. More than ten years later, we still occasionally send each other messages about it, such as this one he sent me a few weeks ago: “Changed the game yesterday with a 4-hour bolognese.” 

As fate would have it, I now live in Bologna, and needless to say, I am upping my ragù game. I talk to locals, chefs and butchers about it almost daily, asking whether they use tomato paste or passata di pomodorored or white wine, pancetta or sausage, which cuts of meat. Etcetera. I wouldn’t say it’s an obsession, but it’s not far off. 

“Why?” you ask. “Don’t you just throw some minced meat and tomatoes together and cook them for hours?” Well, no. And if you thought it was that simple, feel free to give yourself a slap. Let’s take a moment to dive into its origins.

The Italian term ragù comes from the French ragoût, or the Old French ragoûter, meaning “to revive the taste.” When the ingredients come together and have time to blend and develop over the course of a few hours, the flavors are “revived” in that they are gently coaxed out and brought to life. Though the concept of a stew existed along the Italian peninsula since as far back as the Ancient Roman times, it would appear that Alberto Alvisi, chef for the Cardinal of Imola, near Bologna, was the first to come up with the fantastic idea of pairing the meat sauce with pasta in the late 18th century.

In the decades to follow, additional variations on the recipe appeared in cookbooks, most famously in Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene, finally claiming the dish’s territory like a flag in the ground with the name Maccheroni alla Bolognese. Artusi’s version is veal-based, incorporating a hearty meat stock to achieve the desired depth of flavor and a pinch of flour for thickness. Notably, his ragù does not include tomatoes, which were relatively new to the Italian kitchen. He suggested serving the condiment with fresh tagliatelle as an alternative to the then more common dried durum wheat pasta and insisted on finishing the dish with a generous helping of grated Parmigiano Reggiano: a match made in heaven.

Optional extras included porcini mushrooms, chicken livers, sausage, Parma ham, aromatic herbs, cream and spices such as nutmeg. Pork mince found its way into the list of ingredients, giving way to the preference for beef mince after WWII. By this time, the ragù in Emilia-Romagna was served almost exclusively with either tagliatelle or between lasagna sheets, layered with béchamel sauce, and baked, as it is today. And this brings us to the question of spaghetti.

The ragù recipe crossed the Atlantic in the early 1900s with emigrating Italians, appearing in a slightly different form–served with spaghetti. No doubt the Italians in their new homes simply used what was at hand, and spaghetti was, in fact, an already widely available commodity in the United States, unlike the more fragile, perishable tagliatelle. In 1917, the wonderfully named Julia Lovejoy Cuniberti recommended dressing “macaroni or spaghetti” with the meat sauce in her book Practical Italian Recipes for American Kitchens. And thus “spaghetti bolognese” officially became a thing. The dish’s success was meteoric, promptly appearing on menus all over New York. Its popularity spread so far and wide that it has become one of the world’s best-known dishes. In Australia and the UK, the dish is lovingly referred to in an abbreviated form, as one would refer to a friend: “Spag Bol”. It can even be found, shockingly, in a can (Chef Boyardee!). 

However, for those born and bred in Bologna, “spaghetti bolognese doesn’t actually exist,” as the former mayor, Virginio Merola, declared on Italian national radio. You certainly won’t find it on any menus here, and unless you enjoy provoking disdain from your waiter, it’s best not to ask for it. Go with the tagliatelle!

In 1982, possibly tired of hearing about strange variants, the Italian Academy of Cuisine (Accademia Italiana della Cucina) registered the ragù classico bolognese with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in an effort to nail down the recipe once and for all. The Academy limits the ingredients to minced beef cut from the shank, flank or plate, unsmoked pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, tomato purée or whole peeled tomatoes, meat stock, wine, whole milk, salt and pepper. Although it’s generally considered the most authentic recipe, just about everyone still tinkers with it somehow.

Do you go light or abundant with the soffritto? Only butter, or a mix of olive oil and butter? Some rendered pig fat? Do you chop the vegetables with a mezzaluna or put them through the food processor? Pancetta or sausage? What kind of pancetta? Only beef mince? A mix of beef, veal, and pork? Which cuts? What ratio? Any aromatic herbs? A bay leaf? Meat stock or just water? Tomato purée or tomato paste or peeled tomatoes? Tomato to meat ratio? Do you caramelize the tomato paste before deglazing the pot with the wine? What kind of wine? With or without milk? How long do you cook it for? Do you occasionally stir it or let it sit? Stovetop or in the oven? A ceramic pot or a thick-bottom aluminum pot?

These are the questions, and this is the beauty of it: there is no one “right way.” Everybody has their convictions; every grandmother has a variation; every chef has their secrets, and every friend has a favorite restaurant where they claim the ragù is transcendent. The magic lies in discovering the nuances in the seemingly infinite variables and exploring the freedom within the framework of time-honored traditions. Just please don’t eat it out of a can!

This is how I make it (today, at least).

Recipe for Ragù

Ingredients: 

  • 350 g beef mince (plate, shank, flank)
  • 250 g pork mince (loin)
  • 150 g unsmoked pancetta
  • 300 g tomato purée
  • 50 butter
  • 1 small carrot  
  • 1/2 rib celery
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 glass dry white wine 
  • 1 glass whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste, double concentrated
  • Meat stock, as necessary
  • Salt and pepper to season

Preparation

Finely dice the vegetables and place them to one side. Finely dice the pancetta. 

Melt the butter on low heat in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan. Add the vegetables, cover, and allow them to soften for a few minutes. Add the pancetta and the minced meat, raising the flame to a medium heat. Stir, and as the meat starts to brown, add the tomato paste. Add the white wine and allow the alcohol to evaporate. Add the tomato purée, a ladle of meat stock, a good pinch of salt, stir, and cover, reducing to a low heat. Allow to cook for at least two hours (I usually cook it for 3 hours). Add more stock as necessary. Towards the end of the cooking time, add the milk and season to taste. Once the desired consistency and tenderness is achieved, turn off the heat and allow it to rest for at least 10-15 minutes. Serve with fresh tagliatelle and a handful of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.