My paternal grandmother, Felicia, was Sicilian but raised in Brooklyn, NY. She lived to 100 years old, drinking martinis and playing bridge to the end. To say that I admire her and her spirit would be an understatement, and I've always felt a strong connection to her. That I also love Italy and all it embodies—il dolce far niente, the cuisines from north to south, the people, the wine—means that I am proud-bordering-on-smug to claim my 1/4 Sicilian ancestry.
So it was with baited breath that I called my father (her son) one day a few years ago to ask for the secrets of nonna Felicia's Bolognese ragú. (If you're familiar with Italy's geography, you'll note that Bologna and Sicily are not neighbors, and that Brooklyn is farther still. Fine. But she had a legendary Bolognese ragú and she came from the mother country. Don't ruin it.)
I anticipated that my father would whisper the name of some wonderfully hard to find ingredient. Or some surprising technique that I'd practice and that would link Felicia and I together, culinarily, forever. "Ok," he started and I listened, pen and paper at the ready. "So Felicia's Bolognese used either half ground pork and half beef, or all beef. Do you use red wine? She used red wine." Yes, yes, check. What's the secret? "Tomato paste?" "Yes, dad, I use tomato paste."
"Do you know to put a little sugar in?" "YES I KNOW THAT." "Ok!" He was laughing at me. "And what about the mustard?"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Felicia used French's yellow mustard in her Bolognese. Did I never tell you that? Just a bit, not even a whole teaspoon. But every time."
Mustard!? French's yellow mustard! For a moment, I seethed; my hopes were dashed. I would not need to import anything from some old Italian artisan at great cost. I could go anywhere from Whole Foods to Costco. It seemed so American, so common, so un-special. Plus, what could a smidge of yellow mustard add to the flavor of a rich meat sauce?
But of course I had to try it and, dear reader, I can admit when I'm wrong.
Having lived in Brooklyn in the 1920s and then California from the '30s on, of course she cooked with French's yellow mustard. As we do now, she used ingredients that were in favor and were readily available. She employed the tang and bite of French's yellow mustard the way that we're incorporating tahini into damn near everything. I have since acquired a box of her recipes, which feature many American relics of the time: crisco, margarine, "1 jar of cocktail sauce," so much sherry. Frankly, it is equally nostalgic and annoying.
Her recipes are not filled with the Sicilian secrets I'd hoped to excavate. Instead, they reflect who and where she was, and who she cooked for: for friends (variations on cheese sticks, all with a brick of cream cheese), for celebrations (Betty Crocker-style upside down cakes galore), for family (sweet notes on her recipe cards about who liked something best), and with the ingredients of the time.
I can recognize genius where I find it, though, autentico or otherwise. And her use of yellow mustard is genius. A small teaspoon goes a long way and the flavor is undeniably better, brighter, punched up with it. So now I use the un-special yellow mustard in every iteration: with mirepoix, with mushrooms, pork or beef, with a smidge of anchovy paste, with broth in place of canned tomatoes. But always, always with mustard. Just like nonna.
Trust me on this. Chop and dice and simmer your ragú to the sounds of opera's most classic arias and transport yourself to another place, another era.
It really does the trick, I promise.
Grandma Felicia, Grandpa Severiano circa 1942-ish
Five Ways: Bolognese Ragú
With a Mirepoix (and Leafy Greens)
There are "classic" ragú recipes with mirepoix (diced celery, carrot, and onion) and without, both claiming authenticity. I say it boils down to personal preference and what's on hand. Always use onions, they build flavor from the start, but the celery and carrot can be optional. Likewise with garlic. And if we're building on preference, add some leafy greens. Toss in fresh spinach or kale just before serving, mixing it up to let the greens wilt in the warm sauce, but not become too soggy. It's lovely.
In an effort to eat less red meat, I'll put raw mushrooms into a blender or food processor with a heaping handful of cashews and blitz until they kinda/sorta "resemble" ground meat. Then I pop that mixture into the pan and press on with the rest of the recipe. The rich, nutty, umami, earthy flavor is beyond. (The linked recipe is completely vegan. I use it solely for the mushroom mixture process and then return to this recipe.)
Another version made in an effort to lighten up the dish: ground turkey in place of beef or pork. I've made this many times and my favorite goes like this: ground turkey, white wine in place of red, and chicken or vegetable stock in place of the canned tomatoes. (Still use the mustard, of course.) It's a gorgeously light and still-comforting meal all it's own.
A "true" Bolognese ragú uses whole milk or cream toward the end of cooking. I prefer to dollop some really good ricotta on top just before serving or I'll really go for it with creamy burrata. Like the mirepoix, this comes down to personal preference, but I find that the addition of cream takes an already rich and indulgent dish too far for me. (Burrata, somehow, doesn't. Don't @ me.)
With Pancetta, Anchovy Paste, or Some Heat
Beyond the use of yellow mustard, I'll employ another flavor enhancer in the form of either: salty pancetta, rich anchovy paste, or a heavy pinch of red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper. Whichever you choose, add it into the pan at the beginning, along with the onion, before the meat.
And the preferences continue: choose spaghetti, penne, orecchiette. Add halved cherry tomatoes. Do lentils in place of the meat. There are endless ways to modernize or play with Bolognese sauce. If a nonna in Bologna furrows her brow, maybe send her a jar of mustard.
Grandma Felicia's recipe cards