About 15 years ago, traveling along the Italian Riviera, I'd had all I could take of the brave new Italian foods I had just discovered: walnut cream sauce and sun-dried tomatoes and gnocchi and fresh mozzarella. (Well, they were new to me, anyway.) I wanted something hearty. So as I sat one evening in a cafe in Genoa, I chucked any notions I had of being a culinary sophisticate and asked the waiter if, per favore, I might have a bowl of pasta alla Bolognese.
That was it. "You-a in Genoa!" the man screamed, arms flailing in the air. "In Genoa, you getta pasta Genovese. You want pasta Bolognese, you go to Bologna!"
What I wanted, of course, was meat sauce. But what I didn't know is that the word for meat sauce in Italy is ragu. Bolognese, the proper name of which is ragu alla Bolognese, means ragu of Bologna. Regional pride being what it is in Italy, the request I'd made was a bit like going to a friend's house for dinner and asking the mother to please make her meatloaf like my mother's.
The word ragu comes from the French word for stew -- ragout -- which in turn comes from the verb ragouter, meaning to stimulate the appetite. And indeed it does. Ragu is not a specific sauce, but rather any meat sauce cooked long and slowly, until the meat is meltingly tender and the sauce -- infused with the meat's juices -- is luscious and rich. You use it to sauce pasta, gnocchi, polenta -- or even risotto.
And every region has its version. In Trieste, ground beef ragu is redolent of fresh thyme and marjoram. In Abruzzi, ragu is often made with lamb, and on the island of Sardinia, wild boar is the standard meat used for a tomato-based ragu. Did you think ragu was just a brand of sauce in a jar? There is one that sort of looks like that: ragu alla Napoletana. In this version, large chunks of meat -- beef, pork, veal or a combination -- are cooked in tomato sauce and, traditionally, removed from the sauce and served as a second course.
Even if I had gone to Bologna for my meat sauce, as the waiter suggested, I wouldn't have recognized the Bolognese I would have been served there. While "Bolognese" is undoubtedly the most popular ragu in this country, it is also the most misunderstood. The ragu you get by that name is usually a characterless tomato sauce with pea-like bits of ground beef floating in it, bearing little resemblance to anything you'd find in Bologna. And not, in any sense, a ragu.
True ragu alla Bolognese contains no tomato sauce -- just enough fresh or canned tomato to add a hint of sweetness and another layer of flavor to a subtle, complex mix. Like all ragus, Bolognese is characterized by its long, slow cooking, which in this case starts with simmering the meat in milk (to mellow the acidity of the raw tomatoes added later) and wine (some use white, others red), after which the tomatoes are added. The whole lot is cooked together for about two hours, at what Marcella Hazan calls "the laziest of simmers" in her book "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking."
How L.A. does it
There are a number of delicious ragus at restaurants here that call themselves "Bolognese." At Valentino, chef Steven Samson makes one with hand-chopped beef. At Campanile, chef Mark Peel makes his with richly marbled prime rib cap braised like short ribs, then shredded and tossed with crispy fried trenne pasta. While these ragus are certainly complex and deeply flavored and altogether compelling, according to Hazan -- America's ambassador of Italian cuisine and herself a Bolognese -- when it comes to ragu alla Bolognese, "The meat used is ground beef. Period."
For ragu in the broader sense, it's any meat goes. Depending on the region or the season, it can be made with beef, pork, wild boar, veal, venison, duck, squab, even seafood. Or as Gino Angelini, chef at Angelini Osteria and La Terza, says: "Whatever you have on the farm." Angelini comes from Rimini, a city in Emilia-Romagna, the region of which Bologna happens to be the capital.
Angelini serves some kind of ragu at his eponymous restaurant every day, so when I wanted to make a duck ragu, I enlisted his help. The chef instructed me to start with a soffritto, in this case a mixture of chopped celery, carrot and onion, sauteed in olive oil.
Soffritto, which can also include other ingredients, such as garlic, herbs or pancetta, is the base upon which any ragu is built.
In a separate frying pan over blazing heat, he had me fry my quartered whole duck, rendering off the fat and leaving me with a nice, crisp skin. I combined the duck and soffritto, added wine, tomatoes and vegetable broth to the pan, put a lid on it and let the duck simmer, virtually undisturbed, for the next two hours. I then pulled the duck meat from the bones, chopped it and returned it -- along with its chopped liver for added richness -- to the pot, where it cooked still more to marry the sauce and the meat.