Usually made with minced beef, white wine and just a small amount of tomato, ragù alla Bolognese is certainly the most internationally popular, with Neapolitan ragù being severely under-appreciated elsewhere in the world – apart from areas in the United States, which have adopted the dish as the precursor for classic ‘Sunday Gravy’. It’s an absolute tragedy that Neapolitan ragù is so often overlooked, however, as like Neapolitan lasagne, I believe it’s far superior to the Bolognese version.
Contrasting the version synonymous with Bologna, Neapolitan ragù is typically based with larger cuts of meat, which are often less expensive – or were at least considered economical when the dish was first cooked by lower class Italians hundreds of years ago. The ragù also has plenty of tomatoes, which are less common in northern variants of the dish. But given the exemplary quality of tomatoes grown in the region of Campania, that’s hardly surprising.
Knowing Neapolitan ragù typically contains fewer ingredients than ragù alla Bolognese, there’s nowhere to hide so buying the best quality ingredients possible is absolutely crucial. San Marzano tomatoes are an absolute must if available. Some recipes call for the tinned tomatoes to be pureed using a food mill, while others leave them whole. I like to use a mixture of both, which lends textural depth to the overall dish.
Turning our attention to the meat aspect of the dish, some Neapolitan ragù recipes call for beef or braciole, this recipe uses pork ribs, veal chops (shin of beef or ossobuco can be used as a good alternative) and Italian sausages. Sweet Italian sausages are ideal, but spicier versions also work well. Again, it’s worth using a variety if possible.
Large meatballs aren’t included in this Neapolitan ragù recipe, but they can certainly be added during the last hour or so of cooking to lend an Italian-American ‘Sunday Gravy’ accent to the dish.
Elsewhere, the preparation is fairly simple. Like most ragù preparations, the meat is browned and cooked with onions, garlic and wine, with the tomatoes added alongside fistfuls of basil. It’s then simmered slowly for two or three hours until the veal and pork ribs are fall-apart tender and the sauce thickens. As tradition dictates, it’s also served in two courses. The sauce is strained and mixed with al dente pasta such as rigatoni, paccheri or spaghetti, while the meat is reserved and eaten as a second course, ideally with crusty bread to mop up the final dregs of gravy.
- 500 g veal chops alternatively use ossobuco or shin of beef
- 1 rack pork ribs cut in half
- 500 g Italian sausages
- 1 onion finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 4 x 400g tins good-quality tomatoes ideally San Marzano
- 1 small bunch basil leaves ripped
- 250 ml red wine
- 1-2 tsp sugar to taste
- 500 g pasta such as rigatoni, paccheri or spaghetti
- Parmigiano Reggiano grated, to taste
- 1 tbsp lard
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Crusty bread for the second course (optional)
- Begin by dicing the onions and slicing the garlic as finely as possible. Optionally use a food mill or knife to puree the tomatoes. I like to keep two tins whole while pureeing the other two, but feel free to puree all four.
- In a large, heavy based saucepan, heat the lard until melted. Season the veal with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook over medium-high heat until lightly browned on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside on a large plate or platter.
- Season the ribs then add to the pan and cook until lightly browned on all sides. Remove and place on the plate with the veal.
- Next, add the sausages to the pan and sear until lightly browned. Remove from the pan and place on the plate with the veal and ribs.
- Drain off around 2/3 of the fat, then add a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil to the pan. Set the heat to medium-low and add the onion. Cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and continue to cook for a 30 seconds or so, until fragrant but not burnt. Pour the wine into the pan, increase the heat and cook until reduced by around 3/4.
- Return the veal, ribs and sausages to the pan, followed by the tomatoes. Add a splash of water to each of the tins to loosen up the remaining sauce, then pour approx. two tins worth of water into the pan. Add half of the ripped basil leaves and a teaspoon of sugar. Bring to a gentle boil, then cover and reduce the heat to a simmer.
- Simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally, then remove the lid and add the remaining basil. Cook uncovered for another hour, stirring more often, then taste and add more salt or sugar if need be.
- Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions, until al dente.
- While the pasta is cooking, use a slotted spoon or sieve to remove all of the meat from the ragù, leaving behind just the sauce.
- Once the pasta is cooked al dente, reserve the cooking water, then add the drained pasta to the tomato sauce. Stir until all pasta is covered, then add a little pasta water to loosen the sauce.
- Portion the pasta into bowls and finish with some parmesan and a crack of black pepper. Reserve the meat and serve as a second course, ideally with crusty bread.
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