On this Columbus Day, for some reason I started thinking about my childhood. My passion for food began early, and most of my culinary Ur-memories lead me back to Sunday dinners at nonna Angelina’s place. About noontime, after Sunday Mass, the family would congregate around the enormous table (or so it seemed to my young eyes) that took up most of the main room of my grandparents’ New York apartment. The men and boys would sit around the table, talk, watch TV and play cards—my favorite card game was called scopa (literally, ‘broom’, but we called it ‘sweep’ in English)—while we nibbled on fried vegetables, sharp provolone and the ring-shaped, lard-laced ‘Ansonia’ bread, and sipped a little sweet vermouth. Meanwhile, Angelina and the other womenfolk would be putting the finishing touches on the food in the kitchen.
Then, just as I would be getting really antsy for the ‘real’ food, out came the pasta—sometimes a large bowl of pastasciutta but more often than not a sprawling baking dish filled with lasagne di carnevale, followed by a leisurely parade of courses: mixed meats from the ragù, then another meat course like chicken roasted with potatoes and onions, then a green salad—served as a separate course after the meats in the Italian-American fashion—then fruit—which usually included a fennel bulb, my personal favorite ‘fruit’—and, in the Fall and Winter, a bowl of nuts in their shells. We would drink very rough homemade wine—never knew who made the stuff—which Angelina and the other older ladies would ‘cut’ with 7-Up. Finally, out came pastries—cannoli, sfogliatelle, babà al rum and that Italian-American favorite, ‘rainbow cookies’ made with marzipan, raspberry jam and chocolate. Dinner would end around 6 pm with coffee, served both ‘black’ (espresso) and ‘American’, along with small cordial glasses of Anisette. More card playing and much gossiping ensued, followed by sandwiches at 8 o’clock for those who might still be a little hungry…
The constant fixture of all of these dinners was ragù della domenica or ‘Sunday sauce’—also known as ‘Sunday gravy‘—the crowning glory of Italian American cooking. If it was not dressing the pasta, it was slathered in between the layers of the lasagne, with more served in a gravy boat for those who wanted to pour some more on top. Just about every Italo-American I know grew up with this sauce or something very much like it. It is a not-so-distant cousin of the ragù alla napoletana. Whereas the Neapolitan version is made with a single large piece of beef, its American cousin is made with various bits of pork and beef: sausages, beef or pork ribs and meatballs were always included, but you’d often find beef braciole, pig’s foot and rolled pig’s skin, and sometimes pork chops, in the pot as well, all slowly simmered for hours in tomato sauce until it was dark and unctuous and full of deep flavor.
Ragù requires slow, long cooking, but it is not hard to make. Here is the recipe for Angelina’s ragù:
Makes one large pot of sauce, enough to a crowd
For the initial browning of meats:
- 6 mild Italian sausages
- 6 pork or beef ribs
- 3-4 pork chops (optional)
- 3-4 braciole (optional)
- Lard (or olive oil)
For making the soffrito and flavoring the browned meats:
- 2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
- Salt and pepper
- Red wine (optional)
For the sauce:
- 4-5 large cans (800g/28 oz) of best quality tomatoes, whole or crushed, or passata di pomodoro
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley
- Salt and pepper, to taste
For the additional meats:
- Meatballs made using the ingredients for Angelina’s Polpettone (Italian-Style Meatloaf) and browned in olive oil
- Pig’s skin, rolled and tied into bundles (optional)
- A pig’s foot, split in half (optional)
In as big a pot or casserole as you have available, begin by lightly browning your sausages and ribs—and, if using, braciole and pork chops—in lard over medium heat. Yes, you read that right: lard. You can use olive oil if you like, but for the real taste of ragù, lard is a must. (And there is no better fat for browning, by the way.) Brown as many pieces at a time as will fit in your pot in a single, well-spaced layer. (If you crowd the pieces of meat, they will steam and not brown.) Do not rush the process; take your time and brown them gently, so they render their fat and don’t darken too much. Remove the pieces to a bowl or dish as they brown, replacing them with other pieces.
When all the pieces of meat are brown, remove any remaining in the pot and add a generous amount of chopped onion and allow it to sweat until it is quite soft. Then add a clove or two of chopped garlic and, when you can just begin to smell their aroma, add back the browned meat. Turn the meat with the onion and garlic and simmer them together gently to allow the meat to insaporire (absorb the flavor of the aromatics), seasoning with salt and pepper as you turn. (If you have some spare red wine on hand, add a splash at this point and allow it to evaporate completely. If you don’t have red wine, not to worry; Angelina actually didn’t add wine to her ragù, but many recipes call for it, and it does add a nice additional layer of flavor.)
Then add the best quality canned tomatoes that you can find (see Notes below), passing them through a food mill into the pot, enough to cover the meats entirely. (Some recipes call for tomato paste, but I find this makes the sauce too heavy.) Nestle a sprig or two of fresh parsley among the meats. Lower the heat, partially cover the pot, and let the sauce to simmer very slowly for at least 2-3 hours, until the sauce is thick and dark and very flavorful. Along the way, add your meatballs, which you will have fried separately in oil, and, if using, your pig’s foot or rolled pig’s skin.
Ragù is best made a day ahead, but you can use it immediately if you like. Extremely versatile, you can use it to dress any kind of pastasciutta—at Angelina’s place, it was usually spaghetti, linguine or rigatoni—or ravioli or for making lasagne. With pasta, serve pecorino cheese (not parmesan, whose delicate flavor would be overwhelmed by this robust sauce) for those who want it. This Columbus Day, we celebrated with linguine dressed with ragù, then the meats served as a secondo and a green salad, followed by fruits—an abbreviated modern version of the Sunday dinners of my childhood.
Ragù, along with the meat that simmered in it, is also very good served with polenta, which may sound strange, since polenta is a northern dish, while this ragù is very much in the southern Italian tradition. But, in fact, polenta is not entirely unknown in the center and south of Italy. A dish called polenta con spuntature e salsicce, polenta served with spare ribs and sausages simmered in tomatoes, which tastes very much like this ragù without the meatballs, is a popular Roman specialty. And even Angelina, a daughter of the mountains near Benevento, made polenta to please my grandfather Lorenzo, who had fought against the Austrians in the First World War (later receiving a medal for valor in the Battle of the Vittorio Veneto) and acquired a taste for the stuff while up North…but that is a story for another day.
The reader will probably have noticed that the recipe does not come with measurements. Like many traditional home cooks, Angelina never measured. But I find that using one package of around five or six sausages, as many ribs and meatballs, and one or two other meats if you like, plus two medium onions and two cloves or garlic, plus two large cans of tomatoes, will produce good results. But strict measurements are really not important—and the cook can fell free to adjust amounts as he or she likes. After all, that’s one of the ways we home cooks can give on our dishes a personal ‘touch’.
To make the meatballs, you use the same mixture of meats, bread, cheese, egg and aromatics that you will find described in the recipe for Angelina’s polpettone (meatloaf). But instead of forming a ‘loaf’ and stuffing it, use the mixture to make round balls and fry them gently in oil. They are wonderful eaten as is, but perhaps even better after simmering for an hour or so in the ragù.
Besides the use of lard, the secrets of a really good ragù are taking your time for gentle, unrushed browning and simmering—this is old-fashioned comfort food that can’t be rushed—and using the best canned tomatoes you can find. In the US, and perhaps elsewhere, the latter subject poses a special challenge, important enough to deserve its own post.
There is a raging debate among Italian-Americans about the proper way to translate ragù into English. As mentioned, some people call it ‘Sunday sauce’, others ‘gravy’. Each side holds fervently to its position. The problem is that the two languages do not use coinciding terms. In Italian, what you might generically call a ‘sauce’ in English can be translated as salsa, sugo, condimento or ragù—the last of which is a special word traditionally only used for this kind of slowly simmering meat-and-tomato sauce (although modern chefs have also come up with fish-based ragù). English, on the other hand, has the terms ‘sauce’ and ‘gravy’. ‘Sauce’ is a generic term that can be used to describe ragù, while gravy is a special word used to describe the kind of sauce that is made from the drippings of a roast. So, strictly speaking, ragù is not a gravy, but since both gravies and ragù are special kinds of sauces noted for their meatiness, you can see the logic of using one for the other. Personally, I stay out of this debate and just say ragù.