I remember the first time I consciously sat down and ate an authentic Italian sugo. It was at a restaurant in Chicago and the menu entry said something like: Papparedelle in Meat Sauce: wide-cut semolina pasta served with our own hearty meat sugo. Sounded like just the thing on a cold Chicago night. I was hungry. But when the plate arrived it looked not unlike the photo in the post down below. There wasn’t are morsel of meat in sight. What gives? I thought.
Yet there was meat on the plate, it was just ground so finely that I couldn’t see it. “Sugo” simply means “sauce” in Italian, but what it really is is a kind of cooked meat paste, actually a very clever concoction. If you’ve ever made a pan sauce (or gravy) you probably know what fond is: it’s the French word for the cooked-on crust that sticks to the bottom of the pan when the steak is finished cooking. It’s a fantastic source of flavor. All you do is deglaze it (i.e. scrape it up) with a little wine, reduce it, add some stock, maybe some cream or butter and bingo: an easy pan sauce.
Sugo is the work of some clever Italian from days gone by who asked himself (maybe herself): I wonder if I could make a sauce that was ALL fond? And that’s what sugo is. You start by picking out your biggest, flattest pan or pot, the one that’ll give you the most surface area. Then you procure a mix of meats: about three pounds of beef, pork, chicken, veal, whatever you can lay your hands on, the cheaper the cuts the better. You add a few cubes of butter to the pan, a medium bowl of finely chopped carrot, onion and celery, and the meat. Then all you do is spend the next twenty minutes cooking the contents of the pan over high heat, rotating it so as to cover ever last square milimeter with cooked-on goodness. When the pan is totally encrusted, remove the meat and veggies, pour off the fat, add a cup or so of broth and gently scrape the crust up. Let the broth boil off and the crust settle back down. After it’s cooked again for a few minutes you repeat the deglazing…and the re-crusting, for a total of three or four times. When that’s done you add the meat and vegetables back to the pan along with about a quart of broth. Add a bay leaf, a little fresh-ground nutmeg, a little salt and fresh-ground pepper, then cover and simmer for 2 hours. When the time’s up, put the broth and the meat through a food mill or grind it in a food processor until it’s mousse-like in its consistency.
At this point it can be used as-is, though it’ll be a bit strong and VERY meaty. Personally I think its greatest strength is as a flavoring for other kinds of sauces (say to add some oomph to a simple tomato sauce). Me, I freeze it in ice-cube trays and use it anytime I need some deep, cooked meat flavor. Yes, long-cooked Italian sauces and gravies are out of fashion these days, especially at your finer restaurants. Though in my opinion there’s always a place for sugo. Those eye-talian grandmothers definitely still have it goin’ on.