Mama Knows Best
“Listen to me very closely,” said Giovanni Serrazanetti, the owner of Cantina Bentivoglio in Bologna, Italy. “Never—and I mean ever—eat spaghetti Bolognese. It’s always with tagliatelle.”
This, I was learning, was the first rule of Bolognese ragù. How anyone started eating the tomato-laced meat sauce with spaghetti instead of the long, more rectangular tagliatelle is anyone’s guess. The first published recipe for ragù with tagliatelle appeared in 1868. An 1891 cookbook opened the door to lasagna and other maccheroni (handmade pasta). But if you were sitting across from a guy named Serrazanetti, which translates as “testicle crusher” in an old Emilian dialect, you’d obey his rule of Bolognese.
I was eating my way through what is possibly the most food-loving city in Italy. It’s not called Bologna la Grassa (“the Fat”) for nothing. The city of about 400,000 people in the Emilia-Romagna region ( just north of Tuscany) is famous for its lasagna, tortellini, and mortadella (an imitation of which Americans call baloney). But it’s the ragù, paired, of course, with long, flat tagliatelle pasta, that stirs up emotions among locals.
For example, a few hours after chatting with Serrazanetti and sampling his chunky, buttery, unctuously rich Bolognese sauce, I found myself in front of Alessandra Spisni, head of La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese cooking school and a “kitchen master” on the popular Italian TV food show La Prova del Cuoco (Test the Chef). I described the ingredients of the sauce I’d just eaten at Mr. Testicle Crusher’s restaurant, which included a fusion of beef and pork.
“Una fantasia!” (roughly, “Bogus!”), she screamed. “Using pork is una fantasia.” After Spisni calmed down, she explained that centuries ago people didn’t have access to olive oil in this part of Italy, so they cooked the ingredients in pork lard. That was the only pork that should be in a Bolognese sauce. The meat, she said, should be exclusively beef. Specifically, it should be the neck. “The neck has much more blood in it,” she said, “so it is tender and delicious.” And so I learned the second rule of Bolognese ragù (at least according to Spisni): only beef.
The other ingredients rarely change, as I discovered at Le Sfogline, a pasta shop in the center of Bologna. There, Monica Venturi, 49, her sister, Daniela, 55, and their mother, Renata, 80, make ragù for their hand-cut tagliatelle and savory lasagna.
The secret, Monica said, is patience: “If you don’t wait for it to cook, nothing will be right.” She allowed me to practice patience as I watched part of the three-and-a-half-hour process. Although a Bolognese ragù recipe can become a family secret, Monica did not keep hers closely guarded.
I had to ask, what’s the best ragù in town?
“Mine,” she said. “And after that, my mama’s.”
Rule No. 3: If you’re asked who makes the best ragù, always mention someone’s mama.
(SERVES 8 )
Based on a recipe by Alessandra Spisni, adapted from Bolognese Cooking Heritage by Barbara Bertuzzi
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 large carrot, finely diced
2 large stalks celery, finely diced
1/4 cup lard
1 pound beef (neck or shin meat), minced
Salt and pepper (to taste)
1/2 to 1 cup red wine
3 cups tomato puree
Water or beef stock, as needed
1. Brown the diced vegetables in lard in a saucepan on medium heat until the mixture turns a light hazel color. It is ready when you do not smell individual ingredients but rather a single aroma.
2. Add the minced beef to the saucepan and brown over high heat. Add salt and pepper
and stir gently. The meat and vegetables will gradually become the same color.
3. Add the wine and continue stirring until you can no longer smell the meat separately from the wine.
4. Add the tomato puree, lower the heat, and allow the ragù to simmer, stirring every now and then, for about two hours.
5. Thin the sauce with water or beef stock, if necessary.
WHERE TO EAT BOLOGNESE RAGÙ IN BOLOGNA
A rustic subterranean enoteca and osteria, Bentivoglio is home to a world-class jazz club. It is even more famous for its rich Bolognese tagliatelle and lasagna, as well as other local specialties. Via Mascarella 4/B, 39/51-265-416, cantinabentivoglio.it
La Vecchia Scuola Bolognese
At Alessandra Spisni’s cooking school and restaurant, travelers can learn to make pastas, breads, broths, and ragù, or simply eat lunch. Either way, book in advance. Via Galliera 11, 39/51-649-1576, lavecchiascuola.com
In the small takeout shop she runs with her sister and mother, Monica Venturi sells homemade, melt-in-your- mouth meat-filled tortellini and ragù-filled lasagna. Via Belvedere 7/B, 39/51-220-558
Where to Stay
If you travel to Bologna to taste Bolognese ragù, book a room at Hotel Corona d’Oro. Via Oberdan 12, 39/51-745-7611, hco.it
Photos by Andrea Wyner. This appeared in the March/April 2013 issue.