Mita’s Sugo: Tuscan Classic

It must have been in 1973 or 74 that Mita Antolini showed me how to make her Tuscan sugo. She sat in my kitchen and directed me as I chopped onions, garlic, parsley, and all the other ingredients of a classic soffritto. Then she stirred the sauce with a big old wooden spoon, its edges charred and cracked from use. I’m guessing the spoon itself added immeasureably to the flavors in the sauce. This was served over tagliatelle, but she often made potato gnocchi for Sunday lunch and the sugo went atop them too. It’s also one of my favorites to serve on a plate of soft polenta.

Mita serving pasta al sugo at the family table

I’ve been making Mita’s sugo for almost half a century and it just keeps getting better and better. But what surprised me, and I made note of it at the time, was that her sugo was ready in less than an hour, although it could have cooked for another two or three, at a very low simmer and constantly adding a little more liquid as it cooked down. I was used to Americans writing about Italian food, most often recommending that a ragu be cooked slowly for hours and hours until the sauce was dense and mahogany colored. But the simplicity of Mita’s sugo and the freshness of flavor (note that it has very little meat) has its own appeal—not to mention its ease of preparation. The trick is in the heat adjustments—up, down, medium, low, always keeping an eye on what’s happening in the skillet.

Here’s what is needed to make sugo for pasta weighing 500 grams (about 1 ¼ pounds), the standard weight for a package of imported pasta:

  •             1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  •             2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  •             ¼ cup minced flat leaf parsley
  •             1 green celery rib, chopped, leaves and all
  •             1 small carrot, finely chopped
  •             3 or 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  •             ¼ pound ground very lean beef, veal, or pork
    1 chicken liver, cleaned and chopped
  •             1/3 cup dry white wine
  •             1 28-ounce can imported Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano (in season, you could use 4 or 5 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped)
  •             1 small bunch of basil, slivered, to make about 1/3 cup

Chop the onion, garlic, parsley, celery, and carrot together, then add them to a skillet with 3 tablespoons of oil. Set over medium-low heat and saute gently, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft but not brown, about 10 or 15 minutes. Add the ground meat and the chicken liver, raise the heat slightly and cook, stirring constantly, until the meats have lost all trace of rosiness, about 10 minutes.

Pour in the wine and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and let the wine cook off until just a few tablespoons remain in the pan. Then turn the tomatoes, juice and all, into the pan, raise the heat again and cook briskly, chopping the tomatoes with the side of a spoon, until the sauce is dense and thick, the tomatoes have reduced almost to a puree, and the juice has cooked down to a few tablespoons, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt and pepper. At the last minute, stir in the slivered basil and set the sauce aside but keep it warm until you’re ready to use it.

polenta with sugo

A note about the basil: The flavor of fresh basil is ephemeral and disappears with long cooking. For that reason, if you’re not going to use the sauce immediately, hold off on the basil until you’re just about ready to serve. But the sugo, obviously, should be hot before it’s used on any pasta or gnocchi.

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