Sunday, March 18, 2012

Italian Ragu through generations.

Grandmother Marianna and Granfather Paolo Rapolla
My aunt Grace, and my mother Addolorata

Heirloom tomatoes ready for roasting 

My Grandmother made her ragu sauce with rabbit from her cellar, tomatoes she grew herself from seeds passed down from her mother's mother, and tomato paste she preserved after the harvest of tomatoes.  Her onions, garlic, basil and bay leaves came from her farm.  The rabbit stew, her meat ragu, was always redolent of garlic and basil, and for hours, until the meat melted away from the bones, we smelled that ragu all the way down the street, anticipating the call that would come for dinner at about one 'clock.

She moved hot coals from a big fireplace that warmed the entire house,  positioned the coals under a grate, placed the iron pot over the grate, and proceeded to make her ragu early in the morning, to be ready for the pranzo at one, when everyone had returned from Mass and relatives could all join together.

Her Sunday Meal was invariably rabbit ragu on a bed of home-made pasta, with home made cheese.

My mother (the little one on her father's knee) started the ragu the same way, and for years, before a gas stove appeared in our kitchen, she followed the same steps, even raising her rabbits in the cellar. After the gas stove arrived, and Father got a real job outside of farming, she stopped growing rabbits, and began to use sausages (which she made every year)  to make the ragu. She grew  the rest of the ingredients. The pasta and a piece of parmigiano cheese came from the local grocery store.

When I got married (by then, I had moved to America), I made my ragu with ground beef, adding Italian sausages I purchased at an Italian grocery store, and tried a variety of canned tomatoes and paste until I found those I liked.  I grew my own basil most of the time, but everything else, came from that special grocery store.

My daughter is vegetarian, and her ragu is a mix of heirloom tomatoes from her CSA, which she roasts and freezes for off season. She uses basil also from her CSA and makes pesto which she adds to her ragu for that sparkly basil taste.  She adds hot pepper flakes and toasted fennel seeds to the sauce, her way of re-constructing my Italian sausage taste. She uses the same rigatoni pasta.

Here is my recipe for Meat Ragu:

Ingredients for four servings:
1 lb ground beef
1 link of Italian sausage with fennel and hot peppers, cut in small pieces
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 big can of plum tomatoes (I use Progresso)
1 small can of tomato paste (Contadina)
2 T olive oil
1C red wine (same one as you drink for this dinner)
2 T chopped fresh basil ( use a pinch of dried if fresh not available)
2 Bay leaves
1 beef bouillon cube
water as needed
salt and pepper as needed

Saute the chopped onion with the two tablespoons of olive oil. Add the ground beef, breaking it up as it browns. Remove the onions and beef and set aside. Brown the sausage. Add the garlic and saute for a few seconds. Add the tomatoes, reserving the liquid.  Cook them down until broken down.  Return the onions and the beef to the pot and add one cup of red wine. Cook down for a few minutes.
Add the tomato paste and stir until all combined.
Add the reserved liquid and stir.
Add 1/2 cup of water or more until the consistency is what you prefer on your pasta. I like my sauce thick, so no more than 3/4 cup of water is added.
Add the bay leaves and the bouillon cube and lower the temperature to simmer for 20+ minutes.
Just before serving over pasta, add the basil.



  1. Sounds wonderful. I will have to try it.

  2. Sally, let me know how you like it.

  3. I wish I lived in your town so I could invite myself over for a meal. I would contribute the wine or bread!

  4. I'll come too, if I may and bring dessert!

  5. what a wonderful tradition. I love that the tomato seeds were handed down for generations. I don't even know when or how to collect tomato seeds. we bought our little plants from our next door neighbor who gets them at the wholesale nursery. Next year I'd like to grow heirloom tomatoes though.

  6. Love this post! Your words placed me right in your grandmother's cellar and evoked the sense of place and even the smell of my grandmother's cellar...where she had an old stove and shelves of canned goods and strings of drying garlic.

  7. I like the sound of the veggie version :)