Growing up, I always looked forward to my aunt’s Carnevale, or Fat Tuesday, dinner, which featured homemade fusilli pasta with a three-meat (beef, veal, and pork) tomato sauce. She made this dish only once a year to retain its special significance: a farewell to meat for the forty days of Lent.
I remember how I would salivate as the sauce slowly simmered and my aunt would use thin iron rods to roll the pasta dough into long tubes of pasta that roughly resembled the barrel of a rifle. As she made the pasta, she’d advise me to eat as much meat as I could since there wouldn’t be any more on the menu until Easter.
This annual dinner came to mind over the weekend when I prepared a recipe from the late Biba Caggiano’s book Trattoria Cooking for “Stewed Spareribs with Tomatoes.” A native of Bologna, where she owned and operated a trattoria, Caggiano based her recipe on a dish she enjoyed while traveling through the fertile farmland of Emilia-Romagna.
Pork ribs are braised in a tomato sauce flavored with an aromatic soffritto composed of fresh sage and rosemary, along with garlic and pancetta, and fortified with a cup of dry red wine. Slow cooking over a low flame yields some of the most succulent ribs I’ve ever had. Rich pork flavors were complemented by an unctuous sauce, surprisingly not fatty, with subtle herbaceous notes from the sage and rosemary joined by whispers of heat from the chili flakes.
Although these ribs were more nuanced than the Neapolitan-style ones my aunt prepared for our Carnevale supper, they nonetheless transported me back to those of my youth, and the leftover portion we saved will definitely provide the sauce for this year’s Fat Tuesday pasta.
Except for seasoning the ribs with salt and pepper after browning and adding a healthy dose of crushed red pepper flakes to the sauce, I pretty much followed the book’s recipe. As Caggiano suggested, I served the ribs with a soft polenta, which I seasoned with minced fresh rosemary and Parmigiano Reggiano. To reach the fall-off-the bone stage, however, my ribs took about 40 minutes more than the prescribe one hour.
For the meat, I chose a full rack of St. Louis-style ribs which I had sawed vertically down the middle and then cut into approximately two-inch pieces. I find that butchering the ribs this way makes for better browning and easier eating.
Stewed Spareribs with Tomatoes (Le Costicine di Maiale in Umido adapted from Trattoria Cooking by Biba Caggiano)
1/3 cup olive oil
8 pork spareribs, cut into single ribs (about 3 pounds)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
8 to 10 fresh sage leaves, finely minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
1/4 pound sliced pancetta, finely chopped
1 cup medium-bodied red wine, such as Sangiovese di Romagna
4 cups Italian canned imported Italian tomatoes with their juice, put through a strainer or food mill to remove the seeds. (I skipped the straining and crushed the tomatoes by hand.)
Salt and freshly ground pepper flakes to taste
Crushed red pepper to taste (optional; my own addition)
1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
2. Dry the ribs well with paper towels. Add as many ribs as can comfortably fit in the skillet without crowding. Cook until the ribs are golden brown on both sides, 7 to 8 minutes. As they brown remove from skillet to a plate and brown the ones that are left.
3. Discard half of the cooking fat and and add the garlic, sage, rosemary and pancetta. Over medium heat, cook, stirring until the mixture is lightly golden, about 2 minutes.
4. Add the wine and cook over medium-high, stirring, until it is reduced by half, about 2 to 3 minutes. While reducing the wine, be sure to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot.
5. Add the tomatoes and season with salt, several grounds of black pepper, and, if using, crushed red pepper flakes.
6. Return the ribs, along with any accumulated juices, to the skillet and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover the skillet and cook until the meat is tender and begins to fall of the bone fall off the bone, about 1 to 1¾ hours. Taste for tenderness after an hour. Stir and turn the ribs a few times during cooking.
7. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. (If the sauce has thickened up too much during cooking, thin it down with a bit of water, meat broth, or additional tomato sauce. Serve the ribs with a generous amount of sauce and polenta.
Wine Pairing: Dry Lambrusco, Sangiovese