“Everyone in this region makes ragu alla Bolognese” says Anna Nanni, a cook at Trattoria Amerigo dal 1934, outside Bologna in the city of Savigno. “From ten women, you’ll get ten different recipes, all of them traditional.” printed in Saveur Magazine, February 28, 2008
Meat stews are recorded in Italy as far back as the Renaissance, but they were not called ragus and they were not served over pasta. It was not until Napoleon invaded and occupied the part of northern Italy now called Emilia-Romagna, late in the 18th century, that recipes for meat sauces for pasta appeared, presumably called ragus after the ragouts of French cuisine.
These thick, hearty pasta sauces have since spread throughout Italy, but ragu styles vary from region to region, reflecting climate, crops, livestock and local customs. In the north, ragus emphasize meat and aromatic herbs, not tomatoes. Ragu alla Bolognese, often made with minced beef, is from Bologna, in the heart of historically wealthy Emilia-Romagna, and features the use of milk or cream and nutmeg, but very little tomato. In nearby Venice, ragu often is made with native duck meat, flavored with bay leaf and sage. On the other side of the boot, Tuscans are famous for ragus made from wild boar. Abruzzo, in the rugged mountainous regions of central Italy, where farmers have raised sheep for centuries, specializes in lamb ragu. Naples, known for extravagance, offers a ragu exploding with ribs, braciole, meatballs, sausage, chicken thighs and whatever else the cook has on hand. The meat often is extracted from the sauce after cooking and served as a separate course from the pasta. Calabria, at the tip of the boot, serves a pork ragu spiced with red pepper flakes. And in southern-most Sicily, where ripe tomatoes are in abundance, ragus are more like your typical red sauce, with lots of tomato flavored by a little pork or veal.
What all of these have in common is the emphasis on meat and on serving the sauce over pasta. All also require patience from the cook as the sauce simmers slowly, sometimes for hours.