Rigatoni with Sausage and Fennel Ragù

Remembering Bella Bologna

Rigatoni with sausage and fennel pasta

Rigatoni with Sausage and Fennel Ragù


Autumn, my favorite time of the year, my favorite time to travel, and perhaps my favorite time to eat pasta!  
 Benventuto Autunno!

"Benventuto Autunno" Signage
Last year, while traveling in Bologna, Italy (trip report here), we had the most delicious Pappardelle with Bolognese Ragù that was made with fennel sausage.  Mamma Mia!

Townsquare Bologna, Italy
Bologna is nestled in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, which is also home to Parma and Modena.  All the food in Bologna is fantastico (and photogenic)!

                         Fresh Pasta        baby eggplant

The freshest pasta, incredible produce and seafood, big chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, and mortadella (my new favorite), fresh-picked olives and olive oil, and the famous balsamic vinegar of Modena are all available in the markets lining the alleys and streets of the city.

  Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Blocks  Small Fish in IcePasta varieties for sale

And don’t forget the wine!

                  glass of red wine next to bottlemore cheese blocks at the market

Seriously, pasta paradise, wine nirvana, cheese bliss!  If you haven’t been to Italy … just go!  On our next trip, we are definitely going to Parma and Modena and taking some cooking classes.  Soon!

pasta and cheese varieties

But I digress, getting back to the Pappardelle with Bolognese ragù, the dish has been percolating in the back of my mind for some time, but I couldn’t find a recipe that talked to me.

Recently, I came across a recipe for Sausage Ragù on BBC Good Food (which looks like the BBC’s version of Food Network).  I was intrigued by the addition of brown sugar and lemon zest to the sauce, plus it didn’t look like it would take all day to make (takes about an hour).  The lemon zest adds a subtle note of brightness that makes this dish special.

Bolognese sauce is traditionally cooked slowly over low heat for a few hours to allow the flavors to build.  It is made with whole milk to give the sauce a more delicate taste and remove the acidity from the tomatoes.  Learn from my mistake – don’t be tempted to use non-fat or 2% milk; it just isn’t the same.

Speaking of tomatoes, I highly recommend using San Marzano peeled tomatoes.  They are from the San Marzano region of Italy and will make a difference in your dish.  If you can’t find the San Marzanos, try the Muir Glen San Marzano-style tomatoes grown in California.  I have seen both in Trader Joes.

San Marazano Peeled Tomatoes Can
We love fennel, but I was unable to find any fennel sausage at our local markets.  However, Sweet Italian Sausage is seasoned with fennel, which I used for this recipe.  I boosted the fennel flavor by adding some to my riff on soffrito (the Italian version of mirepoix) and crushed fennel as part of my herb mix.  If you are not a fennel fan, leave it out!

We used rigatoni rather than pappardelle as that tends to be a tad messy to eat … at least for us it does, as we have yet to master the fine art of gracefully twirling the pasta on the fork.  Questo piatto è delizioso! 

Rigatoni with sausage and fennel ingredients


4 T. Extra Virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 medium fennel bulb, stems removed, cored and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped

½ t. fennel seeds, crushed
1 T. Italian seasonings
1/2 t. red pepper flakes (I used 1 teaspoon)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 28-oz. can peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano (do not drain)
1 T. brown sugar, packed

5 oz. pancetta, diced
1 1/2 lb. sweet Italian pork sausages, casings removed
1 c. whole milk (not 2% or non-fat, I tried that and it doesn’t work)
1 sweet or Meyer lemon, zested
1 16 oz. package pasta (rigatoni, pappardelle or bucatini)

Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
½ c. Italian big leaf parsley stems removed and chopped


In a large sauté pan or Dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.  Stir in the onion, fennel, and carrot, add a pinch of Kosher salt and sauté until they soften and the onion and fennel are translucent, about 5-7 minutes.

Stir in the crushed garlic, fennel, red pepper flakes, and Italian seasonings and stir for 1 minute.  Add the tomatoes and brown sugar.  Break up the tomatoes with a spatula.  Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

While your sauce is simmering, in a large sauté pan over medium heat, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and add the pancetta and sausages, breaking the sausage up with a wooden spoon.  Sauté until golden brown, about 20 minutes.  Drain only if necessary; a little fat adds to the flavor.

Simmering pasta sauce for Rigatoni with sausage and fennel
Zest the lemon into the milk.   Start the water for the pasta.

Stir the cooked sausage mixture into the tomato sauce.  Add the milk.  Combine and let simmer for a further 5 minutes. Season to taste with Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper if needed.

Cook the pasta according to package directions.  Drain the pasta and toss with the sauce.

Rigatoni with sausage and fennel mixing penne pasta

This sauce only gets better each day!  It would be an excellent dish to make ahead of time.

Rigatoni with sausage and fennel plates garnished

Garnish with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and the chopped Italian parsley.

Recipe adapted from BBC Good Food, Sausage Ragù.

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Rigatoni with Sausage and Fennel Ragù
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