It always starts the same. I slick the bottom of my biggest enameled cast iron pot with a glug of olive oil then, thwap! I plop in a brick of fatty ground beef or pork, reveling in the crackling applause as its edges start to caramelize. I sprinkle the browned meat with salt before scooping it out and tipping in a heap of diced onions, their familiar sizzle and aroma wrapping me in a warm embrace.
From there, the meat sauce I’ve cooked faithfully throughout my adulthood can take up a hundred tiny variations before I toss it with pasta and shove comforting heaps of it in my face. Most often, it involves plenty of chopped garlic, pureed tomatoes, a handful of torn herbs, and maybe a splash of last night’s red wine.
But now that a pandemic has largely confined me within the walls of my Chicago apartment, with nary a dinner reservation or far-flung trip on the horizon, meat sauce, in its endless comfy guises, carries a weightier load—of transporting me somewhere else until I reach the bottom of the bowl.
Maybe instead I build a rich ragù from a base of minced celery, carrots, onion, and garlic and a trio of pork, beef, and lean veal. It's tinged with wine and a wad of rust-colored tomato paste, then slowly stewed for hours until each element melds and concentrates into a burnished paste.
Thinning it with starchy pasta water and tossing a few modest spoonfuls with al dente rigatoni and a velvety drizzle of olive oil takes me to the airy, serene dining rooms of Chicago’s finer-dining Italian restaurants, where the elegant handmade pastas glisten with just enough sauce to coat each noodle.
Then again, if I spoon a thick layer of that same meaty paste over a plate of oil-glossed spaghetti noodles, I’m teleported to the candlelit dining room with frescoed walls of Italian Village, my favorite century-old, Italian-American eatery in Chicago, where I’ve ordered the same $16 spaghetti with (extra) meat sauce since age seven.
If, perhaps, I make a batch using just ground pork with its sausagey essence, and up the tomato quota, sprinkle in dried fennel, and drop in a cinnamon stick, I am suddenly whisked to a long, wood communal table opposite a bustling, pint-sized Chicago food stall called Thattu, which slings soothing curries from the south Indian state of Kerala. My spicy facsimile almost channels Thattu’s warming winter stew known as pork peralan, with hunks of tender pork in cumin-scented tomato curry—whose reddish oil slick stains my fingers as I scoop it up with lacey appam, a tangy fermented rice crepe.
From time to time, I’ll instead form the ground beef into fat meatballs studded with minced garlic and bread crumbs, and brown them before plunking them into an herby red gravy equally scented with garlic. On those special days, my meatballs and gravy take me far beyond the confines of my hometown, to the swampy Louisiana town of Westwego that dips down along the Mississippi River coastline just south of New Orleans.
There, a creaking, 74-year-old roadhouse called Mosca’s comforts me with fat Gulf oysters broiled beneath thick, golden bread crumb roofs, and piles of spaghetti with tender meatballs doused in that same garlicky red sauce. Even after I leave, I can still smell the aroma of garlic sizzling in oil, hanging thick in the humid air above Highway 90.
Rarer still, I procure a couple of pork or beef bones from the butcher and make stock to lay the foundation for the mother of all meat sauces: Bolognese. I render pancetta and fatty ground beef with mirepoix in a decadent bath of sizzling butter before adding tomato puree and a few cupfuls of my homemade stock. After hours of weakly bubbling, the mixture gets stained orange with whole milk then showered with grated Parmesan.
The buttery, rich sauce clings to the eggy pappardelle ribbons I twirl around my fork, while meanwhile I flit to lovely Bologna, in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. After a winter’s afternoon wending through the old town beneath its many arched porticos bathed in slanting, golden light, my companions and I stumble upon a little trattoria down a narrow street. In the slim dining room lined with shelves full of wine bottles, we pass around a shallow bowl of gramigna Bolognese, which is mostly hidden beneath an avalanche of shaved Parmesan.
Lately though, as the long sequestered weeks wear on, I’ve been longing for a return trip to a very specific meat sauce. It's the sauce that stirred in me a lifelong appetite for this dish, which my mom made every week when I was a kid.
She always began hers the same way, too. “Start with chopped onion in butter then 80 percent ground beef,” she writes, not 30 seconds after I texted requesting the method. Her version, born in Sudbury, Massachusetts some time in the mid ‘80s, always included a can of Hunt’s tomato sauce, a few teaspoons of garlic powder, and a sprinkling each of dried basil and oregano—its sweet peppery and minty notes recall the jarred Pregos and Ragús of so many American childhoods.
Midway through my first bite, I’m suddenly four years old, with sauce on my face and splattered like polka dots all over the front of my one-piece bathing suit. I’ve just taken a break from swimming in the plastic wading pool in the backyard to eat spaghetti with Mom’s meat sauce on a sagging paper plate, as the August sun dips behind the tops of the towering oak trees.
I haven’t really traveled anywhere yet, but the world feels wide open. And all the joy I need sits before me, waiting to be twirled onto my fork.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
- Olive oil, as needed
- 1 pound 80% lean ground beef
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 medium yellow onion, small diced
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 3 fat cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- One 28-ounce can strained or crushed tomatoes
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
- ¼ cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Heat a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high with a few teaspoons of olive oil. When oil slides easily around the pan, plop in ground beef. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until caramelized and no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn off heat, and stir in oregano, a good pinch of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper. Transfer beef to a plate, and set aside.
Wipe out any moisture from pot, turn heat back on medium, and add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Tip in the chopped onions, a large pinch of salt and the red pepper flakes; sauté, stirring occasionally until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, and sauté for another minute. Add browned beef, stir in tomato paste, and cook for 2-3 minutes, until mixture turns rust-colored. Add tomatoes and another pinch of salt. Add water about ¼ the way up the tomato can, swirl it around, and add that to the sauce, too, scraping any brown bits off the bottom with a wooden spoon. Bring heat up to medium high, cover pot and let sauce come to a boil. Turn heat down to simmering (a steady bubble), and cook, partially covered, for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. During final minutes of cooking, swirl in butter, check seasoning, and adjust with salt and pepper.
When sauce is nearly done, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally, until al dente. With a measuring cup, steal ⅓ or so cup of starchy pasta water. With tongs add cooked pasta to meat sauce, tossing feverishly until well coated. Thin with pasta water if needed. Cut the heat, add half the basil and Parmesan, and toss again. Plate, and garnish with remaining basil and cheese.