One of the best meals we had in 2019 was at Rezdora NYC, where we lingered over plates and plates of expertly made pasta, great wine, and wonderful service that never rushed us even though it was a full reservation kind of night. The stand out dish – a pretty simple ragu modenese – blew my mind and was one of the only times in my life I peppered a waiter with questions about a dish. I found out that night that ragu modenese is like bolognese’s lesser known – but no less tasty – distant cousin.
Just as ragu bolognese comes from Bologna, ragu modenese comes from Modena, a neighboring city to Bologna. Wherever there are two major cities in one region, there is also usually a rivalry, and these two are no different. Few cities have taken it this far though: hundreds of years ago, these two cities went to war in something called The War of the Bucket. Thousands died, and to this day, some say the actual bucket still hangs in Modena.
Things were no less competitive on the food front, but although Bologna became famous for its ragu, Modena’s contribution to the food world was balsamic vinegar and the invention of tortellini. That wasn’t because Modena’s ragu wasn’t as good, however, it was that Bologna’s ragu was so extremely over the top that it took all the air out of the room in the way that over the top things do.
Ragu bolognese has traditionally been for the ultra wealthy. Correctly made, it features multiple cuts of meats from different animals and its flavors are built from a ton of cream, cheese, and wine. Bologna was a very rich city in its heyday, and liked to show off that wealth through food. Even though “bolognese sauce” is common nowadays, to make proper, authentic ragu bolognese will still cost you an arm and a leg even in our modern world where food is mostly cheap relative to incomes.
Ragu modenese, on the other hand, is a much more humble affair, and for me, that makes it so much better. It’s easy to build an amazing sauce with dozens of exotic ingredients, but to make something comparable with a few relatively cheap items is magical. Ragu modenese is just a simple sofritto, proscuitto, mortadella, pork, broth, and cheese. There’s nothing more to it, but around the 5-6 hour mark, it seems to magically transform all of a sudden into something that you wouldn’t believe came from so few ingredients.
This was an excellent low effort, low cost rendition of ragu that I’ll be making again and again. Both versions were amazing with any pasta shape, and properly speaking you should pair this with freshly made, heavy-on-the-yolk tagliatelle, but the best packaged shape I had it with was fusilli.
I loved this sauce (so much) but I’m also pretty lazy, and mostly impatient. So I made it twice. Once conventionally, and again in an Instant Pot. They tasted the same, and in fact if anything the instant pot version tasted better, so definitely don’t spend the 6-7 hours simmering unless you enjoy it, or don’t have an Instant Pot.
You’ll notice that there is no tomato paste or garlic in this sauce. While writing this, I was reading roads and kingdom’s excellent piece on ragu and came across a few interesting quotes that applied to this recipe:
“The meat can change based on the circumstances. The liquid can, too. But the one thing a ragu never has in it is garlic.” – The original recipe properly omits garlic, but I don’t personally know that my North American palate really enjoyed that. The next time I make this, there will be garlic.
“We never had tomatoes in Emilia Romagna, so how did they end up in the sauce? Tomato is used to cover up bad ingredients.” – It also called for a couple of tablespoons of basic tomato sauce. When I made it the second time, I skipped the tomato and didn’t miss it, so I didn’t include it here, but feel free to, if you like the flavor of tomatoes.
“99 percent of ragu starts with machine-ground meat. But why?” – Finally, I made this with ground pork per the original recipe, but if I were to do it again, I’d skip it for a good pork shoulder. I’ve always held that shredded meat makes all the difference in a quality ragu, and the long cooking time of this one makes it especially suitable.
How to make restaurant quality pasta
One final note: the biggest difference in restaurant quality pasta and the pasta you make at home is how you finish and sauce the pasta. The best way to finish this specific sauce is to cook the pasta 1 minute before the time on the package, then drain the pasta and transfer to a non-stick skillet along with about 1/4-1/2 a cup of sauce per portion. Once the pasta is well sauced, add extra cheese and chili flakes as desired, and plate. Enjoy immediately.
If you have an Instant Pot, this version is just as good and 4-5 hours faster.
- 2 tbsp Extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 medium onion
- 1 small carrot
- 2 stalks celery
- 4 ounces Prosciutto di Parma thinly sliced
- 4 ounces mortadella thinly sliced
- 1 pound ground pork see note
- 1 parmigiano rind about 2 ounces
- 1-2 quarts chicken stock no sodium
- 2 cups parmigiano reggiano cheese finely grated
Finely dice your onion, carrots, and celery.
Mince your proscuitto, mortadella, and ground pork.
Add the olive oil to a large saute pan over medium-high heat and deeply caramelize the onions, carrots, and celery, about 5 minutes.
Add the meats, parmigiano rind, and enough stock to cover, then reduce the heat to a bare simmer. Cover and simmer for 6-7 hours, checking on it every hour or so to make sure it hasn’t gone dry. Add stock as necessary.
After simmering, add the cheese, then season with salt, if necessary.