Travelling through Italy it soon becomes obvious that the country’s food culture is inspired more by comune than region. When that comes to the famed Ragù Napolitano, emotions run high. This earthy, rich red sauce for pasta was always only ever eaten at home on Sundays after Mass. When it reaches the table, three days cooking comes to its climax.
The cooking is slow – some call it a ragù that starts over a candle flame. Neapolitans have a word to describe the sound we should expect from Ragù as it cooks – pippiare, as in ‘pip, pip, pippiare’, or in English ‘pop, pop’.
The sauce and stew begin as a mixed pot of meats. With the Sunday Ragù Napoletano, pasta and meat are served separately. It is substantial and each at table will have their favourite pieces – from pork rib to sausage to pork rinds.
There is no prescriptive recipe – just a technique refined over the years. Even the pasta shape has stories to tell.
Guiseppe di Martino, head of his family’s Pastificio Di Martino, tells of how there is a different recipe for this Ragù for every building in Naples.
When I say every floor, Guiseppe nods agreement. His family’s pastificio has been in Gragnano since 1911 – this is the town sitting 33 kms to a south of Naples which was granted IGP status as the Città dell Pasta in 2013 after 500 years of pasta making (exactly that – the town of pasta)
The pasta shape is zitelle – a cross between bucatini and candele – a long pasta extruded like a pipe. Zitelle is a bit direct – it describes ladies of certain age, spinsters if you will, who stayed back from the main Sunday morning mass so as to have food ready when the family returned for lunch. They would have gone to an early mass whereas the younger, eligible girls went mid-morning with an eye on meeting their future husbands. Italians around Naples and Gragnano have no cynicism nor malice in telling this story which itself brought about the name of the pasta shape – Zitelle.
The pasta would be broken into manageable lengths and these would be the width of the ladies’ knuckles as they snapped the dry pasta. This pre-dates pasta shapes – indeed the ever popular penne shape takes the same idea, but the knuckle width is that of a child’s hand. That penne resembles a quill nib is by the way.
Back to the Ragù which was inspiration for Eduardo di Filippo’s 1978 film comedy ‘Saturday, Sunday and Monday’ starring Sophia Loren. I was sent this poem of his to share:
The sauce that I like
it was only me mama.
Since I married you,
I talk a lot to talk about. ‘
I’m not difficult;
But let’s get this habit
Yeah, okay: as you want.
Now we would also like to argue?
What do you say? This sauce is?
And I eat it so much for me to eat …
But I do say the word? …
This is meat with tomato.
So to work re-creating this classic of the real Naples. We start with the meat – cheap cuts like pork ribs, pork neck or shoulder (hand & spring), forequarter beef (clod & sticking), pancetta, cotica (pork skin) and Italian sausage (salsiccia fresca) flavoured with fennel seed. Ends of salami, prosciutto crudo skin and lardo are welcome in the pot too. The balance of fat to lean is important as we don’t want an overly fat sauce, but at same time want the depth and unctuousness of the ribs, pork skin, sausage and olive oil.
All is cut into mouth size pieces and then let to brown in olive oil. I find always best to do a few pieces at a time so as not to overcrowd the pan and so reduce the heat. In all I had some 6-7 lbs of meat – maybe more with the rib bones.
A trick learned from Guiseppe di Martino was that the rib bones not only add flavour – and their meat is PDG too – but they are also the marker of when the meat is perfectly cooked in the final moments of the Ragù because the meat will slide off a clean rib bone.
Next fry off 4-5 diced red onions, lid on/lid off, until softened and near transparent – I allow minimum 20’, others say less. Add 3-4 coarsely chopped garlic cloves half way through. When cooked, grate in some nutmeg.
Return the meats to the pan – I use a large, old and chipped orange Le Creuset which has its dangerous hot spots to keep the cook cautious. Add a bottle of white wine. I chose a Fiano wine to stay in spirit of place – Greco and Falaghina from Campana are not too hard to find in London. Any affordable Italian dry white with some backbone will lift the Ragù, but remember all the while, if it’s not good enough to drink, it’s not good enough to cook with.
When the alcohol has cooked off, add 5 cans of Italian plum tomatoes and their juice. Check the taste and add a level teaspoon of sugar if the tomatoes need an extra lift. Cook on slowly for 2 hours – then carefully squash each tomato with the back of a fork.
Now the slow cooking really begins. Cook on the lowest flame for 4-5 hours – even cover with a cartouche (folded wax paper seal) and lid, then bake in the oven at 100°C for same time. Some tell me this Ragù takes three days; others tell me many hours, with stories of grandmothers getting up at 4am to start the dish for lunch that same day. Personally, I like all long cooked meat dishes to rest for a day before finishing. My Welsh grandmother taught me that and she would have loved this dish.
Now break your Zitelle ( or the larger bore ‘Candele’) into knuckle length pieces. Cook these in a large pan where the water has been brought to the boil from cold – never, ever use hot water from the tap. Add a good 3-4 generous pinches of sea salt. Cook until just short of ‘al dente’ – there should be the final ring of raw dough as you taste.
Here’s another thing from Mr di Martino. Pasta made with durum wheat has a memory – it will not fall apart unless the cook is a fool. Instead, it will return to its extruded shape minutes after cooking ‘al dente’ – this they call torna indietro when we add the al dente pasta to finish cooking off in the sauce – any sauce.
This is a family dish best served on Sundays when there is time to enjoy the pasta and then the meat. Some may take choice pieces of the meat and eat them in between forkfulls of pasta.
Some is important with the Ragù Napletano because some say no two apartment blocks, streets or families work from the same recipe. The worst scenario is having a Ragù judged as ‘just meat and tomatoes’ as in Eduardo di Filippo’s poem.
NOTE: Best never to be tempted to cook with cheap pasta that’s made from other than durum wheat (grano duro). Seek out varieties like Di Martino, Faella, Garofalo and others made in Gragnano and you will not be disappointed. Remember hard wheat grows south of Rome, so the best pasta tends to be made in South Italy, with of course inevitable exceptions. More on pasta another time.