I grew up thinking that you made bolognese sauce by frying up some ground beef and mixing it with a bottle of Ragu. Understandably, I didn’t like it very much and took to saucing my pasta with cream and a variety of freshly grated cheeses like Asiago or Pecorino Romano. Enlightenment came in the form of a trip to Bologna itself. This Northern Italian city is the capital of Emilia-Romangna–the agricultural heartland of Italy. The food I ate in Italy was familiar,of course, but kicked up a thousand notches from anything I’d ever had in an Italian restaurant back home. The pizzas were crisp and paper thin, garnished with a limited number of toppings and drizzled liberally with olive oil, which always sat on the table next to the salt and pepper and other condiments. The pastas were fresh and lightly sauced in order for the true flavor of the noodles to come shining through. Dinner could just as easily mean steak or a bean stew as it did a bowl of risotto or pasta.
Before I went to Italy I had no idea that Italian food was so varied, so regional. My repertoire of Italian food was limited to pastas, and as I was a student during my time in the country, I ate a lot of pasta indeed. I’d like to say that I spent much time cooking in the tiny kitchen I shared with several other students in the large apartment by the Arno river, but the truth is I did more than my fair share of dining in restaurants, sampling an array of dishes that stunned me with their rich flavors and simplicity. My first taste of an authentic bolognese ragu took place in a trattoria close to the university in Bologna–the oldest university in the western world. My friend Nicole and I had taken a table outside facing the square, from which we were surrounded by a jumble of the kind of dusty pink buildings that characterize this beautiful city. Nicole ordered gnocchi and I the lasagna bolognese. With this lasagna everything I thought I knew about Italian food slipped away. Were the noodles any better than noodles I’d had before? Was there a bechamel in between the layers of the dish? I cannot tell you. All I remember was that meat sauce, which seemed light yet deliciously rich at the same time. At the first bite a complex melange of flavors burst across my tongue: the smokiness of good pork, the unmistakable bite of garlic and tang of onion, other notes I could not identify. Tomato, to be sure, but not the heavy acidic tomato taste that often failed to appeal to me. Maybe it was the atmosphere that heightened the experience, but at that moment I knew that I would most likely never taste a bolognese like that again.
Bolognese sauce is often thought to be a tomato-based meat sauce, as was my misconception for many years, but a true bolognese actually has very little tomato. It is also served with tagliatelle noodles instead of spaghetti, or tucked in between the layers of the green lasagna Bologna is famous for. Tagliatelle are similar to fettuccine, and are used because a broader noodle is a preferable cradle for a thick or heavy sauce. The ingredients in the authentic bolognese have even been officially named by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina: beef, pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, tomato paste, red wine, and milk.
This is not to say there are no variations, even in Bologna. Italians often use chopped pork or veal in their famous ragu, and chicken and goose liver may be added on special occasions. The onion, carrot, and celery can be cooked in butter as well as olive oil, and enrichments such as prosciutto, mortadella, and fresh porcini mushrooms when they are in season are also popular.
After reading up on this classic sauce, I was ready to ditch the cream and make an authentic bolognese. It might not be as good as the one I had in Bologna on that summer’s day oh-so-long-ago, but it sure comes close.