Red Sauce Revisited

The backlash against a noble tradition has gone too far

WHEN "northern Italian" cuisine swept American restaurants and gourmet kitchens twenty years ago, the forces of taste and discrimination vowed to roll back the noxious red tide of slow-cooked tomato sauce that had long inundated Italian restaurants. "No red sauce," proclaimed ads for Michela's, a Boston restaurant intent on breaking the Little Italy mold. Tomato paste was banned as zealously as flour-thickened sauces had been from nouvelle cuisine, and with the same unexpectedly caloric and indigestible results: substitute pasta sauces were often gloppy affairs clotted with cheese and cream, unrecognizable to Italians from any region. Tomatoes were relegated to quick-cooked or outright raw sauces.
Even Italian-Americans turned their backs on the "gravy" that had perfumed the house every Sunday when they were growing up. I found some of this aversion on a recent trip to Naples, birthplace of many of the cooks who made red sauce synonymous with Italian food in America. I was asking everyone I met about the Ur-gravy: ragù, one of the masterpieces of a cuisine and a region with which I am helplessly infatuated. Mine was the fervor of a convert. "I swore I'd never learn to make ragù," one young woman with whom I shared a table at Da Michele, the city's most venerated pizzeria, told me. "I woke up smelling it every Sunday." Another tablemate, a young software designer who said he bought only tomatoes raised on certain foothills of Mount Vesuvius, solemnly announced, "Meat should never contaminate the taste of good fresh tomato sauce."

My conversion from the meatless, quick-cooked tomato sauces I had long advocated took place along the Naples waterfront, at Cantina di Triunfo, a mom-and-pop wine shop by day and restaurant by night, whose chef, Tina Nicodemo, sticks to Neapolitan home cooking. I couldn't get over the mellow depth of her dense, mahogany-colored ragù, which coated big fat tubes of very al dente pasta like glistening lacquer. In ragù the tomato's natural sweetness and acidity are concentrated and enriched by garlic and several kinds of meat, none of which dominates. If fashionable fresh tomato sauces are piccolos or flutes, I decided, ragù is an oboe or a cello.

Creating this orchestral resonance takes many, many hours: so long does ragù cook that it is also called alla guardaporta, the idea being that doormen stay in one place long enough to tend the sauce. Food this vibrant hardly deserves to be abandoned. Sitting at one of Nicodemo's intimate, familial tables, I was determined to give it a home in my own kitchen, even if that meant hours of work and a very fragrant house. Help was at hand -- both on site, from the enthusiastic and outgoing Nicodemo, whose father was a butcher and whose family cared about traditional Neapolitan food, and on my return home, from Naples at Table, a recently published and long-overdue book in which the writer and radio host Arthur Schwartz introduces American audiences to a thrilling cuisine that in its native form is anything but clichéd.

is the basis for the traditional Sunday lunch, whose first course is pasta and second course is the meats used to flavor the sauce, lightly dressed with ragù. This thrifty reuse, reminiscent of the Jewish sabbath meal of chicken soup followed by chicken, differentiates Neapolitan ragù from the version that northern-Italian gourmets know, which is popular in the meat- and fat-happy region of Emilia-Romagna. Ragù bolognese features ground meat bathed in wine, cream, and tomato. Ragù napoletano starts with pieces of meat, which are stewed in tomato puree and removed after a few hours, when they are tender and sweet; the sauce keeps simmering, extremely slowly, for hours more. I much prefer the Neapolitan version, which acquires a strong but subtle and tempered meat flavor. By comparison, ragù bolognese seems like something for a fancy sloppy joe.

WHATEVER food fashion may dictate, garden-fresh tomatoes are available in sauce-making quantity for at best three months a year. The rest of the time Italians use canned tomatoes -- either put up at home or, much more commonly, from the store. Matters could hardly be otherwise when simple tomato sauce is the default pasta preparation.

My ragù experiments led me to a newfound appreciation of tomato paste, which is nothing more than tomatoes cooked to a thicker concentration than puree, with none of the additives I mistakenly remembered. Tomato paste has the deep flavor that many chefs and home cooks have come to admire in slow-roasted tomatoes. What matters most, of course, is the flavor and ripeness of the tomatoes at the start -- and it's more than likely that tomatoes at a canning plant are riper and better than tomatoes at the supermarket.

One of the reasons ragù became a Naples emblem is that the tomatoes of Campania, the region around Naples, are considered the most deliciously fruity in Italy; their only rivals grow in Puglia, to the southeast. Tomatoes arrived in Italy from the New World by way of the Spanish, who ruled Naples for centuries and planted tomatoes in the lava-rich Campanian soil. When tomatoes were conquering local cuisine, in the eighteenth century, pasta was about to enter industrial production, and the marriage of the two was inevitable. Amounts of puree that would elsewhere be extravagant could serve as a stewing medium for the economy cuts of meat families allowed themselves on Sunday. Even today women throughout southern Italy put up months' worth of tomato puree during the August and September harvest. Turning a corner in a village, you may happen upon communal metal barrels full of bottles of all shapes and sizes, simmering over open flames.

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.

Put all the pieces of browned meat back into the pan and add two six-ounce cans of tomato paste whisked or stirred into two cups of a full-flavored red wine; a red typical of Campania -- for example, Taurasi, produced by the Mastroberardini family -- would be appropriate, but a Dolcetto or a Barbera will also do nicely. Cook partly covered over a low flame for at least another hour, until the liquid is reduced by half or more. The sugars in the tomato paste can easily scorch, so it is important to stir often. A traditional Neapolitan technique is to incorporate the dissolved paste in successive additions of several spoonfuls at a time, reducing after each addition; this will result in a deeper and more layered flavor, but it's more work.

When the liquid is reduced, add one pound of fresh sausage and all the puree: three quarts if you are using puree from an aseptic pack or (a better choice) drained whole canned tomatoes passed through a food mill. If you are using canned puree, reduce the amount to two and a half quarts, because in this country canned puree is considerably thicker than what Neapolitans buy in bottles. Make sure the pan is large enough to hold the full amount of liquid before you pour it in: a wide Dutch oven is preferable to a soup pot, because the goal is evaporation. Stir well and bring to a very light simmer. Cover the pan, leaving about half an inch exposed. Lower the flame as far as possible or put the pot over a heat diffuser for the final and very long cooking. The liquid should faintly bubble somewhere on the surface every second or two.

Simmer the sauce for at least eight more hours. About two hours after adding the puree, check the ribs and smaller pieces of shin meat, and remove them if they are done: the rib meat should come away from the bone with hardly a nudge, and the shin meat should cut almost as easily as baked fish. When the larger pieces of shin meat are done, take out all the remaining meat; when you serve it, gently reheated, paint each piece with a bit of sauce. Stir the pot every half hour or so. If you leave the sauce unattended for more than an hour, don't then scrape the bottom of the pan, lest you incorporate charcoal; instead pour the sauce into a clean pot and continue to heat it. After the browning of the meat I hardly smelled the sauce, even when returning from an errand or waking up -- and I simmered mine for a full twenty-four hours. Those Neapolitan and Italian-American grandchildren, I decided, were giving ragù a bum rap.

The sauce is ready when it is as thick as applesauce and the oil forms a dark, deep pool on the surface. Total simmering time depends on the width of the pan, the heat of the flame, and the thickness of the puree. The darker the color, the better and more potent the sauce. Final yield will be about two quarts.

Neapolitans like showing off ragù with gigantic pasta tubes that take the sauce onto their inner surfaces. Cook the widest-gauge pasta you can find al dente; drain the pasta and sauté it, still wet, over medium heat for two minutes along with just enough sauce to coat each piece lightly. Be restrained in the amount of Parmigiano-Reggiano you sprinkle over the pasta before serving. The sauce is the showpiece, and the reputation of an unfairly slighted cuisine is at stake.


Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of (1995).


Illustration by Theo Rudnak.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; Red Sauce Revisited - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 124-127.



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