Q: What’s the difference between ragu and ragu bolognese?
A: A ragu can be any meat mixture, from anywhere on the Italian peninsula (or elsewhere, I suppose). Ragu bolognese is specific to the city of Bologna in the northern region of Emilia-Romagna, where I lived and learned the subtle art of ragu at Trattoria La Volta in Borgo Capanne.
Ragu bolognese is made differently by every mother or grandmother or son who learns it. But all practitioners follow a fairly basic formula.
Start with soffritto (or, as the French call it, mirepoix) — a combination of carrots, celery and onion — and chop very finely. Because this recipe originated in Emilia Romagna, the gateway to the north, we heat the mixture with equal parts butter and oil (butter being the lipid of choice in the north, olive oil in the south). When the butter emulsifies, the combination creates a velvet-like texture. Be sure to use an enamel-coated heavy-bottomed pot so that the soffritto doesn’t brown. Sweat the vegetables, stirring constantly, to prevent them from browning. If the mixture burns or scorches, toss it and start from scratch.
I use three kinds of meat in my ragu: veal, pork and beef. You could just as easily use all beef (or all pork or all chicken), but the combination adds a depth of flavor that I love. Have the butcher grind your meat of choice a bit bigger than he would sausage so it has a bit of a chew. Cook the meat with the vegetables until it’s brown so as to render the fat completely out. As the water evaporates and is replaced by the rendered fat, the temperature of the pot will increase and the meat will brown in its own uniquely delicious way.
A true ragu bolognese does not include canned or fresh tomatoes — just a tube of tomato paste. The only liquids used are milk and white wine to add richness and layers upon layers of flavor.
Ragu bolognese is an essential building block for some of the greatest dishes in the canon of Italian cooking, but few rival the simple preparation of Tagliatelle al Ragu: flat noodles dressed with the condiment and topped with Parmigiano Reggiano. Perfection.