This is Giusppe's Aunt's recipe for meat sauce. It is generally served on Sundays and is the perfect compliment to penne.
The first time I experienced Neapolitan Ragu was after attending a three hour long Sunday procession of the Madonna in Naples. While I enjoyed the mass, this dish felt like the ultimate reward for my three hours of Sunday penance parading behind a very large, disturbingly life-like statue of the Virgin Mary. Ragu is a typical Sunday dish throughout Southern Italy, and now that I have learned to make it, Giuseppe and his family have entrusted me with its preparation every Sunday. Of course what they don't realize is that making this dish is the perfect excuse for not attending three hour long masses. I make the Ragu with Giuseppe's 88 year old mother and we watch mass on TV. It's the perfect solution for everyone. The family eats, and thanks to the national television broadcast of Sunday mass in Italy, my eternal soul is not in jeopardy.
Neapolitan Ragù is one of my foundational recipes in that it can be easily adapted to utilize many types and cuts of protein, contains pantry staples and can be repurposed for other dishes such as pasta al forno, a recipe I will also share. Once you have learned this technique, you can adapt it to what is cheap, seasonal and available at your market.
Neapolitan ragù differs from Bolognese style ragù in two main ways. First, it contains whole chunks of meat rather than ground meat and second, it uses a greater amount of tomatoes as the tomato season in Naples lasts far longer than in Bologna, which is further north. This is a true peasant dish. The meat used is of a tougher, more inexpensive variety. Long simmering breaks down the tough cut making it fork tender and the perfect accompaniment to ridged pasta such as penne rigate (please, don't be tempted to serve this with spaghetti!)
*Note: This recipe is based on the Sunday tradition of serving a large group of ravenous people and will serve at least eight normal people and probably four Neapolitans. You can halve the recipe if you prefer. You can also use what remains to make our recipe Pasta al Forno following day.
- Ground pepper
- 3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 lb beef stew meat such as beef chuck, cut into 1" cubes.
- 3 oz. diced pancetta (cured pork belly) guanciale (cured pork jowl) or bacon if you must
- 2 finely diced shallots or one finely diced Vidalia onion
- 1 finely minced garlic clove
- 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes ( or more or less to taste)
- 1 cup red wine
- Two 8 oz cans of peeled whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano, but any kind that are not pre-seasoned or fire roasted are suitable)
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- 1lb penne rigate (preferably de cecco brand)
- A few healthy gratings of Reggiano Parmesan (or Grana Padano which is less expensive but similar in texture and flavor)
- 6 fresh basil leaves cut into ribbons chiffonade style for garnishing
- Heat olive oil in a large 6qt heavy bottomed sauté pan (make sure you have a tight fitting lid for later or worst case scenario, be prepared to later cover your pan tightly with foil) over medium-high heat.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels to remove any moisture. Season the meat with salt and ground pepper and brown both sides in your heated pan. When the meat hits the pan it should sizzle. If it does not sizzle, it means your pan is not hot enough. Alternatively, if your pan is too hot, the olive oil will start smoking and, then well, you can start a nice little kitchen fire. Just keep the pan on medium/high heat, throw in one cube of beef as a test and if it makes a friendly but not aggressive sizzle, add the rest of your beef. The beef should fit in one layer with plenty of space in your pan. Based on the size of your pan, you may need to brown the meat in two sets. If your meat is over crowded it will steam and not brown which is no good for this sauce. (If you want to know why from a more authoritative scientific source than me, go look up Harold McGee + Maillard Reaction.)
- Once you have browned all of your beef, remove and place in shallow bowl so as to collect accumulated juices. Turn the heat slightly down to medium and add diced pork to the pan, allowing it to render fat but not brown (about three minutes).
- Add diced onion to pork, coat in fat and cook until translucent, but not brown, (about three to five minutes depending on how finely you have diced your onion). Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent browning.
- Once the onion is translucent and NOT one moment before, add the garlic. If you add the garlic too soon it will quickly burn and ruin your entire sauce. If there is one way to ruin a meal and simultaneously piss off the entire country of Italy, it is too serve sauce with burnt garlic. Stir the garlic in the pork/onion mixture for about 60 seconds. If the garlic is starting to turn golden, add the wine, like, NOW!
- Now that you have a mixture of fat, onion and garlic in your skillet, you have what is called a soffritto in Italian. Slowly add the wine to your soffritto. Deglaze the pan by stirring with a wooden spoon to release all the brown bits that are probably sticking to it by now. The wine should reduce by one half.
- When your wine is finished reducing, return the beef and its accumulated juices to the pan and add the whole tomatoes and their juices.
- Add the oregano, bay leaf (and if you have it, the outer rind of parmesan cheese), stir the beef to coat with sauce mixture and bring to a boil.
- Once you have brought your ragù to a boil, lower the heat to a faint simmer, cover and cook for three hours. Ever so occasionally stir the sauce with a wooden spoon and break down the whole tomatoes as you stir. If you find that your ragù is drying out a bit you can add ½ cup of cold water and stir to incorporate. (NOTE: if you want to make this sauce in a slow cooker you can prepare through this step and then put in the slow cooker according to manufacturer instructions: generally on low setting for six hours and high setting for three hours. Don’t worry about stirring throughout braising process with this method but make sure to break up the tomatoes when the sauce is done slow cooking).
- When your ragù has simmered for about three hours, it’s time to bring your pasta water to a rolling boil. Add salt to the boiling pasta water. For most Italians, the rule of thumb is 1 liter of water for every 100 grams of pasta, and add to that 10 grams of salt (known as the 1000/ 100/ 10 ratio of water/pasta/salt). If you want to actually measure out your water, salt and pasta go for it. I just bring a lot of water to boil, add a generous amount of salt and test to see if the water tastes brackish.
- Once the salted pasta water is boiling viciously, add the penne, stir with wooden spoon so they don’t stick together and cook to al dente (usually about ten minutes for penne, and you can always taste the pasta if you are unsure). Do not be tempted to add olive oil to your boiling water. It will create an oil slick that will prevent the ragù from adhering to the pasta. You only add olive oil to fresh pasta, which is more delicate and has a tendency to clump together without the aid of olive oil.
- When your penne is cooked to al dente, drain it immediately and reserve about five tablespoons of pasta water.
- Uncover your ragù, remove the bay leaf/ parmesan rind. Now add the drained penne and the reserved pasta water immediately (do not allow the pasta to rest and thusly become flaccid in a colander).
- Raise the heat to medium high and stir with a wooden spoon to coat penne with sauce. If you are dexterous in the wrist, instead of stirring the pasta to coat you can flip it in the pan (this is the preferred Neapolitan method). Stir and cook for about one minute. This step of mixing the pasta and ragù is critical as it coats the pasta with the sauce and creates a unified dish.
- Plate your penne ragù (I prefer using a shallow bowl), add a few gratings of Parmesan to taste, basil garnish and serve warm with bread.