Why It Works
- A garlic and herb "battuto” gives this meatless dish plenty of savory depth.
- Taking time to cut the vegetables by hand into a consistent small dice ensures that they maintain their form and achieve the perfect texture, standing in as the "meat” in this vegetable ragù.
- Giving the onions a head start in a covered pot ensures that they will cook thoroughly and become soft and sweet.
- Stirring high quality olive oil into the sauce right before serving gives the the pasta a rich, peppery finish.
Sugo finto, or “fake sauce,” is a meatless Tuscan ragù rooted in the tradition of cucina povera, the "poor" peasant cooking of Central and Southern Italy. Also known as sugo scappato, or “escaped sauce,” which refers to the pricey meat that has escaped the pot, sugo finto relies on a vegetable soffritto to stand in for ground beef, and turns to Tuscan staples like fresh woodsy herbs, garlic, and red wine to add layers of flavor to what is essentially a hearty tomato sauce.
Sugo finto is traditionally served over a thick, hand–rolled pasta called pici, which look like thick, rustic spaghetti. For this recipe, since it was unrealistic to ask people to roll individual noodles by hand, I set out to find an acceptable dried pasta alternative to pici. After testing different dried options, I found that dried spaghetti alla chitarra make a decent substitute*, thanks to the pasta’s thick profile and substantial chew. Bucatini or spaghettoni also work in a pinch.
*I’m still going to make my own pici for sugo finto at my house because they're just really fun to make. Have you ever watched a Tuscan nonna hand-roll these noodles? If not, get on that ASAP.
There’s a pretty standard formula for making sugo finto: soffritto + herbs + garlic + wine + tomato. Somehow, even with this straightforward map, I ended up running into a few issues. The first time I made it, I tried to bypass the age-old battuto technique**—using a mezzaluna to rock back and forth over a pile of chopped onions, carrots, and celery to make a finely minced soffritto base—by using my food processor, only to discover that hand-mincing has its textural benefits.
**"Battuto" is the term for the raw mixture of minced vegetables (usually onion, carrot, and celery) that will become "soffritto" when cooked. Like batter becoming cake.
The food processor puréed the onions into a watery and sulphurous pulp; the carrot and celery pieces were chopped so unevenly that some melted away in the sauce while larger chunks remained crunchy in the finished dish. I quickly returned to my trusty cutting board and chef’s knife (since I don’t own a mezzaluna). Spending a few minutes dicing the vegetables by hand is time well-spent; after all, they’re the “meat” of the sauce.
I wanted this sauce to take all the time it needed on the stovetop, but while some meat ragus spend the better portion of a day lazily simmering away, the texture of the vegetables actually suffered if they were cooked too long; they melted right into the tomato sauce, and the texture they should provide as a substitute for meat disappeared. So simmer sugo finto just until the vegetables soften completely, but then stop.
For the tomatoes in this sugo, I turned to one of our favorite ingredients for sauces—tomato passata—that lends the sugo finto brightness and a velvety, noodle–coating texture.
I now had a pretty good tomato sauce, but it didn’t taste particularly Tuscan; the rosemary, sage, and parsley weren’t shining through. Throughout testing I had been adding the fresh herbs to the sauce in stages: cooking sage with garlic cloves at the beginning of the process, tossing in a sprig of rosemary when adding the passata, and finishing the dish with chopped parsley at the end.
This follows the generally accepted cooking conventions: woodsy herbs stand up to longer cooking, while tender, leafy ones are used for garnishing so as not to lose their milder aroma. I decided to ditch that approach and make a garlic–herb battuto, mincing all of the herbs with garlic cloves to form a coarse paste that gets added to the soffritto before the tomatoes go into the pot. Cooking this paste of herbs and garlic gave the sauce the deep aromatic punch it was missing before.
With the sauce squared away, and the pasta shape chosen, it seemed that all was resolved. But when I prepared a final side-by-side test, dressing dried pasta and homemade pici with sugo finto, I was still disappointed in the final flavor of the dried pasta version, which was missing some of the richness from the olive oil in the pici dough (some recipes, like the one in the Pasta Grannies video linked above, use egg instead of oil). Finishing the sugo finto with a drizzle of olive oil when tossing with the cooked dried pasta gave the dish the grassy and peppery flavor it was missing, adding just the right amount of richness to the poor, fake sauce.
- 1 loosely packed cup (1/2 ounce; 15g) fresh parsley leaves and tender stems
- 4 medium garlic cloves (20g)
- 6 medium fresh sage leaves
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves removed and stems discarded
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, cut into small dice
- Kosher salt
- 8 ounces (225g) carrots, peeled and cut into small dice (about 4 small carrots)
- 2 celery ribs (4 ounces; 115g total), trimmed and cut into small dice
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup (120ml) dry red wine
- 2 cups (500g; 475ml) tomato passata (see note)
- 1 pound (450g) dried spaghetti alla chitarra, bucatini, or spaghetti
- Finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, for serving (optional)
Pile parsley, garlic, sage, and rosemary on a cutting board. Using a chef’s knife, rock back and forth through the garlic and herbs to mince together into a coarse paste. Set aside.
In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, season lightly with salt, cover, and cook until softened and translucent but not browned, about 10 minutes, lowering heat as needed to prevent browning. Stir in carrots, celery, and red pepper flakes and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
Add garlic-herb mixture to vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in wine, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom and sides of the pot. Cook until wine is reduced by half, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in passata and 1 cup (240ml) water.
Bring sauce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting heat as needed to maintain a simmer, until thickened to a saucy consistency, just slightly thicker than the original consistency of the passata, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta until just shy of al dente (about 2 minutes less than the package directs). Using tongs, transfer pasta to sauce, along with 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 1 cup (240ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce coats noodles, 1 to 2 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed to adjust consistency of sauce. Remove from heat and stir in remaining 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil until fully incorporated. Season with salt. Divide between individual serving bowls, sprinkle with cheese, and serve.
Sugo finto is traditionally eaten with fresh pici, a fresh pasta that's rolled by hand into long, thick, and chewy noodles. Dried spaghetti alla chitarra work best as a store-bought substitute.
Jarred passata (tomatoes that have been briefly simmered and passed through a food mill) can be found in the canned tomato aisle in supermarkets or Italian markets. If you can’t find passata, you can substitute with an equal amount by weight of whole peeled tomatoes that have been quickly blended with an immersion blender, passed through a food mill, or crushed by hand (hand-crushed tomatoes won't produce the same smoothness as passata).
Make-Ahead and Storage
The finished sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat gently on the stovetop before serving.