Sometimes I wonder: Were we always a family obsessed with food? The kind of people that talk about our lunch plans over breakfast, and our dinner plans over lunch? Hoard cookbooks and trade recipes and become chefs? Tell the story of our lives through the meals we’ve eaten? I’ve come to realize it’s not actually normal to spend months and years trying to recreate a particularly fabulous restaurant meal at home. Upon reflection, I suspect it began with our time at the Hotel Ca’d’Oro.
You see, my father worked for Ford Motor Company, and had always been a guy with serious wanderlust (like father, like daughter). So it came as little surprise that he jumped at the opportunity to take an assignment in São Paulo in 1977. My brother John and I were 8 and 10 years old. One minute my idea of a big adventure was venturing 10 blocks from my Livonia home on a purple Schwinn with a banana seat, and next thing I knew, we were sitting in the First Class cabin of a Pan Am flight bound for Rio. It was the first of many bewildering moments to come, and I loved it. We arrived in the teeming, polluted, fabulous metropolis and were deposited on the doorstep of this impossibly swank hotel, where we remained for 11 weeks. It takes that long for a shipment of personal belongings to make its way south via cargo ship… and we weren’t complaining.
We had a marvelous time with the other ex-pat children who had also found themselves like Eloise at the Plaza. We roamed the halls playing endless games of hide and seek, thought it was great fun to push all the buttons on the elevator and run, and generally had a grand time making nuisances of ourselves. For breakfast, our hot chocolate was served in little silver pitchers, lunch was steak sandwiches served poolside.
But the real time of wonder was dinner. Every night we would head to the elegant white-tablecloth hotel restaurant. The Brazilian churrascos and feijoidas and moqueqas that would come to inspire my brother’s career came later – this was five-star Italian. And a far cry from the only Italian I had experienced in suburban Detroit – LIttle Caesar’s Pizza. I recall being pampered and fussed over like a small princess by the Italian-Brazilian waiters, and I only remember ordering two things – the Steak Diane, which was flambeed dramatically tableside (how cool was that!?) – and my favorite – the Spaghetti Bolognese. Oh Dear Lord was this an amazing bowl of pasta. It’s was the stuff of dreams (my dreams that is. Again I wonder: is that normal?) Once you experience such an elevated version of a simple dish – even at 10 years old – there’s no going back. Prego out of a jar was never going to work for me again. I spent years trying to recreate the opulent flavors of the Ca’d’Oro, with little success… It was never quite rich enough – to me it always tasted a bit flat – and I couldn’t work out why.
And then serendipity stepped in and I met Domenica Marchetti. Domenica’s daughter was one of my students. And she was a real live cookbook author. Italian of course… (that name!) When I met her, among her published titles was Big Night In. She would pull into the carpool lane to wait for her daughter, and I (the whistle-toting teacher in charge of keeping the lane moving) would quiz her about the recipes she was testing and the latest hot-off-the-press cookbook she was reading. She was working on a cookbook at the time that would come to be titled The Glorious Pasta of Italy. And in that gorgeous book, I would finally find the recipe I had been searching for for over 30 years – her mother’s Ragu de Bolognese. Glorious indeed. Ground veal, pork and beef, cooked for hours with sherry, beef broth and tomato paste… The first mouthful it took me back to that extraordinary Bolognese at the Hotel Ca’d’Oro of my dreams. How can I ever thank you, Domenica?
Ragu alla Bolognese
from the Glorious Pasta of Italy by Domenica Marchetti
Note from MB: This takes quite a bit of time to prepare, but let me assure you, it is worth every minute. I usually serve it over pappardelle. I would also note that for me, the sauce is quite extraordinary before the addition of the cup of heavy cream.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 large carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 large celery ribs, finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 pound ground veal
1 cup dry white wine or dry sherry
Kosher or fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup whole milk
1 (7-ounce) tin tomato paste
2 cups homemade meat broth or best-quality low-sodium, fat-free commercial beef broth
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces thinly sliced mortadella, cut in julienne
Warm the olive oil and the butter in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. When the butter is melted and begins to sizzle, stir in the garlic, carrots, celery, onion, and parsley. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté the vegetables for about 10 minutes or until they are softened and golden. Add the beef, veal, and pork and mix well, using a wooden spoon to break up the meats. Cook over medium-low to low heat, stirring frequently, until the meat turns a deep brown and is crumbly but still tender and not at all hard. This will take about an hour or slightly longer.
When the meat is ready, raise the heat to medium, stir in the wine, and mix for a few minutes until the wine evaporates. Season with a little salt and pepper, add the nutmeg, and stir in the milk. Cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the milk has been absorbed. In a small bowl, dilute the tomato paste/puree with a splash or two of beef broth and add to the sauce. Mix well and add the remaining broth. Cover partially, reduce the heat to low, and let the sauce simmer slowly for 2 hours or more, until it is very thick and all of the vegetables have more or less melted into the sauce. Stir in the cream and mortadella and cook at a gentle simmer until heated through.