Why It Works
- A slow-cooked red sauce picks up tons of flavor from pork ribs and beef.
- Waiting to add the sausages until later in cooking keeps them moist and tender.
A couple of weeks back I spent a good deal of time developing a recipe for lasagna Napoletana, a lasagna stuffed with smoked cheese, sausage, meatballs, and a rich, meaty tomato sauce. That meat-packed tomato sauce is known as ragù Napoletano.
As I said in that recipe, the undisputed king of ragùs is ragù Bolognese. But if you were to pick a president and el tigre numero uno of the ragù world, it'd be ragù Napoletano, a meaty stew with big chunks of meat and sausages simmered until fall-apart tender in a rich tomato sauce. It's the precursor to the Italian-American Sunday gravy that we know here in the States: just add some meatballs, serve it with spaghetti, and you're there.
While the recipe I developed for that particular dish was based 100% on pork (as is traditional for the lasagna), I figured it'd be a short hop, skip and a jump to adapting the same technique to work with a combination of pork, beef, and sausage, to deliver a true ragù suitable for your Sunday table.
To make it, I start by searing large pieces of pork spareribs and beef chuck in a Dutch oven until well-browned, then add onions and garlic, followed by some red wine (it goes better with the beef in this version than the white I used in the pork-based version), some hand-crushed or pureed tomatoes, and some whole stems of basil. After that I park it in the oven for a good, slow cook (the oven produces more flavorful results than stovetop simmering due to the better browning the stew gets on its surface).
As it finishes off, I add some sausages in to cook through for about 30 minutes—sausages can overcook, and I prefer mine with a juicier texture instead of the mushy texture of long-cooked sausage. In Italy, it's common to find other meaty additions to this ragù, including various involtini (meat rolled around various stuffings like herbs and/or cheese), but that's a bit more work and hard to find premade in the States.
After you've put in the time, some really good olive oil, salt, and pepper are the only other things that this sauce needs to achieve pure and simple nirvana. That and a good pasta, that is.
While you can serve this ragù like an Italian-American Sunday gravy, in which the meat is left in the sauce and served on the pasta, it's more common in Italy to remove the meat from the sauce and serve it alongside the pasta or as a subsequent course.
Even better is when the sauce is cooked down further once the meat has been removed; that way you ensure you don't unnecessarily dry out the meat once it's ready, while still managing to further concentrate the sauce to a deep, dark, ruddy color with a flavor that's equally profound and rich. And please don't be put off by any fat that slicks this sauce's surface: That's a feature, not a but—exactly what is supposed to happen after so many hours of braising a large quantity of meat until it's meltingly tender.
The only downside of this dish is that eating it doesn't take nearly as long as making it!
After additional research and cross-testing in 2022, this recipe was updated to more closely reflect how it is prepared and served in Italy, with a more streamlined herb and spice profile and instructions to reserve the meat and serve it separately from the sauce (a detail that distinguishes this sauce from the Italian-American Sunday gravy that descends from it).
2 pounds (900g) pork spare ribs, cut into 2 chunks
2 pounds (900g) boneless beef chuck, cut into 2 chunks
2 pounds (900g) boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2 chunks
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (89ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large yellow or red onion (about 10 ounces; 283g), finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
One 6-ounce (170g) can tomato paste
2 cups (473ml) dry red wine
Two 28-ounce (794g) cans whole peeled tomatoes, preferably D.O.P. San Marzano, pureed in a blender or thoroughly crushed by hand in a large bowl
1 (2- to 3-inch) Parmesan rind (optional)
1 bunch fresh basil, divided
1 pound (454g) mild Italian sausage, in the casings (see note)
8 to 10 servings fresh or dried pasta
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 300°F (150°C). Season ribs with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering. Add ribs and cook without moving until well browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Flip and cook until second side is well browned, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate and set aside. Repeat with beef chuck and pork shoulder until browned all over and add to plate with pork ribs.
Add onions to now-empty Dutch oven and cook, scraping up any browned bits, and stirring frequently until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add tomato paste, and cook, stirring often, until paste begins to caramelize, about 2 minutes. Add wine and cook until mixture is very thick, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, Parmesan rind (if using), and 3/4 of basil. Return ribs, beef chuck, and pork shoulder to pot and bring to a simmer.
Cover with lid slightly ajar and place in the oven (see notes for slow cooker instructions). Cook, stirring occasionally, until the rib bones can be easily pulled from the meat, about 3 hours. Add sausages and continue cooking for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and reduce oven temperature to 200°F (93°C).
Transfer pork ribs, beef chuck, pork shoulder, and sausages to a bowl, discard bones, and let stand until cool enough to handle. Discard basil sprigs from sauce. Arrange meat on a platter, pour 1/2 cup (118ml) tomato sauce over meat, cover with aluminum foil, and keep warm in oven while sauce reduces.
Bring the tomato sauce in the Dutch oven to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until sauce has thickened, developed a deep red color, and reduced to about 4 cups (1L), about 1 hour. Stir in remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
To serve, cook pasta in a pot of boiling salted water until just shy of al dente (about 1 minute for fresh pasta or 1 minute short of recommended cooking time for dried pasta). Drain, reserving about 1 cup of starchy pasta water. Return pasta to the pot you just cooked it in and add half of ragù, half of pasta cooking water, and a handful of grated cheese. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring until the sauce emulsifies with the pasta water and clings to the pasta, adding more pasta water if necessary. Serve immediately, passing additional sauce, cheese, and remaining fresh basil at the table. Carve and serve meat either alongside pasta or as the following course.
Any mildly flavored sausage from the butcher will do. If no mild sausages are available, sweet Italian sausages will work.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 8 to 10|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 71g||91%|
|Saturated Fat 22g||110%|
|Total Carbohydrate 55g||20%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||17%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 27mg||137%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|