One of my passions is mastering Italian cooking, specifically northern Italian cooking, specifically ragu (not the horrid stuff in a jar at the supermarket), specifically Bolognese. “Spag Bol” is a European staple. You can get a bowl of the stuff anywhere. But once upon a time, when I was in my James Bond/Robert Ludlum stage of my career, working for a Liechtenstein financier and commuting between Zurich and the shores of Lago Lugano, I was driving a rented Mini Cooper S at high speed along the shores of a magical alpine lake, pretending I was Sterling Moss winning the Mille Miglia, when I zipped past an outdoor trattoria — a shack with some picnic tables right on the waterside.
I backtracked, pulled in, and made it known that I wanted food. Not knowing what I wanted, I put myself in the hands of the owner, who returned with a bottle of beer and bowl of gnocchi covered in a meat sauce that was characterized by lots of orange grease.
From the first bite I knew it was the best thing I had ever eaten. Ten minutes later the owner returned to ask me how it was going. I held up two fingers. Do it again.
Ever since that lakeside lunch I have been in pursuit of the orange-greased meat sauce, aka a ragu, or, as the French would say, a ragout. I have, for years, been relying on Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and her recipe for Bolognese. It’s a decent recipe, but never yields the perfection of the lakeside trattoria. This weekend I read Bill Buford’s account of his obessive Italian cooking quest, Heat and realized Hazen was for amateurs. Buford, like me, is a ragu fanatic, and throughout his account of his year in Mario Batali’s kitchen at Babbo in NYC, he focuses on two quests — the perfect ragu and the perfect pasta.
All I know and care about is that my experiments are relished by my family and friends, and nothing beats a bad weather weekend than trying to move one step closer to that Lugano lunch. Somehow, I know I’ll never get there, but trying is a lot of fun.