Friday, November 27, 2020
Food LegendsTraditional recipes


The story of the ragù begins in the 16th century when two main versions were born, the Neapolitan and the Bolognese ragù. Here are their origins and differences

Introduction: Cristoforo Messisbugo, the first to talk about ragù

Cristoforo Messi known as Sbugo, better known as Messisbugo, left us one of the major sixteenth-century cooking treatises. Needless to say, its value from the historical point of view. A curiosity? Messisbugo was from Ferrara, and in the passage of the book, it makes us understand that the cobice sturgeon was widespread in the Po and the Estense court obtained caviar from it.

His recipe book, published after his death in 1548, “Banchetti, composizione di vivande e apparecchio generale” explains how to set up a table for the libations of the great gentlemen, food plating, what decorations and tablecloths to use (beware of films about the Middle Ages where you eat on bare wood tables: never happened, not even in the worst peasant or Grubenhaus, they always used to eat on a tablecloth).

Messisbugo was a very refined man, capable of explaining how to break roast without ever touching it with his hands, imposing the use of as many as 25 different tools on the Italian courts and, through the masters of ceremony that studied his book, all over Europe.

Since, however, already in the introduction of the book, the gentleman from Ferrara writes that he “will not waste time or effort describing different soups made of green vegetables or legumes […] which any common old woman could easily prepare”, it is good to tell you something that has to do with meat, the real protagonist of those banquets, and with one of the greatest traditions of the Italian cuisine, ragù, pointing the differences between the Neapolitan one from the Bolognese one.

Messisbugo’s macaroni


In the mid-sixteenth century, macaroni was not what we know today, as tortelli were not. In both cases, the dough rolled out with a rolling pin, was, however, sweetened and perfumed with rose water. The tortelli (filled with spinach and almonds) were then fried and were more similar to our current ravioli, while the macaroni served as a side dish of the boiled seacock.

In this passion for sweetened macaroni, there is a decisive historical aspect to be understood. Europe had just discovered the Americas, and brown sugar had begun to spread more and more (in the Middle Ages, it was imported only in small quantities by Venetians and Genoese who called it Arab salt). As a result, sugar abuse was a hallmark of noble wealth.

So, the macaroni was soft and sweet; besides, once cooked, they were served with cinnamon and a broth made of boiled meat. At that time, meat with pasta could only be found in oven-baked lasagna. Finally, pasta or macaroni became popular only in the nineteenth century, mainly as street food in the South.

The first eighteenth-century ragù and the origin of the term

The ragù was named for the first time in 1773 in Vincenzo Corrado’s “The Cook Galante,” who – always first – reports the recipe of the crust timbale.

The term derives from ragoût, from the french verb ragoûter, meaning “to stimulate the appetite.” It was a sauce made with stewed meat and abundant seasoning, the use of which was to accompany other dishes. The word ragù, precisely because of its foreign sound, was replaced in the fascist era by the more Italian (really macaronic and, above all, cacophonic) “ragutto”.

But what was Vincenzo Corrado’s ragù like? For sure, it wasn’t meant to accompany pasta, but rather it looked like the stew or braised meat. The same eighteenth-century chef describes several of them, some of veal breast, one composed of sweetbreads and even that of prawns or eggs. The cooking was prolonged: first, the meat was browned in butter, or lard or oil, and then cooked in broth or wine with vegetables and aromatic herbs. Finally, not always, lemon or vinegar was added to increase its acidity. Sometimes, this ragù was also used as a filling for other dishes as well as sauce.

Ragù as a pasta sauce


It was 1790 when Francesco Leonardi published “L’Apicio Moderno,” in which, for the first time, ragù ended up being served together with pasta. By chance, the dish is called “Maccaroni Alla Napolitana,” and the ragù is similar to what is still cooked in the Neapolitan city. Once boiled macaroni, these were seasoned with parmesan, pepper, and the restricted sauce, obtained by stewing beef or veal meat. Then, the pasta was left to rest on hot ash and finally served. The tomato is not mentioned in the preparation of the sauce: this will only happen in the second edition of the treatise when it will appear in a note.

Debunking a myth: does Bolognese or Neapolitan ragù come first?

There is no doubt: Bolognese sauce will be born after the Neapolitan one. We saw it with Francesco Leonardi (a Roman chef who then moved to Paris and finally to Naples) and again in “La cucina Casereccia,” always printed in the Neapolitan Gulf by an anonymous author (in reality, only signed as “MF”). It is in this treatise of the early nineteenth century that we find the first authentic modern ragù, in which there is tomato, and it was obtained with a piece of beef browned with ham, cloves, onion, lard, and aromatic herbs; cooking ends in the broth and with the addition of tomato. However, the recipe where the meat is eaten separately and the pasta is seasoned with the sauce obtained during cooking remains (in Bohème by Puccini, for example, ragù is mentioned as a sauce).

In 1837, Ippolito Cavalcanti will resume the anonymous recipe in his “Cucina teorico pratica” (where spaghetti with tomato is mentioned for the first time). In his book, there are variations, such as the absence of tomatoes, which will definitely enter the recipe in the 1900s, while the use of pork is still contemplated.

Bolognese sauce: the origins

If for the Neapolitan ragù (o’rraù) the origins are clear and well defined over time, for the Bolognese one, paradoxically much more famous in the world, there is no such clear origin. There is a hint in the “Cuciniere italiano moderno” of the mid-nineteenth century, where there is a recipe that recalls it. These are the “Macaroni alla Famigliare”, where the chop sauce or the stew is enriched with a mix of chopped marrow and ham to which the tomato is added. It is an example of how the leftover meat from the primary cooking (the one on the fire) is used to season the pasta, something inconceivable until recently.

This procedure will be combined with that of Neapolitan derivation to create, in Francesco Vialardi’s “Cucina borghese”, the “Sardinian Maccheroni” (!), progenitors – incredible to say – of Bolognese ones. It was a seasoning made of diced veal and fried in butter with onion and tomato. The similarities are clear with the Bolognese sauce: the meat is no longer eaten separately, and the sauce is replaced only by the onion and tomato sauté. The next step, however, will be made thanks to the famous treatise by Pellegrino Artusi, with which you will overcome the Sardinian ragù to get to the Bolognese one finally.

In fact, it will take the twentieth century and the famous treatise by Pellegrino Artusi “Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well” to bring out the Macaroni Alla Bolognese. It is still a pre-modern version, which does not include tomatoes and adds mushrooms, truffles, and chicken livers. Artusi’s recipe already includes cream, which is now optional. The meats used instead are the same: pork and veal bacon flavored with celery, carrot, and onion.

The real Bolognese ragù was born at the end of the first decade of the 1900s: the tagliatelle replace the macaroni, the tomato enters the recipe stably, the pork is added to the veal. In 1982 the recipe was deposited at the Camera di Commercio di Bologna by the Bolognese delegation of the Italian Academy of Cuisine.

Bolognese and Neapolitan ragù: the differences



Let’s clarify a question immediately: if the Bolognese sauce was codified in 1982, the Neapolitan one still varies from house to house as Manuela Mirabile of Tandem Ragù in Neaples explained to us some time ago.

It depends on the link that every Neapolitan has with this dish. The “greatest actor in the world,” according to Orson Welles, that is Eduardo De Filippo, dedicated a poem and a scene from the comedy (and the film with Sophia Loren) “Saturday, Sunday and Monday”. Here is the poem, which was set to music by Pino Daniele and sung by Roberto Murolo.

‘O rraù ca me piace a me
m’ ‘o ffaceva sulo mammà.
A che m’aggio spusato a te,
ne parlammo pè ne parlà.
Io nun sogno difficultuso;
ma luvàmell”a miezo st’uso.
Sì, va buono: cumme vuò tu.
Mò ce avèssem’ appiccecà?
Tu che dice? Chest’è rraù?
E io m’a ‘o mmagno pè m’ ‘o mangià…
M’ ‘a faje dicere na parola?
Chesta è carne c’ ‘a pummarola.

Neapolitan ragù ingredients for 4 people

Keeping in mind, therefore, that there are many theories and ways of cooking o’rraù, the basic recipe for 4 people includes:

1kg beef
1 meat chop to prepare in advance by stuffing it with garlic and pine nuts
grated pecorino
400g pork ribs
400g sausages
2 medium pork rinds
2 liters of San Marzano tomato sauce
a spoonful of tomato paste
two golden onions
1/4 liter of red wine


At home, the Neapolitan ragù begins to be prepared the night before. The first step is to brown the onions and various types of meat in oil by turning them until golden brown. Immediately after, the wine is added and made to smoke until the alcohol has evaporated, when finally the tomato puree and the concentrate can be added together with the smells. It is the decisive moment, the one that makes the ragù o’rraù: the sauce has to cook slowly for about six hours. Finally, the pork is removed while the others remain in the pan to which the pasta or gnocchi is added. Tradition has it that the hand-broken ziti should be used.

Bolognese ragù recipe for 4 people

Much more codified, however, is the recipe of Bolognese sauce, which was deposited precisely on October 17, 1982, at the Camera di Commercio of the Emilia-Romagna capital.

The recipe for 4 people includes:

300g coarsely ground beef
150g pork belly
50g yellow carrots
50g celery stick
50g onion
300g of tomato purée
half a glass of white wine
half a glass of whole milk
beef stock
olive oil or butter
half a glass of fresh cream (optional, and absolutely not included in the case of the preparation of tagliatelle alla bolognese)


Melt the diced bacon in a terracotta pan. Immediately after, three tablespoons of oil (or 50 grams of butter) and odors are added. Then add the ground beef and brown it until it sizzles; at this point, the wine is faded, and then the sauce is added. Cover the bowl and cook for two hours on low heat. At the end of cooking, add the milk, as well as salt and pepper (only now, for those who prefer it, add the cream). Now your Bolognese sauce is ready, and you can season the pasta.



Photo credits: Wine DharmaWordRiddenAlpha


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Pierluigi Capriotti
My name is Pierluigi Capriotti to be exact. Despite a degree in Architecture I'm a journalist. I write following temporary monomania and others that are chronic such reading, soccer, travels and food. When I write I use many asides – because I have the impression there is always something more to say. Because in those asides I talk about my passions. So that everybody will notice them but with nonchalance. I've never had a high regard for wisdom. And, thanks God, this helped me to leave for the foodiestrip journey with a spiritual-creative mathematician, an IT engineer who plays the Star Wars soundtrack with the coffee stirrers and a businessnerd. One way ticket. No return.