Photos above, left to right, Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese (photo shows spaghetti), Caponata, Risotto de la "Visilia"

Photos: Clifford A. Wright



Tagliatelle con Ragù alla Bolognese

Tagliatelle with Bolognese Sauce

Difficulty: Labor Intensive

Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 2:45 hours


The famous ragù that accompanies tagliatelle is often bastardized by what I call international hotel cooking. I have eaten horrible to adequate Bolognese sauces in as disparate places as a train station in Lübeck, Germany, and a hotel in Luxor, Egypt. Nowhere but Bologna, its home, can you find its flavor so inviting and its taste so complex. This recipe is one of the richest enhancements of the classic ragù from Bologna, which was once much simpler. The meats need to be lean, otherwise there will be too much fat in the sauce. The meat can be ground in a food processor using very short bursts or pulses, resulting in a very finely chopped effect. Remember that "very finely chopped" means pieces no bigger than this "o," so you may consider using the food processor for all the ingredients, again, using short bursts.

This preparation is today one of those iconic dishes of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna. Tagliatelle, tagliolini, pappardelle, tortellini, and lasagna are some of the pastas made from sfoglia, as they are known in Bologna, that is, the “leaves” of pasta dough made from the finest white flour and eggs. Legend has it that the tagliatelle shape—strips of pasta about a half inch wide—was invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. The cook was said to be inspired by the beautiful blond hair of the bride.[1] However, Lucrezia was only seven years old in 1487 and although her first marriage was when she was eleven, she didn’t marry the Duke of Ferrara, her third husband, until she was twenty-two. Despite the appeal of this apocryphal story, the invention of tagliatelle in Italy is earlier. We have in fact pictorial representations of tagliatelle before this date depicted in the illustrations accompanying the various fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Latin translations of an eleventh-century Arabic medical treatise, the Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (Maintenance of health) written by Ibn Buṭlān, a physician in Baghdad, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitati (or Tacuuinum Sanitatis). In the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum (Compendium of the nature and properties of food), a list of local Emilian nomenclature for foods compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Riatinis Reginus of Modena, the entry for something called fermentini indicates that it is cut into strips like tagliatelle and boiled.[2]

            The Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the preeminent organization dedicated to protecting Italy’s culinary patrimony, attempted to codify ragù alla Bolognese which, as one can imagine, engendered a good deal of controversy. To codify such a sauce is surely a Sisyphean task because cuisine is not an immutable artifact of culture but a living, changing embodiment of numerous families in a society. It is also exceedingly difficult to separate the cooking over time of different classes to a point where one could say “this is the true one.” A study of Renaissance cookbooks does not provide a clear antecedent of the contemporary ragoût although one will find ragoût-like dishes, but with seasonings that still hold onto the Arab-inspired medieval spicing of rose water, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, and sugar. It should also be remembered that the influence of the French may have had a greater role than the Bolognese are willing to admit since the word ragù derives from the French ragoût and Emilia-Romagna was not only Francophile but inundated with French culture over time. When Napoleon’s French troops arrived in Bologna in 1796, they were welcomed by the Bolognese who were pleased by their release from the pontifical grip. The seriousness with which the Bolognese considered ragù alla Bolognese is wonderfully captured and illustrated in the fourteen pages devoted to ragù in Lynn Rossetto Kaspar’s The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food published in 1992. Lastly, the Bolognese ragoût is not an ode to the tomato, which plays no role in the sauce, or at most a minor one, but rather to meat.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 ounces pancetta, very finely chopped

1 ounce prosciutto, very finely chopped

1 ounce mortadella, very finely chopped

3 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in tepid water to cover for 15 minutes, drained, rinsed, and finely chopped

1 medium onion, very finely chopped

1 small garlic clove, very finely chopped

1 carrot, scraped and very finely chopped

1 celery stalk, very finely chopped

2 tablespoons very finely chopped parsley leaves

1/4 pound lean beef sirloin, very finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean pork tenderloin, very finely chopped (not ground)

1/4 pound lean veal sirloin, very finely chopped (not ground)

2 chicken livers, membranes removed and very finely chopped

1/2 cup dry red wine

1/4 cup Tomato Sauce

1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup Beef Broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 1/4 pounds tagliatelle or fettuccine

  1. In a large flameproof casserole, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium-heat and cook, stirring occasionally, the pancetta, prosciutto, and mortadella until the pancetta is soft and a bit rendered, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, onion, garlic, carrot, celery, and parsley and cook, stirring as needed, until the vegetables have softened and turned color, about 10 minutes. Add the beef, pork, veal, and chicken livers and cook, stirring, until browned, about 10 minutes.
  2. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the wine. Once the wine has evaporated, reduce the heat to low, add the tomato sauce diluted with a little water and the beef broth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Cover and simmer for 2 hours. Add the cream and cook another 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer to a serving platter. Ladle the ragù on top and serve immediately. (The ragù can be frozen for up to 6 months).

Note 1: A simpler method is to cook the onion with the celery and carrot in the oil and butter, adding the ground beef, but not the other meats, the wine, salt and pepper, nutmeg and 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. Follow the recipe above, eliminating all the ingredients except those called for in this note.

Note 2: If you double the recipe, you can freeze half to be used at a future date for lasagna.

Makes 6 to 8 servings


Photos, left to right,




Difficulty: Labor Intensive

Yield: Makes 8 servings
Preparation Time: 1:30 hours


The Sicilian vegetable relish known as caponata is said to be of Spanish origin. The Sicilian food authority Pino Correnti believes that the dish is derived from the Catalan word caponada, meaning a similar kind of relish, and says it first appears in a Sicilian etymology of 1709. This Catalan word, which literally means “something tied together like vines,” can also refer to an enclosure where animals are fattened for slaughter. But the root word capón figures in the expression capón de galera which is a gazpacho, or a caponata-like dish usually served shipboard. In fact, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, the learned Italian scholar and medical doctor, suggested that the dish was born shipboard as a mariner’s breakfast because of the large amount of vinegar used, which would have acted as a preservative. Giuseppe Coria, author of an authoritative tome on Sicilian cooking, offers another suggestion: That the word derives from the Latin word caupo (tavern) where cauponae was served, that is, tavern food for travelers. Even if this interpretation is correct, cauponae certainly was not the caponata we know today.

            The earliest recipe I am familiar with of a dish that is a kind of caponata is the cappone di galera alla siciliana in Francesco Leonardi’s L’Apicio moderno (The modern Apicius) published in 1790.

Dip a few fresh new beans [freselle maiorchine, an esteemed bean from Majorca] in Malaga wine, then arrange them on a serving platter, and put over them a garnish of anchovy fillets and thin slices of tuna belly salami [tarantella], rinsed of its salt, capers, pieces of citron zest, stoned olives, fried shrimp and squid, oysters poached slightly in their own liquid and several fillets of fried linguattola [Citharus linguatula, a kind of flatfish] until the platter is well garnished and full. At the moment of serving pour over it a sauce made as follows: in a mortar pound two ounces of peeled green pistachios soaked in olive oil, vinegar, and tarragon or vinegar, salt, and ground pepper.[3]

            As for the contemporary Sicilian caponata, cooking the ingredients separately in the same pan, then mixing them afterwards, improves the quality of the dish. Your frying oil should be clean and new. Versions of this famous preparation call for fried pine nuts, almonds, sliced eggs, basil, or ground chocolate. Sicilian restaurants add lobster, shrimp, or bottarga (dried fish roe). Other additions found are artichokes, wild asparagus, and baby octopus. The following recipe is the basic one.

Olive oil for frying

2 eggplants (about 3 pounds), cut in 3/4-inch cubes with their peels

1 bunch celery, without the leafy tops, cut into 1-inch pieces

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

One 6-ounce can tomato paste or 3 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

4 teaspoons sugar

1 cup red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons capers, washed and chopped if very large

1/2 cup green olives, pitted

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

  1. Preheat the frying oil in a deep-fryer or an 8-inch saucepan fitted with a basket insert to 375 degrees F.
  2. Deep-fry the eggplant cubes in batches without crowding until brown and crispy, 7 to 8 minutes, turning once. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
  3. Clean the celery and wipe dry with paper towels. Deep-fry the celery pieces in batches without crowding until the edges are golden, about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
  4. Take 1/2 cup of the oil you used to deep-fry the eggplant and celery and mix it with the extra-virgin olive oil. In a large casserole, heat this oil mixture over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring, the onion slices until translucent, about 6 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the tomato paste mixed with a little water or the tomatoes, stir, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Gently stir in the sugar, vinegar, capers, olives, eggplants cubes, and celery. Sprinkle with salt, if necessary, and pepper and add the cocoa, if using. Cook until the mixture is heated through, about 10 minutes, carefully folding several times instead of stirring. Leave to cool and serve at room temperature.

Note: Caponata can be served hot but does not have a chance to mellow that way and is preferable at room temperature as an antipasto.

Makes 8 servings

[photo: Clifford A. Wright]


Risotto de la “Visilia”

Christmas Eve Risotto

Difficulty: Easy but long cooking time

Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 2 hours


This is a typical Christmas Eve dinner preparation in Venice and is unusual for two reasons: it is not cooked according to the risotto method even though it is called a risotto, and it combines cheese with fish. The dish probably evolved from a simple fish pilaf, one using, perhaps, , a fish of the lagoon known as goby, then the eel was added and finally the beans. If you are unable to find eel, striped bass, mahimahi, bluefish, or mackerel might do to provide the rich taste associated with this dish.

            Eel is a traditional food for Christmas Eve in Venice. Grilled eel is popular and it is said that the doge Andrea Gritti died at the age of eighty-four on December 28, 1538 after eating too many grilled eels on Christmas Eve. The glass workers of Murano created a famous dish with eels, bisato scotà, a dish that cannot be replicated because it is prepared by the glass workers who dip the eel into molten glass until it is cooked, then break the glass away to eat it.

            The borlotti beans used in this recipe is a kind of kidney bean in the genus Phaseolus with bright stripes of red or pink. Botanists now know that this bean is a New World migrant. The Phaseolus mentioned by the classical Latin authors Virgil and Columella probably was another leguminous plant of the genus Dolichos, or hyacinth bean. The New World bean appeared in Europe in the sixteenth century, being first illustrated and described by the German artists and botanists Hieronymous Tragus (1498-1554) and Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566) in 1542.

            If borlotti are unavailable use pinto, Roman, cranberry (red speckled), or red kidney beans, with pinto being a first choice. Common eel (Anguilla anguilla), is usually sold around Christmastime in U.S. fish stores in cities with Italian-American populations.

2/3 cup (about 6 ounces) dried borlotti, pinto, or Roman beans, picked over, soaked in water to cover for several hours, and drained

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter

1 medium onion, very finely chopped

1 celery stalk, very finely chopped

1 carrot, scraped and very finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 pound common eel, skinned and cut into 1-inch pieces (see above for substitutes)

3/4 pound firm-fleshed fish fillets (such as redfish, wolffish, red snapper, goby, whiting, ocean perch, or scup)

6 cups water

Salt to taste

1 1/2 cups (3/4 pound) short grain rice, such as Arborio rice

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

  1. Put the drained beans in a saucepan and cover by several inches with lightly salted cold water. Cook the beans over medium heat until soft but not breaking apart, about 1 1/2 hours, but check before that time. Pass half the beans through a food mill or pulse in short bursts in a food processor and reserve. Set aside the remaining beans.
  2. In a large flameproof casserole or heavy saucepan, melt half the butter over medium heat then cook, stirring occasionally, the onion, celery, and carrot until softer, 6 minutes. Add the garlic, eel, fish, water, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the fish can flake easily, about 30 minutes (but do not flake the fish—keep them whole).
  3. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and return 1 quart of it to the casserole or saucepan. Stir in the puréed beans and mix well. Remove the fish and eel from the strainer and reserve, keeping warm, to serve as a second course.
  4. Bring the broth to a boil over medium-high heat and add the rice. Cook, uncovered, until the rice is soft, about 20 minutes. Stir in the remaining butter, remaining beans, and the cheese and serve.

Makes 6 servings

[photo: Clifford A. Wright]


[1] Boni 1969: 101; Kaspar 1992: 78; Veronelli 1973: 32; Root 1971: 197; Alberini 1994: 180-82. [if you are interested in these sources, please contact me].

[2] Sereni 1958: 361-62. [If you are interested in this source, please contact me]

[3] Faccioli 1987: 773. [If you are interested in this sauce, please contact me.]