to be or not to be a sugo, that is the question

Well, hello! Welcome to my blog! I have to say, one of the bright sides to this whole lockdown thing is having more time to cook and write recipes. But let’s be honest, some of the hassle in this is all the cleaning. I am so tired of cleaning and washing up. I miss restaurants!

I made this for Easter Sunday since in Italy lamb is traditionally eaten during Easter feasts (and I love making ragù). Before I dive into the recipe, in case you’re wondering “what’s the difference between a sugo di carne and a ragù?” I’ll do my best to answer while preemptively apologizing to the Italian food police, who still somehow have the energy to work during a pandemic.

Basically, and this is my gathering, the two terms are used interchangeably. While technically sugo just means ‘sauce’ (usually tomato and/or veg based), whereas a ragù is a thick sauce of minced meat, veggies and at times tomato. I’ve seen “sugo di carne” (meat sauce) used so I really don’t know the real answer. To me, a ragù is something long cooked with meat and aromatic vegetables.

And as usual, there is an interesting history behind ragù, I’m sure you may have heard it originated in France as ragoût, from the verb ragouter meaning to stimulate appetite. The  ragoût was said to be introduced in the late 1790’s when Napoleon invaded Italy. Although meat sauces have existed as far back as Renaissance times, they were treated as singular dish not typically paired with pasta, similar to how braised or stewed meats are served.

The addition pasta didn’t come until the end of the 18th century when in Imola (near Bologna) Alberto Alvisi first created “The Cardinal’s ragù with maccheroni.” To geek out more, peep these ragù-themed articles (one in English and one in Italian).

Plus if you didn’t know, meat sauces styled in the Bolognese fashion isn’t the only way to ragù. The Neapolitans also have their style of ragù where they slow cook “poorer” chunks of meat plus prosciutto, lard and aromatic herbs for what seems like 12 days.

Tandem in Naples is where I discovered the world of oily, rich, braised meat red sauce ragù, sometimes cut with ricotta and pasta. I preferred the slather and dip with crusty bread version. But really can’t go wrong with ragù with ricotta and pasta, too.

the best ever scarpetta (bread sauce mopping) you’ll EVER do
Naples has a mean ragù game and Tandem is where it’s at. Let’s pretend this whole pandemic thing doesn’t exist and meet here tomorrow (in our dreams, of course)

Now with the ragù chat out of the way, onwards to the recipe!

Pici al ragù di agnello (serves 4, if in fewer eaters, the sauce makes for great leftovers)

Ingredients (feel free to use substitutions and if the Italian food police come after you, let them know we’re literally living under lockdown so maybe cool it?):

MEAT SAUCE (I follow the principles of the bolognese for this ragu’)

  • Soffrito base: 4 small carrots, 4 celery stalks, one onion: all diced as small as possible
  • Butter or good Olive Oil (enough to cook the soffrito base but not too much- so 1-2 tablespoons?) There’s a lot of fat in this dish!
  • 3 ounces of chopped pancetta (from the deli counter of a specialty grocer, Italian deli or butcher- not prepackaged it’s a waste of calories as it has literally no taste)
  • 1/2 pound/8 ounces of ground lamb meat
  • 3/4 cup of jarred or canned tomato puree OR 2oz concentrated tomato paste if you don’t have puree on hand and make sure to add water to thin out
  • 1/2 cup Red or white wine (honestly whatever dry wine you have on hand)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup of whole fat milk
  • 1/2 cup- 1 cup water or broth (amount you have to do “by eye” as needed if the sauce starts to dry out or if you are using tomato concentrate)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • OPTIONAL: one bay leaf, a pinch of cinnamon

PASTA: You can make the pici by hand, but I used packaged pici because it was in my cupboard from our food club. If you get dried pasta, make sure it’s slow dried and is bronze die cut. I boiled about 50grams of pasta (2 ounces) for each portion (but wouldn’t judge if you doubled)

This (nest) is about 50grams

Directions: Add the diced pancetta to your favorite sauce pot and cook on med-high (not too low but not high that it starts to brown) until the pancetta “melts” in a way and releases its grease. Add butter (or olive oil), then your chopped veg soffrito and a sprinkling of salt (not too much since pancetta is salt cured) until they sweat down/soften but careful not to brown.

Once veg is softened, add the minced meat (lamb) (and here is where you’d add the optional pinch of cinnamon and bay leave) and bath in a half cup of wine, cook until pretty much all the liquid has evaporated but not completely. A lot of ragu’ making is by giving your undivided attention and following your intuition. I feel like there should never be too much liquid between steps otherwise the flavors don’t concentrate and get diluted.

Once the wine liquid has mostly cooked off, add the tomato puree, cover (but not airtight), lower heat so the sauce simmers calmly (a little bubbling but not a roaring simmer) for at least 2 hours (stay nearby, hang in the kitchen with a book/catch up on texts, etc) and stirring occasionally to a. make sure the sauce doesn’t burn and b. to see if the sauce starts to dry out. If it does, add some water or broth LITTLE BY LITTLE. Again, you don’t want to dilute the flavors! At some point, taste and add salt if needed.

Mine came out rich but I suspect I used too much fat (but I mean it was amazingly delicious even if my arteries now hate me)

About 20 minutes before you’d like to stop slow cooking, add the milk to the sauce. At this time, start to cook the dried pici in boiling salted water (they take about 20 minutes to cook from dried since so thick). I never time it, I usually pick strands out and taste until at the desired “al dente.” Drain the pasta but save the pasta water for degreasing the dishes!

Note on pasta: I suggest to boil the pasta water in a large pot about a half hour before the sauce is ready since it takes10 minutes to bring to boil and then 20 minutes to cook.

Note on the milk, I tend to use less milk since it is intended to add an added layer of richness and emulsify the flavors and I’m always afraid of too much liquid. And if anyone wants to give me guff about milk in ragu’, it’s apart of the official registered Bolognese recipe by Bologna’s delegation of the Italian Cuisine Academy/L’Accademia della Cucina Italiana presso La Camera di Commercio di Bologna

Once the sauce is ready and pasta cooked, toss some sauce in the cooked pici in a bowl or a pan (if you do in a heated pan, then take out the pasta about 2 minutes before full al dente so it finishes in the pan as you toss with sauce) then plate and if you wish, top with pecorino (aged sheep’s milk cheese) or parmigiano. 


For a wine pairing: I’d say something rich and full bodied like a Brunello (2010 maybe if you’re feeling crazy), Chianti Classico Riserva or Gran Selezione (2016 or older), Etna Rosso (not the latest release) Sangiovese Superiore (again, no sooner than 2016) from the Emilia-Romagna or another aged full-bodied red with robust tannins to cut through all this red saucy fat and protein. There are plenty more options!

For more in-depth pasta wine pairing intel, consider one of our online food tours like this one all about pasta & wine pairing led by a sommelier, who will also discuss vintages as an important factor in wine selection, etc.

Before you leave, here’s a little PSA I wanted to share

I try to keep my sales pitches to a minimum, and it’s not the sort of request I like making so thank you for reading. This is an extremely hard time for my tiny food tour business, I know I’m not alone and the crisis has taken an economic toll on literally millions of people. If you’ve been affected, my heart goes out to you- this all sucks.

While I appreciate not everyone is in a position to help economically, I would greatly appreciate support however you find comfortable. I’ve delighted in the years dedicated to this blog compiling food and drink guides, Italy and other food destination travel advice, insights to living in Italy and occasionally writing recipes.

My blog does not generate money by ads and I never accept comp’d meals in exchange for reviews. Like many bloggers, we love what we do.

If you are in the position to support and feel my blog has provided you usefulness and/or value now or over the years, I’d encourage you to consider the following options:

A fun option would be signing up for one of my company’s online experiences, from online wine pairing chats, Renaissance food history seminars to fresh pasta making lessons (FYI I am not personally taking any of the money generated from these- all revenue is paid out to our collaborators in Italy. It’s meaningful to me if I can help them somehow thanks to you. If you’re not into online tours, you can contribute via PayPal, purchase a gift certificate for future Italy travel (good for edible activities in Florence or Bologna) or sign-up for our food club boxes.

If you do not have the financial means to support Curious Appetite but would like to somehow, you can do so by subscribing to our newsletter, following us on  Facebook and/or Instagram if you don’t already and sharing any of the blog posts like this recipe or past articles to your friends who might appreciate recipes or Italian food articles.

If you make any of my recipes, I would love to share your creations on social media (hashtag #curiousappetite and link @curiousappetite so I can re-share!) or send the link to our online food tours with anyone you know who might want to spend an hour virtually touring with one of our sommelier food historian guides in Italy.

Thank you infinitely for taking the time to read and cook with me. And a mega grazie if you are able to support in any way! I’m wishing all of us the day we can party in the rain in the piazzas of Florence popping bubbles and fearlessly hugging every single person in sight.

In your trust for better times ahead,

Curious Appetite (Coral:)

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