Basic Meat Sauce

Sugo di Carne Odd, isn’t it? The part of each post that will give us trouble. Last week it was the photos and labels. Just how many pictures does one need of meat & vegetables floating in water? And do I call it “broth”, “brodo”, or “stock”? In the end, I chose one photo and used all three monikers.

This week it’s the post’s title. First off, I thought using the word “Sugo” might be confusing to a few people.  In English, sugo means “gravy” but, unlike some, we never referred to tomato sauce as “gravy”. It was either “sauce” or “sugo”. “Gravy” was the stuff you put on mashed potatoes. But that’s not the only problem in the title. This sauce is not a Bolognese, although I have that recipe and will share it later. I am a Marchigiano but it would be arrogant for me to call my sauce alla Marchigiani, meaning “in the style of Le Marche”. I guess I could say it’s dei Bartolini, meaning “of the Bartolini”, but that would imply that there’s one common sauce for us all. That’s hardly the case.

Back in the old two-flat, each adult was quite capable of making a sauce for pasta. Granted, it was exceptionally rare for one of the men to make a sauce but that doesn’t mean each didn’t consider himself to be a master chef when it came to making one. Oddly enough, each of the adults’ sauces was as different from the others as the cook who prepared it. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if it were somehow possible to recreate each individual’s sauce, I would still be able to determine who prepared each. Yes, they were that distinctive despite using almost the exact same ingredients. “Almost” because there were two minor differences: Mom had her “secret” spice (See Notes) and Nonna might use a little marjoram. It remains a mystery to me how 6 people could have used the same ingredients and achieve such different results. Today, I add a little wine to my sauce and I don’t recall anyone else having done that. The point to all of this is to make clear that there is no one sauce of the Bartolini and for me to use that title for my sauce would be mighty presumptuous. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that I still needed a title for this post, so, I took the path of least resistance. “Basic Meat Sauce” it is.

"Until the juices run clear"

“Until the juices run clear”

There are a few techniques that all of our tomato sauces include. In the first place, all of our sauces use onions. This is significant because the sweetness of the onion eliminates the need for the sugar that some add to their tomato sauces. When it comes to preparing a meat sauce, at one time large pieces of beef and pork were used and later served alongside of the pasta. Today those meats are ground before being added to the pot. Personally, I no longer buy ground meat and, as a result, am in better control of both the quality and fat content of my ingredients. Beyond that, the instructions for many sauces state to “Brown the meat.” Well, that’s half-right. If you only sauté the meat until the pink is gone, you’re missing an opportunity to add flavor to your sauce. As Zia says, make sure “the juices run clear” before you add anything else to the pot. This will ensure that all the liquid has evaporated, concentrating the flavor and leaving just fat behind. Only then can the meat really begin to brown and I’ll continue to sauté it for a few minutes more to do so. Lastly, I’ll add parsley and basil to the pot just like everyone else but I, also, go back and add more just after the sauce is taken off the heat. I find that doing so not only boosts the flavor of the sauce but adds to its aroma, as well.

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Basic Meat Sauce Recipe

yield: 2 quarts (1.9 l)


  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 to 1 lb. (340 to 454 g) ground beef
  • 3/4 to 1 lb. (340 to 454 g) ground pork
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced or grated
  • 4 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped – separated
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 10 crimini mushrooms, sliced – optional
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 quarts (1.9 l) tomatoes or 2 large (28 oz) cans, chopped
  • 2 tsp marjoram
  • 4 tbsp fresh basil, chopped – separated
  • salt & pepper


  1. Heat oil in large sauce pan over a medium-high heat. Once hot, add beef and pork, season lightly with salt & pepper, and sauté until the liquids run clear and the meat browns.
  2. Add onion, garlic, and half of the parsley. Stir, season lightly with salt & pepper, and continue to sauté until onion is translucent.
  3. Add the wine and sauté until all but a trace has evaporated.
  4. Optional: Add mushrooms and continue sautéing until soft, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add tomato paste, mix thoroughly, and continue to sauté another 2 minutes.
  6. Add the tomatoes, basil, marjoram, and stir to thoroughly combine.
  7. Bring to boil and reduce to a soft simmer.
  8. Continue to simmer until the sauce deepens in color and thickens — about 2 hours. Stir occasionally.
  9. Remove from heat, add remaining parsley & basil. Stir to combine.
  10. Sauce is ready for use with your favorite pasta or, once cooled, for storage in your refrigerator or freezer.

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Although this recipe makes two quarts, it can easily be halved to make one quart of sauce.

When you choose to add wine to your sauce will affect its impact on the end-result. If added early, as I did in today’s recipe, the wine will blend into the background, adding to the overall taste of the sauce. Adding it later, towards the end, the wine flavoring will be much more prominent. When preparing a meat sauce, I add the wine early on. For a marinara, I add it later, as you’ll see below. It is yours to decide which you prefer.

Mom did have a “secret” spice that she added to her sauce.  It’s not that I’ve a problem revealing the secret, it’s just that we cannot agree on what that spice was. It’s been over 10 years since I last had a taste and, speaking for myself, my memory isn’t what it used to be. Now, normally this would have meant the end of the discussion, except for one little thing. Recently, while rearranging my basement freezer’s contents, I came across a quart of Mom’s sauce that had fallen in among the ice bags that I used to create a false bottom in the freezer. (The bags were supposed to make things easier to reach and, ironically, prevent something from “getting lost” down there.) Granted, as far as discoveries go, this is not on a par with King Tut’s tomb but is it still a great find. I seriously doubt that the sauce is in any condition to be eaten but, hopefully, we’ll be able to determine just what Mom’s secret ingredient was. To that end, I plan to bring it to Zia — when I remember — and let her palate settle this matter, once and for all. Lest there be any doubt, let me assure you that Zia is a fair and impartial judge. She would never be swayed by the fact that I arranged for her to hold the hand and receive the blessing of her Patron, the soon-to-be-Saint Pope John Paul II.

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It’s déjà vu all over again

Since I shared one tomato sauce today, I might as well take you back to an earlier post in which I shared a marinara (meatless) sauce. You can see the recipe by clicking HERE. It was one of my earliest posts, so, be kind.

And while you’re there, be sure to take the link to check out that lasagna recipe. I doubt you’ve seen one like it.

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