Sugo alla Bolognese, Bolognese Sauce: The Classic North Italian Winter Meat Sauce

Tagliatelle with Sugo alla Bolognese

Tagliatelle with Sugo alla Bolognese

You may grow old, even doddering, but if you know how to make a good meat sauce, or sugo, people will still beat a path to your door.

To make a batch to serve 4-6 you will need:

  • 6 to 8 ounces (150-200 g) ground beef – not too lean, or the sugo will be dry
  • 2 ounces (50 g) pancetta, minced (optional; if you omit it increase the beef)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • A quarter of a medium-sized onion, minced
  • A half a carrot, minced
  • A six-inch stalk of celery, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 3/4 cup crushed tomatoes or 2 tablespoons tomato paste dissolved in 1/2 cup water
  • Beef broth (If you don’t have any, dissolve half a bouillon cube in a cup of boiling water)
  • A pinch of salt
  • A slightly abundant pound (500 g) of pasta – long, short, or tagliatelle
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano (at table)

If you omit the pancetta you will want the full 8 ounces of ground beef.

If you are instead including the pancetta, mince it and the vegetables, and sauté them in a casserole or Dutch oven with the olive oil. When the onion becomes golden, add the ground meat and continue cooking until it too has browned. Stir in the wine and let the sauce simmer until it has evaporated, then add the tomatoes, a ladle of broth, and check the seasoning. Continue simmering over a very low flame for about two hours, stirring occasionally, and adding more broth if the sugo looks like it’s drying out.

Sugo will improve steadily as it cooks, and if you have the time simmer it longer – Artusi suggests one simmer it for six hours, adding boiling water or broth as necessary. When it is done it should be rich and thick.

This meat sauce will serve about six as the topping for a first course of pasta or gnocchi, or about four if served over pasta with a tossed salad on the side; in either case serve it with grated Parmigiano.

In terms of a wine I’d suggest a relatively light red such as a Chianti Colli Fiorentini or a Sangiovese di Romagna.

This is the basic recipe, learned by watching my mother-in-law make it many, many times.

Several observations:

First, it expands very well, and if you double or triple it, using some and freezing the rest, you will have taken care of several meals.

Second, it invites improvisation.

  • For example, you may wish to add a few chopped dried porcini (soak them in boiling water first, and strain and add the liquid as well), or a minced chicken liver to the sauce while it’s simmering.
  • Some cooks use the meat from a link sausage instead of pancetta, whereas others omit the pork entirely, using more beef. If you use more pork the sauce will taste sweeter.
  • Artusi instead suggests that you may want to stir half a cup of heavy cream into the sauce just before you pour it over the pasta.
  • A more substantial variation would be my mother-in-law’s bracioline al sugo, cutlets in sauce. She uses 3/4 of a pound (300 g) of ground beef, and when shopping also buys a pound (450 g) of thinly sliced cutlets – they needn’t be an expensive cut – say 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) slices from the rump or the round. Add the cutlets to the pot when you add the ground beef, adjusting the other ingredients accordingly, and cook the sugo as you normally would. When the sugo is done, and the pasta is just about ready, use a spoon to remove as much of the sauce from the pot as you can – leave what sticks to the cutlets, but not much more – and season the pasta with the sauce as a first course. Serve the cutlets as a second course, with boiled spinach you have drained and chopped, and reheated by tossing it in a pan with a quarter cup of olive oil and a minced clove of garlic.
  • When my mother-in-law is feeling more extravagant, rather than use cutlets she uses ossibuchi, veal shanks: Graziella’s Ossibuchi al Sugo, illustrated step by step

Finally A Couple Of Points:

First, though Italians invariably refer to meat sauces of this kind as Sugo alla Bolognese, this particular recipe is Tuscan.

  • With respect to Artusi’s recipe (link in Italian), which is one of those people interested in the history of Bolognese sauce turn to, this recipe includes tomato – he doesn’t – and is made with ground beef, whereas he calls for “lean veal, ideally fillet,” and says to chop it.
  • With respect to the Official Ragù alla Bolognese Recipe (link in Italian) published by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina in 1982, this does not include milk. Also, the official recipe calls for cartella di manzo,  flank brisket in English, a beef cut that is flavorful and rather fatty, and requires long cooking. They say it should be finely chopped, not ground.
  • Dr Stu’s Sugo alla Bolognese, which closely resembles the Official Recipe

Second, Garlic. A few people have wondered why I don’t call for it. As a general rule, central and north Italians put either onion or garlic into a dish, but not both. Here we have onion. You can if you want add some garlic, but go easy. Sugo should not be garlicky.


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Categories: Meat Sauces For Pasta

Author:Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Italy boasts an astonishing number of varietals, denominations, and wines, and tremendous changes are sweeping the land. New wines are being created, new DOCs are being introduced, and the existing denominations are overhauling their regulations both to reflect the practices adopted by their member wineries and to favor improvements in quality. Even the most staid and stolid region can flower seemingly overnight, emerging with exciting new wines and wineries that require rewriting the enological maps and rethinking one's positions. And, of course, recipes too, because cuisine and wine are closely intertwined and it's difficult to imagine one without the other.


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