Ragù (or Sugo) di Carne
by Marlena Spieler
Whether it’s Ragù Napolitano “Classico” or “Leggere,” this richly flavored sauce is a perfect example of traditional, long, slow-cooked (slow, very slow) food, the sort of memory-filled dish that makes all Neapolitans, rich or poor, remember their childhood and nonnas or grandmothers with even just one bite; or even with just one sniff of the bubbling sauce.
Because it needs to be looked after, slowly cooked and attention paid that it doesn’t burn or scorch, it was given the name sugo della guardaporta, the doorkeeper’s sauce, as it needed someone to watch over it as it slowly, slowly, slowly bubbled its way to perfection.
Though now it has come to symbolize family food, it was no doubt created in the 19th-century kitchens by the chefs of aristocratic Naples — its abundance of meat and attention-demanding cooking method would have been beyond the means of the city’s poorer inhabitants, which meant most of the population. Its name came from the French ragout, or saucey stew. The Neapolitan ragù is exactly that: a large piece of meat simmered in either tomatoey or oniony (La Genovese) sauce unlike the ragù of other regions, which include small pieces of chopped meats and vegetables.
After unification and the lessening of nobility, food traditions such as gathering for Sunday lunch began to reach everyone’s table, with Nonna cooking for her family, taking over from the chefs who once fed their aristocratic employers.
The ragù takes a long slow simmer — 5-6 hours is optimal; mothers and grannies used to awaken at the crack of dawn to put on the ragù. If you don’t have time to cook it uninterrupted for such a long stretch of time, that is fine too: it is accepted that you can simmer it the first day, simmer it the second day, take the meat off the bones and serve it all on the third day.
Or, you can cook it a few hours, let it rest in the refrigerator overnight, and the next day simmer it again (though it might need a little water to loosen it up for further cooking). It just gets better as it sits, and as it cooks (add a little extra water, broth, or wine, to keep it from sticking or burning on the bottom).
Traditional Ragù Napoletano is served in two courses: the meat is removed from the sauce and saved for the main course, to eat with salad, or potatoes or vegetables; the sauce, well, the sauce is to go on the pasta! Bellissima!
Il Ragù Napolitano
Unlike many of the other ragùs — especially in the north — where meat is finely chopped or even ground together cooking with wine and stock to become the sauce itself, in Campania, il ragù is quite different.
Here, it is a tomato sauce, full of meaty essence (because a large chunk of meat, such as brisket, or eye of round, or pork roast, is cooked in the sauce for hours and hours and hours) but not chunky like a northern ragù (or sugo as it is sometimes called). The meat gives a huge umami layering to the sauce, then is taken out and eaten as a second course or saved for the next day’s dinner; the sauce is tossed with pasta, and eaten for Sunday lunch! Sometimes small slices of the meat are served on top.
The ragù itself remains a tomato and wine sauce made super savory with the juices of whichever meats have simmered in it. Its frugality: two courses for effort and cost of one.
At a seminar-gathering of chefs, this is the dish that had all of our fancy chefs in their tall white toques scurrying about with their forks, while gloriously fashionable Neapolitans had their forks out too; everyone was excited.
The sauce was pre-cooked — one of the chefs pointed out that “one would need three days plus a ‘nonna’ to cook a proper ragù,” so we didn’t get a recipe. The nonna part is because ragù is a dish made every week, and nonna learns from her mother, and each week she makes it and it becomes better each time she does, until it is so traditional and perfect; oh and also: she is making that sauce with a heart full of love for those she feeds.
Basically a rich red-brown tomato-meat sauce that has simmered a big chunk or roast of beef or pork, and a few other small meaty enrichments: a whole fresh sausage or two (especially with fennel), the heel end of a salami, a hunk of pancetta or guanciale, as well as braciola di cotica (cutica, or codica). The last item, pork skin (pork skin braciole, see il secondo chapter) rolled around aromatics is something that I had noted wasn’t included in modern cookbooks or food magazines, specifically American (or U.K.) ones. So, when I saw the rolls of by now-translucent, simmering pork skin, bobbing up and down in the sauce, I asked the chefs what it was and why: “Braciola di cotica“, they answered: “pork skin wrapped around aromatics.” Then they all smiled: “It’s what our nonnas did.”
The long-simmered sauce has an audio component as well: the sound of the “pippiare,” or the bubbles bursting when they gently reach the top of the sauce; the sauce should be very thick, so the pippiare is a sign that it is getting ready, and also gives you the warning to watch the temperature, monitor the sauce, and be careful the bottom doesn’t burn. A burnt bottom will ruin the entire sauce.
The ragù may take 3 days; Nonna didn’t mind — she was (is) looking forward to feeding her family: The first day to cook and simmer, the second to simmer low, perhaps in the oven, and the third, to sit and relax. Only then, when the meats slip from the bone, the chunk of roast or other meat is butter-tender, and a bit of the pork skin roll melts in your mouth at first bite, only then is the ragù ready.
As to the pasta: big thick long tubes, Candele, broken into pieces, Giuseppe di Martino of Pastaficio di Martino and president of Consorzio di Gragnano, explained this local tradition: “Long ago, purchased dry pasta was made in long big pieces to be broken up as needed: that way you could break it at any size you wished — rigatoni, penne, ziti or other fat shortish tubes — and the broken pieces with their irregular edges gave a variety of textures to the dish as well as helped thicken the sauce.
If Candele are not available, use any pasta shape you like: ragù Napoletano is good with them all; my personal favorite is Paccheri (shown above).
Recipe: Il Ragu “Leggero”
It is called a “light ragu,” because it doesn’t have the array of sausages, smoked meats, and pancetta, that the classico version does, but in reality: it’s still thick and intense, made with a chunk or two of meat, and some rolls of garlic-parsley stuffed pork skin.
How many does it serve? What kind of nonna asks such a question: it makes a nice big potful.
2 onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup or more, olive oil
2 1/2 lbs meat: beef, or pork, or both: brisket, eye of round, pork roast, whatever meat and stewing cut you like. You can use pork ribs with bone, but add more weight since the bones are heavy (but give beautiful taste to the liquid).
1 recipe for pork skin braciole (see below)
1 1/2 or so cups red or white wine, or more as desired
1 large can San Marzano tomatoes, (1 lb 12 oz), whole or chopped, plus their juices
3 cups meat broth (or water plus maybe half a bouillon cube)
Approximately 3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste, or as desired
In a heavy-bottomed big pot, lightly sauté the onions in the olive oil until the onions are softened, then add the roast (or roast and ribs), and a few braciole di cotica, a tablespoon or two of the olive oil, and cook together gently, covered, stirring from time to time, cooking over a low heat for about an hour.
Uncover and pour in a little wine, then raise the heat and let it evaporate, repeating this once or twice, then add the rest of the wine and continue to cook another 15 minutes or so.
Add the canned tomatoes and the broth, then set onto a low heat to simmer. Keep your ears alert: the sound that a good Neapolitan ragù makes while it is cooking properly is a gently bubbling plopping sound. It is said that it “spits,” or “sputters” and is called “pippiare.”
Keep cooking over very low heat, on top of the stove or in the oven, until the meat is very tender, adding more liquid as needed — you might want to add water.
You can prepare this sauce over 2 days if you like, cooking it, then stashing it in the refrigerator, than cooking it again. Because of the sugar in the tomatoes, the sauce is easily burned towards the end so should be checked frequently. Taste and if the sauce needs freshening, stir in the tomato paste, and if it is too condensed, add a little water, wine or broth.
When the meat is cooked, remove the pork skin from the sauce and set it aside; either discard or chop it for whoever likes to eat it, or for another use. Remove the chunk(s) of meat and set aside for another course or meal, though a small slice on top is very very nice.
Toss the ragù with your pasta of choice, a bit of grated cheese, and a small slice of meat on top, or not, as you like.
Pork Skin Braciole (rolls)
Lay out several slices of pork skin, trimmed of as much fat as you are able. Sprinkle each with chopped garlic and chopped parsley, then roll up and tie tightly.