October 6, 2007

The Secrets of Sugo -Tuscan Ragu

The True Test of Sugo, with Tuscan Bread

In most Italian households, Sunday lunch is not just a meal, but a major eating event.

No work on Sunday allows for the long leisurely lunches Italians are famous for.
Slow-cooking potroasts, stews and meat sauces, called ragu, or here in Florence sugo,
left simmering for hours on stovetops, filling the air with the fragrance of home.

Since I am leaving for a week of touring with a group of chocolate makers, I wanted to do something special for my husband. The way to a man’s heart is still through his stomach, at least in this household, and there is nothing like sugo to say “ Ti amo”, I love you.

Meat sauce can be used in many ways and although there are only two of us in the household,
I always make a big batch.
Served on small bread slices, it begins a meal as a crostino.
Stirred into penne pasta with a dusting of parmesan cheese for a light lunch
or layered with béchamel sauce and pasta,
it is lasagna for the long lunches.

One of the secrets of a fabulous sugo is the soffritto, the trinity of carrot, red onion and celery,

finely minced

and left to cook slowly until it almost burns.

The carmelization ( light burning) of the soffritto is what makes it taste like an Tuscan mamma made it!

Once the soffritto has cooked completely, I add the sausage and let it cook first, pressing down with the back of my wooden spoon, to break it into tiny pieces, then add the lean ground meat.

I like to use high heat, a throw back from my years in a professional kitchen and I think that is also one of the secrets.

Get hot! A quick searing also gives more flavor than letting the meal boil.
Once the meats are cooked , add some tomato sauce and salt to taste.

A little lemon zest in the sauce is a trick I learned from Romeo at Trattoria Mario in Florence.

When I have some on hand, I also add some of the Tuscane Droghe, a spice blend similar to pumpkin pie spice: cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice and more - giving a renaissance flavor to the sugo.

A splash of red wine, adding porcini mushrooms or some sliced prosciutto to the sauce only makes it richer and for more special occasions such as Christmas.

The sugo freezes well and reheats in the time it takes to bring a pot of water to boil for the pasta.

Buon Appetito!
Why wait for Sunday, make your sugo any night.
It cooks slowly while watching your favorite TV show and will give you many meals of pleasure!

Sugo di Carne
The meat sauce for the lasagna for La Notte di San Lorenzo, August 10th,
is called sugo in Florence and is mostly beef and very little tomato sauce. Tomatoes were introduced into Italian cooking after the discovery of the new world. For a more authentic version, use red wine in place of the tomato sauce. I call this version Sugo Di Vino!

1 red onion
1 carrot
1 celery stalk

1/2 pound ground sirloin
1 sausage, skinned
12 ounce can Italian plum tomatoes

1/2 cup red wine
Extra virgin olive oil

Finely chop the carrot, onion, and celery.
Place in a pot and sautè in extra virgin olive oil until it starts to almost burn.
This trick will make it taste like Mamma made it!
It sweetens the carrots and onions and gives the sauce a really special flavor.
Take your time and do this step slowly.

Add the sausage and crush to break up the meat and cook.
Add the ground sirloin , raise the heat, and stir until browned.
Splash with wine and let the wine evaporate.
Add the tomatoes.
Salt to taste.
Lower the heat and let cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
If the sauce seems too dry, add some of the water from the pasta you are cooking.
Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente. This means that the center is cooked, not raw. Drain the pasta not too dry, and then put it back in the pan. Add the pasta sauce and stir to let the sauce flavor the pasta. You can also add some grated Parmesan cheese into the pan.
Serve extra Parmesan on the side!


  1. How cruel!!! Now instead of just cooking cassoulet, I am going to have to make a batch of Sugo to say I love you to my visiting family! I love the wine sauce. How about chocolate and tomato sauce?

  2. I love Italian food. i always add carrots in my "al sugo sauce too". You blog is wonderful

  3. WOW! I just consulted Hen House Markets in Kansas City yesterday and we made a "Tuscan Ragu". You are so correct about the carrots, what a good Blog Mom you are!!!!

  4. Anonymous2:10 AM

    We just returned from a bike tour of Tuscany - from Florence to Panzano to Siena, Montalcino and Pienza. How I miss the food! I love your blog. Please keep the recipes coming.

  5. Judy - It is 'Turkey Weekend' here (i.e. Thanksgiving) so there will be no Ragu for us, but there is always next weekend! Do you ever add herbs? A few recipes I have seen call for a small amount of rosemary or thyme.

    1. I just returned from Sienna where I had a delicious "tortelli (something like 'marevani')con ragu tuscano" which was homemade tortellini filled with a savory spinach cheese filing a hearty meat sauce... Very little tomato sauce or red color. I wondered how the meat sauce could be so flavorful and now I understand...using more than one meat and caramelizing the soffritto. As I analyzed the ragu, I did notice the carrots as well as rosemary and what I thought were a few peppercorns which had become soft from slow cooking. The meal was sooo full of flavor. Can't wait to try this recipe and duplicate.

    2. thanks for the note. the ravioli are oversized---- maremmani, like they make in the tuscan area called maremma. some people even use three meats, veal, pork and beef! or use potroast meat, cut into cubes for a more rustic ragu!

  6. Jerry,
    I never add herbs, and don't know anyone here that does. Notice also no garlic?

    Happy thanksgiving!
    saw your pumpkin ravioli!

  7. Be careful with that bread. A ragù tasted exactly like that (and in Tuscany too: marella, about 1990) caused me one of the most thraumatic experiences ever. I had not allowed the sauce to cool down enough: the bread, softened by the ragù, stuck to my palate, with an incredible ain that went straight to my brain, and despite cooling it with several moyuthfuls of cool water, caused a boil that made me uncomfortable for several days. I still get tears in my eyes when I think of it!

  8. thank you so much for posting this!
    i love sugo and have 2 recipes from other Florentine mammas, who agree on the "trinity".
    i can't wait to try this.

  9. Anonymous4:01 AM

    Yum! Made the sauce on Saturday and ate it with my husband's choice of pasta--meat filled ravioli. Had it again tonight with penne tonight. Will try it with the "pumpkin pie" spices next time. Thanks for a great recipe! Melissa in El Cajon, California

  10. Thanks for sharing this recipe with us! I love it that the ingredients are so simple, but it's the little tricks that make it.

  11. Your sugo looks just beautiful! I prepare one that is very similar, except that I leave out the celery and I add mushrooms diced into small pieces. I also like to add a little ground veal. I posted about Italians and their "ragu" a few weeks ago - mostly about how each Italian cook's sauce is unique to them and reflects his/her personality. Your personality must be terrific! ;)

    I really enjoy your blog (I have been lurking for months.) I envy you, living in such a wonderful place. Most of my family is in the Frosinone area. It is beautiful there too, although I don't get to visit often enough.

    Thanks for sharing this recipe.

  12. GLad everyone loves the sugo!

    Dressing it up I ahd chopped porcini mushrooms and red wine.

    My husband knows I love him with sugo in the freezer for when I am away on tour with groups!

    The smell of the sugo simmering on the stove, sends a hug to him when I am not there.

  13. MY absolute Fav Judy! Thanks for posting your heartfelt recipes. I love you blog! My husband loves sugo. Can I come to work for you in Florence?

  14. Judy, So glad I came across your blog, I will be back! Tuscan food is the best!!! I miss all nthe flavors of Florence!

  15. Yes, the Sunday sauce def means love around here too.Everybody makes it a little different which I think is cool because you know who made the sauce at family gatherings. Dipping the bread in the sauce while it's cooking? Now that's classic. I have to chase everyone away or they'll make a meal doing that haha

  16. Okay, I am drooling...no fair! Now, I need to make sugo, too. Luckily for me, I have a husband who makes this better than me.

  17. Cara Diva... We I send fond greetings and condolences on the misfortune of missing Shanghai.
    Yet here you are with what to do if all one can do is clean the refrigerator!

    You truly are a Diva, saying: The show must go on!

    Nancy, Geralyn, Jean and I were together last evening in California thinking of you, about their great experience (as always) in Firenze, and sending fond best wishes.

    CP, now back in KC.

  18. delish!! I wish I knew you knew Romea at Mario's when I was living there;). What a nice meal we would have had together!

  19. @janelle- I lived down the street for 20 years!

  20. @janelle- saw you also went to dario's! I worked there for two years too- the mostarda is my recipe!
    My best friend lives in Seattle- may come up this January when I am at mom's in california!

  21. Anonymous7:19 PM

    Cooking down now as I type.

  22. What is interesting to me about this recipe is that there are relatively few ingredients, yet you can tell from the pictures that it is beyond flavorful and rich. I love the tip about letting the soffritto almost burn. I will try that on my next attempt at ragu.

  23. Where is the garlic?