One morning, during my past semester abroad in Bologna, I went to breakfast with my suite-mates and a few of their friends. Each person in the group was from a different city in a different region of Italy. My roommate Connie, for example, was from an area near Milan, north of Bologna. My suite-mate Doriana, meanwhile, and her friend (whose name, unfortunately, does not come to mind) were from two southern regions: Puglia and Calabria, respectively. My third suite-mate Dora was from Caserta, a city close to Napoli. With these unique places of origin came an eclectic mix of dialects, accents, vocabularies, and attitudes even. What unified them was a sentiment: They were not enjoying their food one bit.
We had all ordered “cornetti,” as in croissants filled with chocolate, cream, or jam. But they were “dry,” according to Doriana, and if the half-eaten pastries left on the table at the end of the meal were any indication, everyone seemed to be in agreement. The coffee too, Doriana said, tasted bitter and bland. Disappointed, they all started to plan lunch.
“Ti piace pollo, Nicole?” Doriana asked. Did I like chicken?
Chicken sounded good. They apologized to me for their food-obsessed ways.
But there was no need to say sorry.
At the time, I had been in Italy for about two months, by which point I had come to know very well that food is part and parcel of the Italian experience in a very intense way. I suppose, in a sense, I had always been aware of this fact. When the majority of individuals think Italy, food is likely one of the main things that come to mind; they think of pizza, pasta, prosciutto, the gamut. However, it is hard to fathom the exact energy that Italians devote to their food until you spend time with people like my suite-mates and their friends.
In Bologna especially, all things culinary are given maximum importance. Appropriately dubbed “La Grassa” (the Fat), the city is the capital of Emilia-Romagna, a region known for its simple yet refined cuisine and home to beloved Italian exports like prosciutto di Parma, parmigiano reggiano, balsamic vinegar, and the list continues. Bologna’s own primary contribution to the gastronomic universe is well-known: ragù.
Ragù is a glorious meat and tomato-based delicacy that, in the States, is most commonly labeled bolognese sauce. One finds it in Bologna as an accompaniment to any and all foodstuffs, from tigelle (a regional bread) to such pasta-oriented classics as lasagne and tagliatelle, and if one stays in and around the city long enough it ultimately becomes a key source of sustenance.
Created by a chef who offered cooking classes to the students in my program, the recipe that follows leads to an ideal version of this classic sauce. Since coming back from Bologna a tried and true ragù addict, I rely on it often for a nostalgic and much-needed fix. Its wonder, however, can and should be enjoyed by all.
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
200g ground meat
1 stem celery, not too big
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf
1/2 glass red wine
300g passata di pomodoro (tomato purée)
Salt & pepper, to taste
1. Chop the carrot, celery, and onion very finely.
2. Put the veggies in a tall pot along with a whole garlic clove (slightly flattened), a bay leaf, and olive oil.
3. Add the sausage and cook it slowly, until browned. At this point add the ground meat, and cook it until browned, this time over high heat.
4. Add the wine. Once it evaporates, remove the bay leaf and garlic, and add the passata di pomodoro as well as salt and pepper.
5. Let the assembled ragù cook slowly for about an hour and a half.