When searching for the best spaghetti alla Bolognese, the first thing to be said is that by tradition it is made with tagliatelle, a pasta pretty much like fettuccine, and not with spaghetti, although it is quite commonly made with spaghetti.
Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese, as it is properly called, is one of those dishes that appears on many international menus and often made in an inferior way. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, tortellini and lasagna are some of the pastas made from sfoglia, as they are known in Bologna, that is, the “leaves” of pasta dough made from the finest white flour and eggs.
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Legend has it that the tagliatelle shape — strips of pasta about a half-inch wide — was invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. The cook was said to be inspired by the beautiful blond hair of the bride.
Despite the appeal of this apocryphal story, history tells us that tagliatelle was invented earlier. Pictorial representations of tagliatelle exist from before this date in the illustrations accompanying the various 14th- and 15th-century Latin translations of an 11th-century Arabic medical treatise, the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (Maintenance of health) written by Ibn Buṭlān, a physician in Baghdad, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitati (or Tacuuinum Sanitatis). In the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum, a list of local Emilian nomenclature for foods compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Ritinis da Reggio di Modena, the entry for something called fermentini indicates that it is cut into strips like tagliatelle and boiled.
My recipe is one of the richest enhancements of the classic ragù from Bologna, which was once much simpler. Two of my children lived in Bologna while they attended the University of Bologna and they have ideas about how to properly make the dish. The meats need to be lean, otherwise there will be too much fat in the sauce. The meat can be ground in a food processor using short bursts or pulses, resulting in a finely chopped effect. The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the preeminent organization dedicated to protecting Italy’s culinary patrimony, attempted to codify ragù alla Bolognese which, as one can imagine, engendered a good deal of controversy. To codify such a sauce is surely a Sisyphean task because cuisine is not an immutable artifact of culture but a living, changing embodiment of numerous families in a society. It’s also exceedingly difficult to separate the cooking over time of different classes to a point where one could say “this is the true one.”
A study of Renaissance cookbooks does not provide a clear antecedent of the contemporary ragout. Books from that period include ragù-like dishes, but with seasonings that still hold onto the Arab-inspired medieval spicing of rose water, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and sugar. It should also be remembered that the influence of the French may have had a greater role than the Bolognese are willing to admit since the word ragù derives from the French ragoût and Emilia-Romagna was not only Francophile but inundated with French culture over time.
The seriousness with which the Bolognese considered ragù alla Bolognese is wonderfully captured and illustrated in the 14 pages devoted to ragù in Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s “The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food” published in 1992.
Here is my recipe, recreated from the advice of Bolognese, from memory and from my many tastings.
Spaghetti alla Bolognese
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 2 1/2 hours
Total time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped
1 ounce prosciutto, finely chopped
1 ounce mortadella, finely chopped
3 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in tepid water to cover for 15 minutes, drained, rinsed and finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley leaves
1/4 pound lean beef sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)
1/4 pound lean pork tenderloin, finely chopped (not ground)
1/4 pound lean veal sirloin, finely chopped (not ground)
2 chicken livers, membranes removed and finely chopped
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup beef broth
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/4 pounds tagliatelle, fettuccine or spaghetti
1. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium-heat and cook, stirring occasionally, the pancetta, prosciutto and mortadella until the pancetta is soft and a bit rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, carrot, celery and parsley and cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables have softened and turned color, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, pork, veal, and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.
2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Once the wine has evaporated, reduce the heat to low add the tomato sauce diluted with a little water and the beef broth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer to a serving platter. Ladle the ragù on top and serve immediately. (The ragù can be frozen for up to 6 months).
Note: A simpler method is to cook the onion with the celery and carrot in the oil and butter, adding the ground beef, but not the other meats, the wine, salt and pepper, nutmeg and 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. Follow the recipe above, eliminating all the ingredients except those called for in this note.
Main photo: Spaghetti alla Bolognese. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clifford A. Wright