Sunday Ragù


That Sunday special that Italian-Americans call either sauce or gravy is properly called ragú. Every nonna in Naples has her own recipe which are all variations on essentially the same thing: slow simmered meat smothered smothered in pureed tomatoes. An authentic ragù is time consuming because it must cook slowly over a whisper of a flame, but the recipe is very easy. The best ingredients can all easily found on Arthur Avenue.

Here is everything you need for a Sunday ragù as good as anything you would be served in Naples.

Tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius.

While there are other brands out there that masquerade as San Marzano tomatoes, you must check the packaging closely. Often manufacturers will use San Marzano seeds, but grow the tomatoes in California or Mexico. Now, there's often nothing wrong with those tomatoes and California and Mexico both grow excellent produce. But you shouldn't be paying for the San Marzano name if they don't come from Southern Italy. It's the volcanic soil that truly makes a San Marzano a specialty item worth seeking. Up until the labeling laws were recently changed, Whole Foods was selling high priced San Marzano tomatoes that were grown in the United States. The new labels now say only "S&M."

The proper label must say "Agro-Sarnese-Nocerino" in reference the designated zone for San Marzano tomato growing and packing.

You can find real San Marzano tomatoes at any Little Italy food shop. The most cost efficient place to do so is Teitel Brothers who imports and sells real San Marzano tomatoes to restaurants in the form of passata (pureed), crushed and whole tomatoes. Their Marca Francescani tomatoes are the best value.

There are two brands I especially love because of their vintage packaging. La Bella San Marzano and La Carmela can both be found at Mount Carmel Foods inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market. The former features a woman wearing a tomato crown while her hands (partially obscured) are in the process of warding off a Neapolitan curse.

Authentic San Marzano tomatoes at  Mount Carmel Foods  inside the  Arthur Avenue Retail Market .

Authentic San Marzano tomatoes at Mount Carmel Foods inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.


Tomato paste

A good ragù requires tomato paste. It greatly intensifies the flavors and will give the mixture more body. In Naples, I learned in Italy that double the amount of tomato paste than all of the Italian-American recipes I've used is what creates the sharp acidity and deep, deep red color. You can also find tomato paste at Teitel Brothers, Mount Carmel Foods or any of the shops or delis that sell pantry items.

Pork shoulder

Sunday ragù usually includes meatballs, sausage and braciole, but you can achieve the same flavor with just a hunk of pork shoulder. Go to anyone of the butcher's and ask them for a hunk with a bit of skin on it. (Remember fat equals flavor.) They'll know exactly what you want and what you'll be using it for.

Sunday Ragù


1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves

1 medium bone-in pork shoulder with fat  

Two 28-oz. cans whole crushed tomatoes or passata 

1 tube of tomato paste

1 tablespoon Turkish oregano or wild Calabrian oregano (Most oregano in American grocery stores is Mexican and lacks the flavor of Mediterranean oregano.)

Cover the bottom of a large pot or dutch oven with a quarter of an inch of the olive oil. Peel the garlic and smash it with the side of your knife. Add to the oil and place the pot over a very low flame. Use a wooden spoon to move the garlic through the oil to season it as it becomes soft and translucent (about five minutes) and then remove and discard.

Raise the flame to medium and add your pork shoulder. Let it brown, about 3-4 minutes on each side.

Add the crushed tomatoes right over the pork shoulder and stir with a wooden spoon to combine the tomatoes with the oil and fat from the pork. Stir slowly and add the oregano. Once warm add the entire tube of tomato paste and stir to combine once again. 

Cover the pot and turn the flame down to the lowest possible whisper. Let it cook for 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally.

Return to the pot and use a spoon to remove the ribbons of fat oil that have risen to the top. Stir once again letting the chunks of meat fall into the sauce. Serve over pasta or with a "scarpetta", a hunk of bread nicknamed "little shoe" in Italian.