Every cuisine has its signature sauce, and the staple of northern Italy’s Bologna is a thick, full-bodied meat sauce. Ragu, as the Bolognese call their celebrated sauce, is characterized by a mellow, gentle, comfortable flavor that marries gastronomically well with a broad noodle slightly wider than fettuccine known as tagliatelle.
In her book Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan devotes three pages to the preparation of Bolognese Meat Sauce. Hazan emphasizes that any cook can achieve the rich and mellow flavors of this classic sauce. She recommends using meat that is not too lean, as the more marbled it is, the sweeter the ragu. I like to use a combination of ground beef, venison and pork. Ground turkey, chicken, veal and even rabbit would work also. The addition of a cured meat like chopped bacon, pancetta or pepperoni enhances the richness of this pasta sauce.
Cooking the meat in milk before adding the wine and tomatoes mellows their acidic bite. Hazen also recommends using a very heavy pot that retains heat. I find that an enameled cast-iron pan works best. Aluminum pots or ones with reactive surfaces should never be used, as the acidity of the sauce reacts with the pot, creating a bitter aftertaste.
The final stage of preparation for Bolognese Meat Sauce is in the cooking. A proper ragu is never rushed and takes several hours to cook. With a good, heavy pot this is a very forgiving sauce that will simmer gently on the back of the wood stove, perfuming the house with its heady, meaty fragrance. You can turn the heat off whenever you need to leave it, and resume cooking when you return.
Bolognese Meat Sauce safely stores in the refrigerator for several days. This recipe makes a large batch, and freezes extremely well. Use this ragu to prepare lasagna, or toss with tortellini, rigatoni or fusilli. After a long, winter day away from home, nothing restores the soul quite like a good plate of pasta with Bolognese Meat.