In the province of Caserta, just about an hour’s drive north of Naples, Italy is a very, very, small village (the internet actually refers to it as a hamlet) called San Donato. The population there is about 134 people and the last (and only) time I was there, at least a dozen or more of them were related to me. This is the family home of my great grandfather, on my mothers side. Back in 1989 when I told my grandmother I was planning a trip to Italy, she was insistent that I make time in my plans to visit San Donato and her fathers’ family home. She scribbled a message onto a piece of paper that simply read “Mia nonna e Clementina Creaturo” (my Grandmother is Clementine Creaturo) along with a name. I was instructed to go to the house, read the message and ask for the person whose name she indicated, as that person had studied in America and would be able to translate between English and Italian. I asked my grandmother what was the address of the house, but she didn’t know. She told me when I got to the village, just ask anybody where the Rossi’s live and that will be good enough. David and I had our doubts about this, of course (who wouldn’t) but I put her hand written note in my wallet and we added San Donato to the list of places to visit.
Our schedule had us visiting after a day in Pompeii and our plan was to get up early, travel to San Donato, visit for a bit, and then travel on to Pisa so we could walk around the leaning tower. On the morning of our visit we did get up early and we headed for the bus station as planned. We found our bus… but unfortunately there was no driver to drive it, so we had to sit and wait an hour before the next bus would depart. That bus did have a driver and as we got on we tried to confirm that indeed that bus could take us to San Donato. The drive nodded his head, gave us a “San Donato, Si!” and we took our seats. The bus traveled for quite some time through small streets, long stretches of fields and through some very small villages and towns. After a very long while David and I were the only two people left on the bus and we were traveling down a long narrow road bordered on both sides by fields of straw colored grass standing two to three feet high, wheat perhaps, or just weeds, who could tell, really.
This was the countryside at it’s best though, and the rolling hills stretched out as far as you could see. As the bus lumbered on we started to wonder if we indeed were headed in the right direction and it seemed as if we should have been there at least forty-five minutes to an hour ago, but we sat quietly knowing full well the driver didn’t speak English, so there would be no use in trying to talk to him. We figured the bus had to stop at some point, right? And it did… it stopped right in the middle of these wheat/weed fields where another single lane road cut off at a right angle from our road again straight down the center of the fields. The driver opened the bus doors, pointed down the desolate road and said “San Donato”. Before we could really think about it we got off the bus and stood there on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, watching it as it pulled away and motored down the main road. Then we walked… and we walked… and we walked… nothing but wheat/weed fields on both sides of the road, no signs, no markers, no cars… oh wait, here comes another bus. Frantically we wave to the driver and he pulls the bus over and opens the door. “Scusi”, I said with my best Italian accent, “San Donato???????”. “Si, Si, Come.” he said as he waved us onto the bus. We sat down and he drove on only about three or four hundred yards over a small hill and stopped in the road where there were a few buildings on either side that appeared to be boarded up and deserted. “San Donato.” the driver said, and he opened the doors for us to depart. Still a little confused we exited the bus and again we watched as it pulled away leaving us still in the middle of nowhere but at least with some signs of civilization. So again we started walking and soon we found some houses, and after searching for a while we came across a gentleman out in his front yard and I asked him if he knew where the Rossi house was located. Just as my grandmother had predicted, he did indeed know and he made his young son walk us back up the road a bit where he pointed to a large house and said “Rossi”.
At the door, I was still unsure of the whole thing but, I took out the note my grandmother gave me, knocked on the door and when a young woman answered I read my line. She literally screamed and ran back into the house leaving us on the doorstep. Less than a minute later she excitedly reappeared holding a picture of my grandparents and repeating my grandmothers name over and over, pointing at the picture. “Yes”, I said, “that’s Clementina, mi nonna” and with that she pulled us over to the patio and motioned for us to sit down. What happened next was a bit of a blur, but people started appearing at the house, they came from who knows where and they were all very excited to see us. People who (I think) were claiming to be my Grandmothers aunts, and uncles came, they pinched our cheeks, they hugged us, and the hugged us some more. Unfortunately the one person who spoke English, our only hope for a decent conversation, was away in the states so talking to everyone was a bit difficult. At one point an Italian/English dictionary was produced and we looked up a few words that everyone kept repeating and were happy to respond that no, Clementina was not dead she was Vivo! Multo Vivo! This made everyone even happier… I think they even cheered. After a bit of awkward communication they invited us to “siesta” (nap) which is very customary there, then afterwards we toured the farm, picked cherries from the cherry trees, were “told” we would be staying for dinner and that they would take us to the train station the next morning. At dinner - which was very plentiful, we watched on a small tv which had been rolled into the dining room/kitchen area what might have been the world cup (we could only guess), and when the family cheered some play, we also cheered. Did we know what was going on?, no… but when in San Donato...
The next morning not only did they drive us to the train station, they also packed us a big breakfast/lunch, had picked a huge bag of cherries from the tree for us to take, but they also waited with us for the train to arrive. Although communication was problematic at best, we ended up having quite a nice time there, I think because we were treated not like tourists, not like Americans, but like family.
One thing we noticed during our travels through Italy was the difference between northern Italy (basically Rome and above) and southern Italy (everything below Rome), especially when it comes to food. Besides the greater abundance of seafood in the south and beef in the north, the biggest difference we saw was in the sauces. Southern Italy loves their dark, red, tomato sauces and the north favors rich cream sauces, but there is one sauce that I think is the best of both worlds, (though no resident Italian would ever admit to that) and that is Bolognese. Here’s the thing about a good sauce, it’s a time commitment. My grandmother’s red sauce (which our family commonly refers to as spaghetti sauce (regardless of the type of pasta we serve it with) simmers on the stove for a good three plus hours and Bolognese is no different, in fact it will take anywhere from five to six hours to really make it right. So pick a day where you don’t have any other commitments to make this Bolognese. Once it’s started and all the ingredients are in, it just has to simmer and all you really have to do is stir it every once and a while, so you can pop in a movie, or do the laundry, or clean the house, or read a book, or put together a 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle while you occasionally attend to it. When you finish, you’ll be really happy, and like most Italian food when you eat leftovers the next day it’s going to be even better. When it comes to the pasta you use, do yourself (and every Italian a favor) and pick a wide noodle like tagliatelle or pappardelli or in a pinch use penne or rigatoni, which are much better suited for Bolognese than thin noodles like spaghetti. Please, please, please… “spag-bol” (slang for spaghetti bolognese) should not be a thing, don’t be tempted. And note that since this sauce cooks for such a long time and in the end will have almost no liquid in it you’ll need a good stock pot with a nice heavy bottom. I would like to tell you that this is one of my grandmother’s recipes, but alas it’s not, my grandmother was a true southern Italian at heart (even though San Donato is pretty much in the center of Italy). This recipe was adapted from the famed Italian cook Marcella Hazan who is generally credited for bringing Italian cooking to the masses of America. You can find her cookbooks on Amazon or in a good bookstore if you would like to see, read, and try more of her cooking.
So are you ready to make this…? Andiamo!
3 tablespoons unsalted butter + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter for tossing with pasta
½ cup diced onion
⅔ cup diced carrot
⅔ cup diced celery
⅔ cup diced
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½pound ground beef
¼ pound ground pork
1 cup whole milk
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup dry white wine
1½ cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
1¼ to 1½ pounds pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for serving
Put the oil, the 3 tablespoons of butter and the chopped onion in a large heavy bottomed sauce pot and place over a medium heat.
Cook and stir the onion until it has become translucent, about 5 minutes, then stir in the diced celery and carrot. Continue cooking for about 2 minutes, stirring the vegetables so they are all coated in the butter..
Next, add the ground beef and pork to the pot and sprinkle it with the salt and pepper. Crumble the meat with a fork and stir well, cooking until the beef has lost its raw, red color.
Stir in the milk and bring the sauce to a simmer, then lower the heat as needed to keep a gentle simmer.
Stirring frequently, simmer until the milk has bubbled away completely, which takes about 1 hour.
Stir in the nutmeg.
Stir in the wine next and just as you did with the milk, simmer until it has completely evaporated.
Add the tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all the ingredients well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting so that the sauce cooks at the “laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface” to use Marcella’s words.
Cook the bolognese uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring it occasionally.
While the sauce is cooking, you will find that it begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat. To prevent sticking, add ½ cup of water whenever necessary. At the end, however, there should be no water left at all and the fat must separate from the sauce.
Taste and adjust salt as needed.
Toss with your cooked and drained pasta, adding the remaining tablespoon of butter, and serve with the freshly grated Parmesan on the side.
There you go, you just became one of the chosen few who can say you spent the better part of the day stirring an authentic bolognese… and mean it. I know it seems like a lot of work to go through for a meat sauce, but it really is worth it. You can do some research on why it works on your own if you want, but I think you’ll find as I do, there are some things that just shouldn’t be rushed; There are things that are just inherently better when we take our time. Bolognese is one of those things.