by Dana Bowen


A true ragù alla bolognese served over fresh, handmade egg pasta could be called the ultimate tribute to the farmers, millers, and artisans of the fertile Po River valley and the surrounding region of Emilia-Romagna, Italy's agricultural heartland. The best cooks in Bologna and its environs know that a dish of pasta and ragù is only as good as the ingredients used to make it, and in this regard those cooks have an unparalleled bounty at their disposal. From parmigiano-reggiano cheese to the legendary cured hams of Parma, the agricultural and artisanal products from this part of Italy benefit from the region's uniquely humid and cool microclimate, as well as the tradition of filiera integrata, an integrated chain of production in which a by-product of one process (whey, for example, which is left over after the making of cheese) is conserved for use in another (for the feeding of hogs, say). Here is a closer look at the four elemental ingredients of pasta and ragù.

La Carne Ragù is, first and foremost, a meat sauce, and the meat that a cook chooses to add to the dish has historically depended on the particular region of Emilia-Romagna from which he or she hails. In Bologna, beef from retired dairy cattle was traditionally used, on its own or with a bit of veal. Cooks from outside the capital city have always been more flexible, using chicken livers, giblets, various kinds of game, and pork, another product for which the region is renowned. Nowadays, cooks are less tethered to geographic preferences, and they select their meat according to personal preference and availability. "I always add fresh pork," says Anna Nanni, the chef at Trattoria Amerigo dal 1934, outside Bologna, who says it adds a sweetness to the mix. "If I have prosciutto, I'll use it too." Prosciutto di Parma, the prized dry-cured, long-aged ham, is often deemed too pricey to add to ragù, though other, less expensive country-style prosciutti can give a lusty effect. Alberto Bettini, the owner of the restaurant where Nanni cooks, obtains his fresh and cured pork from a local farmer named Beppe Ferri, who raises hogs of a venerated breed, called mora romagnola, that was common in Emilia-Romagna until the 1950s, when other, more commercially viable breeds took over. The meat imparts a full flavor and, combined with other ingredients, makes Nanni's ragù one of the best in the region.