How to cook like an Italian grandma

In 1996, Katherine Wilson, a native of Washington, D.C., went to Italy for an unpaid internship.

She’s been there ever since because she fell in love: with the country, with a man, and with his glamorous, beguiling, and boundlessly big-hearted mother.

Naturally, the man, Salvatore, became Katherine’s husband, and once they had kids, his mom, Raffaella, approached grandmotherhood with fervor.

“Raffaella, like many Italian grandmothers, is carnale,” says Katherine, 41, who recently published a memoir, Only In Naples: Lessons In Food and Famiglia From My Italian Mother-in-Law.

“Which is not carnal in the English sense—derogatory, with sexual connotations—but rather giving of love with all the senses. A fleshy, cuddly love.”

She kisses. She hugs. She rubs sore feet after soccer matches.

And, of course, she cooks.

Raffaella lives in Naples and Katherine, Salvatore, and their two kids live in Rome, but every two weeks she arrives on their doorstep with a suitcase full of made-from-scratch food.

The essence of many of her dishes is her tomato sauce, or ragù, which she learned to make from her mother and which requires 12 hours of nurturance over a medium-low flame. (That doesn’t include the time it takes to dice the onion, grind the tomatoes, and brown three different kinds of meat.)

“You never want your ragù to be red, in Naples it must be closer to black and so dense that it’s hard to stir,” she has explained to Katherine.

All the same, she’s sometimes in a hurry, so she’s developed a recipe for “rushed” ragù that she allowed Katherine to publish in her book, and which I’m thrilled to be reprinting here with permission from Random House.

Buon appetito!

nonna raffaella’s rushed Ragù with rigatoni

1 small yellow onion, diced

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¾ pound gallinella di maiale (Neapolitan dialect for the meaty muscle from the lower part of the pig’s thigh) divided in three quarter-pound, 2-inch cubes 

¾ pound veal shank, divided in three quarter-pound, 2-inch cubes

2 pork ribs (about ¾ pounds together), split lengthwise in 2-inch pieces

1 glass red wine

2¼ tablespoons tomato paste

Six 15-ounce cans of the purest peeled tomatoes you can find (Check ingredients! See below!)

Salt to taste

A few leaves of basil

1½ pounds rigatoni

A handful of large-grain salt (sea salt, for example) for boiling pasta

1 cup grated Parmesan

Fresh bread

My mother-in-law knows you’re busy (“Chiste hanno ’a fa, non tengono tiempo, she says. These people don’t have time, Ketrin, they’ve got things to do), so here’s the three-hour ragù recipe rather than the twelve-hour one. She also knows you’d prefer olive oil to lard, and that you probably don’t have a pot that’s made of hardened clay. So here’s what you need and here’s what she’ll give you: a recipe for “rushed” ragù. 

First, put an apron on, and don’t think of removing it until you’ve turned off the stove. When the ragù starts to spit, it takes no prisoners. Get a pot that is not only wide but tall. (The height is important when the sauce spatters—Raffaella is worried about your kitchen as well as your clothes.) Dice the onion and put it in the pot with the olive oil. 

Non ti ho detto di accendere ancora. She hasn’t told you to turn on the flame yet, so keep your pants on. Position all the chunks of meat on top of the oil and onion, and scrunch them in tight with your fingers. Shanks and hocks, pigs and cows—all down there together, at the bottom of the cool pot.

Now it’s time to turn on a medium-low flame. Si deve imbiondire la cipolla, the onion has to become blond, and the meat has to rosolare, pinken. You can put away dishes, or wash a pan in the meantime. You’ll be tempted, like me, to keep walking over to the pot to make sure something bad doesn’t happen. But you’ve got to leave it alone. It’s like raising kids. They’re always there, in your mind, but you don’t have to hover over them. Don’t be a helicopter parent to your ragù. 

Move the chunks of meat around every once in a while with your wooden spoon so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. After 8 or 9 minutes, turn the pieces over. The meat is releasing water, and will continue to do so for about 20  minutes. As long as there is water in the pot, it’s too early to add the wine. You know there is water because of all the brown bubbles. (I thought that was oil boiling, but no, it’s water. Oil doesn’t boil. What, do you fry blindfolded, Ketrin?)

When the meat is a dark crusty brown, the onion looks a little burned, and there are fewer bubbles, turn up the heat to high. Pour a few drops of dark red wine on each chunk of meat, like you are performing a baptism. (Nel nome del Padre, del Figlio, e dello Spirito Santo.) Enjoy the sound it makes. After a minute or two, repeat until you have poured the whole glass of wine.

Continue to scrape the sides and bottom of the pot regularly. The chunks of meat should slide around more easily now, and the sides should look like you are never in a million years going to get this pot clean.

In the pools of dark purply-brown liquid in between the pieces of meat, drop half-teaspoon dollops of tomato paste. After plopping in each dollop, stemperatelo, mash it with the back of your wooden spoon. The paste should become one with the liquid in the pot. (You’ve been at this for around 45 minutes now, but don’t despair! The avviamento of the ragù—setting it on its way—is almost completed. The time is coming when you’re going to send this ragù off to college.)

A word on the tomatoes that you are about to pour in. The six cans of peeled tomatoes sitting on the counter ready to be ground up would ideally have been canned by you, during hot summer days, with your womenfolk. Since they probably haven’t, you must trust the brand you have chosen. The ingredients should say: TOMATOES. Basta. Okay, salt we can let slide. But if it says anything else … Raffaella will teach you how to can your own. Oregano? Garlic? Preservatives? Scordatelo. Forget about it.

With an immersion blender, grind up three cans of the tomatoes you’ve chosen and add them to the pot. Continue to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan. After a few minutes, grind up the other three cans and add them to the now red ragù.

Turn the flame down as low as it will go—piano piano piano piano!—gently gently softly softly!—and cover the pot. Now you can get back to your busy life. (But remember, don’t take off your apron, because in about an hour, your ragù is going to start spitting up a storm.) The sound that until now has been a frying zzzzssssssshhhhhhh now should become a very mellow bloop … bloop … bloop, which Raffaella calls purpullià. (I thought the verb was pippiare, but I’ve heard pappulià, pippulià … apparently there are as many Neapolitan terms for the slow boiling of ragù as Eskimos’ terms for snow.)

Check on your ragù every half hour or so. Take the cover off the pot, and wipe away the water on the underside of the lid that has accumulated from the steam. Add salt and the basil leaves. Stir the ragù, and make sure it doesn’t stick to the sides and bottom of the pot. Admire how it is becoming denser, darker, and more arraggià—Neapolitan dialect for angry, but meaning tense and dense. A spitfire. 

Cover the pot again. After hour two, you can take out all the pieces of meat except the ribs: leave them in until the end. When the ragù has been cooking for three hours total, turn off the flame. Boil rigatoni in salted water (use coarse sea salt for the pasta water, never table salt!) and after straining, dump the pasta into the pot of deep red ragùSprinkle grated Parmesan and serve with fresh bread to sop up the ragùThe pieces of meat can be served after all the pasta has been consumed, never together. 

Ecco fatto: all done. Now you can take off your apron.