A Lovely Sweet Italian Sausage Ragu

This is no ordinary spaghetti sauce, though it has tomato sauce in it, goes on pasta and has parmigiana sprinkled on top. The flavor in this ragu is deep, lovely, and makes pasta taste like something very special indeed.

I’ve learned a lot about Italian food this summer from Cris Lerose, a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) volunteer who grew up in an Italian-American family, first learning about his heritage from his immigrant grandmother, and reinforcing it annually by WWOOF-ing Italy. Living most recently in Scottsdale, AZ, Cris had never been to Maine and thought he’d explore it by way of Islesboro. Cris introduced me to the joys of mortadella, various salamis I’d never sampled, including my favorite so far, finocchiona, which has fragrant fennel seeds in it, and gorgonzola stuffed dates. I also learned to make zabaglione, a sweetened egg yolk custard and how to use it in homemade tiramisu.

Much of this ragu’s quality rests on the sausage; we used a sweet sausage in casing acquired from a custom butcher on Route 90 in Warren, but you may very well have your own favorite place to buy mild Italian-style sausage. We slit the casing open and slid the sausage out to break it up and cook it in the pan. And even though I have known for years about the benefits of using a combination of aromatics–onion, carrot, celery, and garlic–as base for soups and sauces, I have not always been faithful to the practice. And Cris doesn’t chop them, he grates them on a box grater! It really helps get a sauce off to a great start, and in future I will have to grit my teeth and clamp my eyes shut because raw onions always make me cry.

Adding dry white wine to the mixture as it cooks also jacks up the flavor. It doesn’t take much, and the cook and friends can always drink whatever doesn’t go into the sauce. Cris says whatever white wine you like to drink, like a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, will be fine for cooking, too.

Since it is tomato season around here still, though not for much longer, I have a lot of freshly made canned tomato sauce to use. I like this recipe because it is not so terribly tomato-ey but the tomato adds a fine bit of savor. Canned tomato sauce from the store will work just fine, too.

No doubt sometime this winter I will haul out a quart of tomato sauce and drop the contents on top sautéed onions and beef or venison burger, and add oregano, garlic, and basil for a classic, from-my-childhood spaghetti dinner, but I’m afraid Cris’s sausage ragu has spoiled me for life and is my new go-to recipe for pasta.

Sweet Italian Sausage Ragu
Serves: Four
  • 1 rib celery
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Sprinkle of salt
  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed (optional)
  • Salt and Pepper
  1. Using a box or similar grater, grate the celery, onion, carrot, and garlic.
  2. Put olive oil into a cook pot over a medium heat and when it shimmers, add the grated vegetables.
  3. Sprinkle lightly with salt and cook for about five minutes, stirring to keep them from sticking.
  4. Slit the sausages and remove the meat, adding it to the vegetables, and breaking it up into small pieces.
  5. Add the wine, and stir to combine. Let cook for ten minutes or so while the meat absorbs the wine. Add for wine if it tends to cook dry.
  6. Add the tomato sauce, stir, and cook for another twenty minutes or so.
  7. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. If you wish a stronger fennel flavor, toast the fennel seeds until they are aromatic. Grind in a grinder or with mortar and pestle and add to the sauce.
  9. Use immediately on your favorite pasta cooked according to the instructions on the package, or store for use later.


Sandy Oliver

About Sandy Oliver

Sandy Oliver Sandy is a freelance food writer with the column Taste Buds appearing weekly since 2006 in the Bangor Daily News, and regular columns in Maine Boats, Homes, and Harbors magazine and The Working Waterfront. Besides freelance food writing, she is a pioneering food historian beginning her work in 1971 at Mystic Seaport Museum, where she developed a fireplace cooking program in an 1830s house. After moving to Maine in 1988, Sandy wrote, Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Foods at Sea and Ashore in the 19th Century published in 1995. She is the author of The Food of Colonial and Federal America published in fall of 2005, and Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving History and Recipes from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie which she co-authored with Kathleen Curtin. She often speaks to historical organizations and food professional groups around the country, organizes historical dinners, and conducts classes and workshops in food history and in sustainable gardening and cooking. Sandy lives on Islesboro, an island in Penobscot where she gardens, preserves, cooks and teaches sustainable lifeways.