Don’t Call It Spaghetti Bolognese

It is true, my friends, that what you have always considered a wonderful dish—Spaghetti Bolognese—does not exist in the land where it supposedly was conceived.  Don’t get me wrong. Italy has spaghetti, and Italy has bolognese sauce. Italy does not, however, have Spaghetti Bolognese, and ordering it will probably get you, at best, a dirty look from the waiter or, worse, a little lecture.  Let me burst your culinary bubble further: Tomatoes are NOT the base for a bolognese sauce. They play a very minor roll in the dish.

So, you may ask, what the heck is a bolognese sauce, and with what kind of pasta do Italians eat it?  Thank you for asking, and let me answer the questions in reverse order.

Lambrusco (secco) is the wine of Emilia-Romagna.

Most Italian chefs and cooks would tell you that pairing the correct pasta with a sauce can either enhance or detract from the meal.  The lighter the sauce, the finer the pasta should be. The heavier the sauce, the more substantial the pasta should be. Tagliatelle, a ribbon-like pasta that is able to hold the heavy sauce better, is what originated  with the dish. Tagliatelle is similar to fettuccine, but a little more narrow. If you can’t find tagliatelle, you can always substitute fettuccine, linguine, pappardelle, stringozzi or even some of the tube-shaped pastas. Angel hair is a “no-no.”

I took a cooking class in Bologna a few years ago simply because I wanted to learn to make authentic Bolognese sauce. Davide, the chef who taught our class, emphasized that Bolognese sauce takes a good three hours to prepare correctly. Of course, we did and you can cook it more quickly, but it will not have the intense flavor that the more slowly cooked sauce would have. You’ll note by the ingredients below that it is a meat-based sauce that includes a few vegetables. The traditional recipes call for no herbs—especially garlic—except for salt, pepper, and a bay leaf which adds a little depth to the sauce.

Fresh is best.


(This made enough for the 8 people in the class.)
1 carrot finely diced
1 celery stalk finely diced
1/2 onion finely diced
A little less than 1 small can of tomato paste*
2.25 pounds of ground beef and pancetta  (Use 80% for the correct taste and consistency.)
.25 pound of pancetta, finely diced and mixed with the ground beef.  (You can substitute bacon.)
Red or white wine (About a cup or so)
Vegetable or beef stock (About 2-3 cups)
Olive oil

*NOTE: Davide (the chef) used concentrated tomato paste from a tube. He chose it because the flavor was stronger than that of the can, and he said that since he was not cooking the sauce for three hours, he needed the added flavor. The amount he used seemed to be just shy of what is in a small can in the States.

You will also note that this recipe does not include garlic. That is not a mistake. When one of the students asked Davide if he was going to add garlic to the sauce, Davide replied, “NEVER.”

Dice the vegetables into small pieces.

Wash and dry all of the vegetables.  Peel the carrots and remove the strings from the celery.  Finely dice the carrots, onions, and celery.  The pieces should not be more than a quarter-inch square.

Diced Vegetables
The vegetables cook first.

Coat the bottom of a large casserole with olive oil and heat over a low fire.  Add the vegetables and cook them until the onions are almost translucent.

Add the meat.


Break up the meat mixture and add to the casserole. Continue stirring with a wooden spoon until the meat cooks through.

Bolognese mixture
Cook the meat thoroughly and add liquid to keep it from drying out.

Once the meat is fully cooked, add the wine (You can substitute vegetable or beef stock for wine, if you prefer.).  After the wine evaporates, add salt and pepper to taste.  It is important not to add it until the meat has cooked and the alcohol has evaporated because adding it too soon will make the dish salty.

Add tomato paste to finish.

Mix in the tomato paste, add the bay leaf and about 1 cup of stock.  Cover and simmer over a low heat for three hours.  After 20-30 minutes, remove the bay leaf.  Stir the sauce occasionally, and add more stock if the sauce is too thick.

When the sauce is done, divide it into two parts. Add the pasta to one of the pans of sauce and toss.  Divide onto the plates, and top with sauce from the other pan.  Serve with parmigiano and a nice red wine.  Lambrusco is a red wine of the Emilia-Romagna region and, if dry, is wonderful with Tagliatelle Bolognese.



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