bolognese, a traditional meat sauce hailing from the bologna region of northern italy, is quintessential italian comfort food. both rustic & elegant at the same time, it is so, so easy to make at home, requiring nothing more than a high-quality flavorful meat, pantry staples, aromatics, vino & some tlc. i lighten up my bolognese up as a “fauxlognese” by using ground turkey & amping up the veggies with extra carrots & onions. served with big bucatini noodles with their perfect al dente chew, this lightened up bolognese is a perfectly comforting fall dinner to bring italy straight into your home.
in the years immediately following my college graduation, i worked as a server in a family-run italian fine dining spot in downtown milwaukee, zarletti. working as a service professional might not be what most consider to be a glamorous gig for a college grad, but i loved every minute of it. despite the weird hours & the high pressure environment, waiting tables was the best way to learn about life, food & wine, & myself in my early twenties.
i think much of my growth during this period came as a result of the fact that zarletti is a real-deal family-run joint. owner, brian, is one of the most loyal & generous people i have come across & despite having found success in a handful of restaurant ventures, he is still completely hands-on at the restaurant. he has a beautiful heart & takes his staff in, welcoming them as his own family. the zarletti family is a tight-knit tribe & i think it totally comes across in the intimate dining experience they offer.
if you’re ever in milwaukee, you must stop by zarletti. it is such a gem.
highlighting the flavors & wine of the northern regions of italy, zarletti brings modern sophistication to rustic italian cooking. despite having plenty of modern italian dishes, zarletti’s respect for classic italian technique is evident as you peruse the menu – a seriously bad ass antipasti platter, a signature osso bucco, a rotating scratch-made ravioli (butternut squash with brown butter is seriously the bomb), & a ragu della casa with hand-cut parpadelle pasta made in house.
one of the dishes the serving staff at zarletti always highlights to guests as a house specialty is the ragu della casa.
the inevitable question ALWAYS to follow: “uhh, what is ragu??” guests usually wanted to know into which one of two buckets ragu fell: red sauce or white sauce.
ragu, however, is on its own in a stand alone category. it’s a slowly simmered meat sauce meant to highlight whatever meat you’re using. it has veggies & it has tomatoes, but it also has some wine, lots of aromatics, & a splash of cream. the lot of it is slowly simmered for hours to develop a rich depth of flavor.
zarletti always serves 2 ragus: one a traditional beef & pork bolognese & the other a rotating option – highlighting anything from wild boar to duck (a guest favorite!). always served on hand-cut parpadelle pasta made right in house, these ragus are a a guest favorite & are definitely among of zarletti’s well-known specialty dishes.
the bolognese also made its way straight to the center of my italian food loving heart. i would eat the bolognese with parpadelle all the time as my shift meal & it will forever go down in history as my all-time favorite dishes. when i left behind my server’s aprons at zarletti to make some moves into the corporate world, bolognese was the first recipe i set out to master in my own kitchen.
both rustic & elegant at the same time, pasta bolognese is so, so easy to make at home, requiring nothing more than a high-quality flavorful meat, pantry staples, aromatics, vino & some tlc.
confession: my bolognese is really a fauxlognese, using ground turkey instead of the classic 1:1 combination of ground veal & ground pork. when i cook at home, i like to lighten things up when it makes sense to do so & doesn’t compromise the recipe & this is totally one of those cases.
while meant to highlight a beautiful meat, the flavor for a bolognese is really built with the initial sauté of the veg. i use onions & a ton of carrots, but you could also throw in some celery or fennel if it tickles your fancy. traditionally you chop these veggies up into the teeniest tiniest little itty bitty pieces imaginable & really brown the crap outta them. because i love the rustic texture that the carrots add to the sauce, so i depart from tradition & opt for a larger dice (ain’t nobody got time to brunoise at home).
once your veggies & meat are browned, the next oh-so-important steps are a delicate dance of adding aromatics liquid & simmering the sauce down slowly to reduce, resulting in a rich, flavor bomb of a sauce. it’s a slow process, but is very low-maintenance, requiring low heat & minimal stirring.
oh, & just throwing this out there, but while the bolognese is simmering, you should totally pour yourself a glass of wine. italian cooking is all about enjoying the process #justsaying.
once it’s done simmering, you can serve right away with pasta or store in the fridge for 4-5 days to enjoy throughout the week for a quick weeknight dinner. the bolognese also freezes incredibly well, so you can totally make a big batch ahead of time & prolong the enjoyment of the fruits of your labor.
the best part about bolognese is that its flavors only meld & develop over time, so it is the perfect make ahead dish for a lazy meal prep sunday afternoon.
when you’re ready to serve, simply reheat the bolognese in a pan to low simmer. add a splash (or two) of heavy cream to cut through the richness & toss in your favorite pasta.
for bolognese, i love bucatini. it’s a thick, long pasta that stands up to the hearty bolognese perfectly. what makes bucatini distinct is its hole straight through the middle, which when tossed with the bolognese traps some of the sauce making every bite burst with flavor.
top with some fresh basil & an extra sprinkle of parmesan & you will have yourself the best italian meal you could imagine, all in the comfort of your own home.
you can also use this bolognese to make my best-ever weeknight lasagna, another recipe that comes together in a snap with just a little prep, & delivers on classic italian flavor with no guilt. check it out!
i hope you’re craving some italian comfort food now, but i would love to know – what’s your favorite comfort food recipe to make at home? is it your favorite because of a link to special people or a special time in your life? let me know in the comments below & let’s chat!
- 2 medium yellow onions, diced
- 3-4 carrots, diced
- 2 T oil (olive oil or coconut oil)
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 lbs ground turkey
- 1 handful fresh thyme sprigs
- 2 springs fresh rosemarry
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 C good red wine (italian, if you can!)
- 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes (fire roasted, if you can!)
- 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes (san marzano, if you can!)
- 1 C heavy cream
- 1 lb dried pasta (bucatini, if you can!)
- In an enameled dutch oven or any other heavy-bottom pan, heat 2 T oil (I prefer olive oil or coconut oil for their high smoke temperatures) over medium-high heat until melted & glistening.
- Add 2 medium yellow onions & 3-4 carrots, all diced to the pot with a generous pinch of salt (this pulls out the water from the veg & aids in caramelization - which is what builds the depth of flavor!). Stir so all veggies are coated in oil & cook, continuing to stir every so often.
- After about 15 minutes, grate 4 cloves of garlic into the pan. Stir & continue to cook until deeply caramelized, about 5 more minutes, stirring every so often.
- Once caramelized, reduce to medium heat & push veggies to the sides of the pan, revealing a hole in the middle. Add ground turkey to the hole & season with salt & pepper (about 1/2 tsp each). Cook turkey until browned & break it up with a wooden spoon as it cooks, about 10 minutes. Be careful not to overcook as this will result in the turkey drying out.
- Once turkey is browned, add thyme, rosemary, & bay leaves. You can bundle them together with butcher's twine, which will make it easier to fish out once the bolognese is done.
- Add diced & crushed tomatoes & 1 C wine. Simmer over medium high heat until wine is reduced, about 5 minutes.
- Add remaining 1 C of wine & continue to simmer over medium high heat until wine is reduced, about 5 more minutes.
- Fish out your aromatics (thyme stems, rosemary, & bay leaves) with a wooden spoon.
- At this point your bolognese is done & is fridge or freezer ready.
- When you're ready to serve, boil pasta in salted water according to instructions on the box.
- While pasta is boiling, heat sauce in a skillet until bubbling.
- Add heavy cream to bolognese (~2 T per serving) & heat, stirring until cream is incorporated into the sauce.
- Strain pasta once cooked, reserving a little of the salty cooking liquid to the side.
- Toss cooked pasta with bolognese sauce. If the sauce is a little thick, loosen it up with some of the reserved pasta cooking liquid until desired consistency is reached.
- Serve with parmesan & red wine! Mangia!
- Bolognese freezes SO well, i cannot even begin to tell you. to freeze, complete steps 1-8 & allow the sauce to cool down to room temperature before transferring into a one gallon freezer bag. Be sure to gently squeeze out all the air as you seal the bag. Will freeze well for up to 4 months.
- Complete steps 1-5 in a dutch oven, as written, but starting with step 6 you can transfer into a crock-pot, adding tomatoes & both cups of wine all at once. Cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 2 hours. Add cream. Continue to cook for 15 minutes, allowing the sauce & cream to come together. Add pasta right into the crock-pot, toss, & serve.
- Though i think it's totally worth the splurge, you can swap out heavy cream with half & half or milk to cut back on fat & calories.