Best Bolognese Ever
Chef Jennifer Russo shares the recipe for her great-grandmother’s hearty and heartfelt Bolognese.
By Christina Barrueta | Photography by Rick Gayle
There are times when cherished dishes don’t just fill the belly but also nourish the soul, and such is true of chef Jennifer Russo’s Bolognese sauce, learned at the hands of her beloved great-grandmother Angelina. Making an annual appearance on the winter menu at The Market Restaurant + Bar, this treasured recipe is a legacy steeped in Italian tradition. “My great-grandmother lived with my grandmother, and growing up, pasta was always on our table for Sunday dinners,” Russo recalls. “Her Bolognese meat sauce, or what she would call ‘gravy,’ became special to me.”
Russo’s earliest memories of Angelina began in the kitchen. “I remember sitting on the counter as a toddler and watching her hands. I was completely amazed by what she could do with them and what she was creating,” she reflects. Hailing from Naples, Italy, Angelina didn’t speak English, but that made Russo’s time with her all the more special. “It was our connection. Somehow, I understood her without words, and I think that was because of our love of food—as if we understood something the rest of the family didn’t. Except of course how much they loved to eat what she was cooking!”
Angelina’s satisfying and savory Bolognese sauce layers flavors with sautéed vegetables—garlic, onion, carrots, celery and
mushrooms—and the traditional combination of tomatoes, ground beef, pork and veal, as well as a touch of cream simmered into the meaty richness. “She was very particular about how everything was done, from growing the vegetables in her garden to walking to the butcher daily, as if it was coming right from her heart,” the chef shares.
Russo has taken this family classic and added her own enhancements, such as minced pancetta (an Italian bacon made with salt-cured pork belly), Italian red wine and a finishing pop of brightness with lemon, creamy ricotta and fresh herbs. At her restaurant, she serves the ricotta in a spoon for guests to stir into their dish, but for home entertaining she suggests crowning the Bolognese with a dollop before showering it with a garnish of chiffonaded basil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Russo serves the ragu with bucatini, a thick tubular pasta with a hollow center that soaks up every bit of delicious sauce. “When the weather in Arizona cools down, it’s time for me to bring the dish back,” she says. “Having it on the menu makes me so happy. This Bolognese warms your heart as well as your body.”
Jennifer Russo’s Great-Grandmother’s Bolognese
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled, finely chopped
3 ounces thinly-sliced pancetta, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 shallots, minced
2 cups crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 ounces ground beef
6 ounces ground veal
6 ounces ground pork
1 cup dry red wine
2 16-ounce cans of whole Italian Roma tomatoes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1⁄2 cup Italian parsley, chopped
1 pound bucatini
1⁄2 cup basil, chiffonaded
1⁄2 cup whole-milk ricotta
Finely grated Parmesan (for serving)
1 teaspoon chili flakes
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery and carrots. Sauté 5 minutes and then add chopped garlic and shallots. Continue sautéing for 5 more minutes. Remove mixture from sauce pot. Add mushrooms and sauté until evenly browned. In same pot, heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add pancetta and brown slightly. Add beef, veal and pork. Sauté, breaking up with the back of a spoon, until browned, about 15 minutes. Add wine; boil until reduced by half, stirring often and scraping up browned bits. Add tomatoes, mushrooms and vegetable mixture; stir to blend. Reduce heat to very low and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until flavors meld, about 1½ hours. Season with salt and pepper. Add heavy cream to sauce. Cover sauce with lid slightly ajar and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until cream is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Add lemon juice (save some for serving), lemon zest and chopped parsley. For pasta, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with salt. Add pasta and cook according to directions, stirring occasionally, until 1 minute before al dente. Drain, reserving ½ cup pasta water. Add pasta to Bolognese sauce and toss to coat. Stir in some of the reserved pasta water by tablespoonfuls if sauce seems dry.
To serve: Divide pasta among warmed plates. Garnish with a spoonful of ricotta, fresh basil, Parmesan and chili flakes. Finish if desired with sea salt, fresh cracked pepper and an extra squeeze of lemon.