Spaghetti Bolognese – An Italian Classic That is Not Italian

Spaghetti Bolognese – An Italian Classic That is Not Italian

Spaghetti bolognese, or ‘spag bol’ as it is often referred to with affectionate derision, is one of those quintessential ‘Italian’ dishes that has been loved by diners throughout the world. The dish became a staple of home-cooked dinners, a regular on canteen and mess hall menus, a fixed offering on pub menus and a must on the menus of Italian restaurants in every corner of the globe. There is a very simple reason to explain why this dish has been so universally embraced: when it is good, it is really good. Unfortunately, it is not always good but often bad: an insipid meat sauce drowning overcooked spaghetti, resulting in a tasteless sludge.

Spaghetti bolognese is a simple dish to prepare – most Italian dishes are – and presents no technical challenges for even the novice cook; a few good-quality ingredients and attention during the cooking of the pasta and the sauce is all that is required. It is hard to forgive badly cooked spaghetti bolognese, it demonstrates indifference and negligence on the part of the cook. 

The name spaghetti bolognese – spaghetti in the style of Bologna – implies the dish comes from Bologna, or the region of which Bologna is the capital, Emilia-Romagna. This is in fact not the case. While the bolognese meat sauce is typical of Bologna and the Emilia-Romagna region, dried spaghetti is definitely not. Emilia Romagna is the heartland of fresh egg pasta, and no cook from this region worth their salt – remember that Italians are culinary xenophobes, not towards other nations but towards other regions and even neighbouring towns – would dream of pairing their famed bolognese meat sauce to the dried pasta that is more typical of other Italian regions, particularly those in the south – an act tantamount to heresy.

Spaghetti bolognese is a hybrid dish, a mix of elements from different Italian regions, and unlikely to be encountered in any restaurant in Italy serving genuine Italian regional food. At best, the dish may be present on the menus of the folkloric restaurants that crowd the piazzas and corsos of Italy’s main tourist centres – a trap to entice the negligent culinary tourist who comes to Italy hoping to satisfy his gourmet dreams of eating ‘authentic’ spaghetti bolognese.

Even though it is not Italian, a well-made bolognese -style meat sauce works wonderfully well with properly cooked, al dente spaghetti. It is no accident that in his search for perfection, Heston Blumenthal makes it his mission to unearth the secret of real Italian spaghetti bolognese, a testimony to how this non-Italian dish has become so deeply engrained in the psyche of non-Italians as a true icon of Italian food. In choosing to pair his ‘perfect’ bolognese -style meat sauce to dried spaghetti, Blumenthal falls into the same trap as just about every non-Italian, unless of course his intentions were deliberate and he did not want to take the spaghetti out of bolognese in fear of alienating the millions of people throughout the world who have come to love this dish as an authentic icon of Italian cooking.

The regional character of Italian cooking is no more apparent than in the infinite variety of pasta dishes prepared throughout Italy. Every region has its own unique specialties based on local customs, traditions and culinary history. The pasta itself is the foundation. It may be fresh egg pasta made with flour and eggs, or dried pasta made with just flour and water. It may be long (like spaghetti) or short (like penne), round, square or spiralled, hollow, solid or filled (like ravioli) – the varieties are almost infinite. The sauce is the embellishment, meat, fish or vegetables prepared in countless different ways. Emphasis is always placed on matching an appropriate sauce to an appropriate type of pasta, and on how a given type of pasta will hold and absorb a given type of sauce.

Just about every Italian region has its own type of ‘spaghetti bolognese’ known generically as pasta al ragù, meaning simply pasta with sauce – the type of pasta and the type of sauce are combined according to regional traditions. What the rest of the world means by spaghetti bolognese in Italy would be tagliatelle al ragù. That is, if we interpret spaghetti bolognese to be the pasta dish that is typical of Bologna.

The meaning of the word ragù is worth exploring, as it will help us to better understand what Italians really mean when they use it to name or describe their pasta dishes. The word ragù derives from the French ragout, which means to cook meat, fish or vegetables in liquid over a low heat for a prolonged period of time, just like a braise or a stew. In Italian, ragù implies meat rather than fish or vegetables – a fish or vegetable ragù will be specified as such, ragù di pesce or ragù di verdure. The meat is cooked in a sauce or liquid that becomes the base of the pasta dressing. There are two general categories of ragù. One involves the cooking of whole pieces of meat (more common in the south of Italy) where the enriched sauce is used to dress the pasta, and the slow-cooked meat will then be enjoyed as a second course – the famed ragù napoletano is an example. The other involves cutting the meat into small pieces, or even mincing it, prior to cooking, which is how a bolognese-style meat sauce is prepared. In some cases, the meat is first cooked whole and after cooking is cut into small pieces and mixed back through the cooking liquid, resulting in a more coarsely textured sauce. This style of ragù is often used with game, such as duck or rabbit.  

The ‘classic’ regional pasta dishes of Italy are not classics by chance. They not only satisfy our tastes, but, importantly, connect us to the deeply rooted cultures and traditions of their regions of origin. Italians are staunchly loyal to their local traditions, and this is why they are so attached to their regional dishes and intolerant of misinterpretations. The classics of Italian cookery have survived history – they need no tweaking. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t experiment with new combinations of pasta and sauce by matching ingredients from different regions and adopting new and modern cooking techniques – the new breed of Italian chefs are doing just this. These chefs are even challenging the traditional canons of how pasta should be cooked. Al dente, or firm to the bite, is no longer acceptable and deemed to be overcooked. The new word describing how pasta should be cooked is al chiodo, or like a nail, offering a hint of crunch due to it remaining ever-so-slightly raw in the middle. Clearly, the emerging generation of Italian chefs privilege texture in their cooking. Home-style Italian cooking is not this obsessive, but nevertheless is intolerant to overcooked pasta. Sludgy spaghetti bolognese will just not cut it in Italy.

The keys to successful pasta cookery are simple: do not overcook the pasta, match the right sauce to the right type of pasta, and remember that the sauce is a condiment to the pasta – the amount needs to be right, not too much or not too little.