Red Sauce Revisited

The backlash against a noble tradition has gone too far

It's easy to assume that no tomatoes in this country are anywhere near as sweet or potent as the ones Neapolitans have in their cupboards and grocery stores. I made this assumption until I tasted seven brands of imported Italian tomatoes I found here, four kinds I brought home from Naples, and several American brands. To my surprise, the Italian brands didn't do very well against the American ones. One reason is that they taste of the tin. The acid in tomatoes interacts with the metal used in cans (as it does with aluminum, which is why tomatoes should not be cooked in an unlined aluminum pan), and the longer the tomatoes stay in the can the more pronounced the metallic flavor will be. (Neapolitans buy their puree in bottles, which are rarely exported.) Canned tomatoes are undated, and there is no way of knowing how long they have been on the shelf; American products are likely to turn over faster.

This would matter less if Italian tomatoes tasted significantly better than those grown here, but my comparison did not persuade me that they do. I was unimpressed with the San Marzano tomatoes I found, which are usually said to be the best. (Although tomatoes from one growing area, called San Marzano Agro-Sarnese-Nocerino, are protected by European Union law, there is nothing to prevent an American producer from putting "San Marzano-style" on a label; the fact that the name refers not only to an agricultural area in Campania but also to many varieties of canning tomatoes further complicates matters.) And I was particularly disappointed by chopped tomatoes and puree from aseptic packs, commonly sold under the Pomì label. I had remembered these to be the best alternative to fresh, but even though they are free of any metallic tinge, I found them to have an unpleasant tomato-soup flavor.

The freshest and best flavor can usually be found in tomatoes with no added salt or those packed in cans lined with white enamel, which prevents the acid-metal interaction. And yet the best no-salt-added tomatoes of the several I tried, Trader Joe's house brand, were not packed in enameled cans, and the best-tasting whole peeled tomatoes -- from Muir Glen, of Petaluma, California -- are unavailable without salt. Muir Glen's tomato puree and paste, happily, have no added salt, and are by far the best I tasted. American tomatoes thus pose no impediment to the ever-tricky goal of authenticity, though American meat does not taste the same as Italian.

Neapolitan ragù makes use of modest secondary cuts of beef and pork that require long and slow cooking to be tender and palatable -- just the cuts that are hard to find today, because dishes that require hours of cooking, even largely unsupervised, have fallen out of most people's everyday repertory. One of my favorite such cuts is beef shin, full of collagen that melts to gelatin and gives sheen and body to a sauce or stew. The meat itself becomes as tender as corned beef or brisket but is not nearly as fatty. Beef shin is usually a special-order item, but its younger counterpart has become popular as osso buco, which is veal shin cut across the bone. Ask for boned veal shin, if the butcher is amenable; beef shin, which costs much less, is usually sold boned. Some Chinese and Italian butchers sell fresh pig's trotters, which can be put to good use: the section just above the foot is the shin, and the rind covering it will enrich the sauce. Pork short ribs are a ragù fundamental, and relatively easy to find in American supermarkets; ask for them trimmed of the brisket meat.

Perhaps to make the Sunday lunch more luxurious, Neapolitans often flavor ragù with beef rolls, or braciole, cooked from start to finish in the sauce; in Naples at Table, Schwartz gives a recipe for pounded slices of beef chuck or top round rolled and stuffed with pine nuts, parsley, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and raisins, simmered in ragù. These will add marvelous complexity (and give you a very nice dinner), but fresh pork sausage made without any seasoning will give an equally typical, and purer, flavor.

TO make ragù, warm a quarter cup of olive oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy-bottomed pan; keep an additional half cup of oil in reserve. Add two and a half pounds of beef or veal shin, cut into roughly three-inch chunks and trimmed of fat but not of the collagen-rich cartilage, and one and a half pounds of pork shin (if you can't find pork shin, use a pound and a half more beef or veal shin). Add one and a half pounds of pork short ribs, cut into sections of one or two ribs each. Over a medium-high flame brown the pieces on all sides in batches, keeping the pieces in one layer and adding more oil as needed. A screened lid will be useful, or leave the meat uncovered. Lightly smash eight large or ten medium cloves of garlic with the flat of a cooking knife, remove the peel and any green shoots in the center, and add the cloves while the meat browns. The garlic will sweeten during the long cooking and disappear into the sauce. It must not brown or blacken, and if you are generous with the oil it won't. Keep sautéing the meat over medium heat for thirty to forty-five minutes, adding oil as needed and moving the pieces so that they don't stick. You need to use all the oil in any case: it will emulsify with the proteins in the meat, carry flavor, and ensure that the sauce coats pasta properly.

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