Sorry Britain – there’s no such thing as spaghetti bolognese . . . not in Italy, as I discovered on a recent visit to Bologna.
It is, like chicken tikka masala, entirely an English invention and, according to any Italian cook, not one of the better ones.
Nonetheless it is a compulsory item on the menu in any one of Britain’s 4700+ Italian restaurants.
The Lady Driver and I specifically stopped off in Bologna to have spag bog in what we assumed was its native habitat.
On the dinner-time taxi ride into the old city, our driver realigned our gastronomical thinking.
It’s a “ragu”
In Bologna, one of Italy’s best food havens, “bolognese” sauce is more correctly called a ragu – a meat sauce.
It is all about how the sauce sticks to the pasta.
A ragu does not go well with spaghetti, which is too thin to hold the heavy sauce. That’s why, when you finish your spag bog – or spag bol as the Brits call it – there’s a residual layer of meat sauce in the bottom of the bowl.
More correctly, as our waiter at the lovely Bolognese cucina pointed out, a ragu should be eaten with tagliatelle which, being thicker, holds the sauce better.
There are over 350 pasta shapes, many of them regional versions. Different shapes suit different sauces.
Spaghetti, our waiter told us, should be eaten with either a cream sauce such as carbonara or a tomato-based sauce. Larger pasta styles suit chunkier sauces, smaller versions are best with creamy sauces.
The British pasta love affair
So how did the British love affair with Italian food come about? Its genesis can be found in London’s Soho district.
In the late 1940s and early 50s as Italian migrants moved into the UK, many of them settled in Soho. In 1949 Bar Italia one of Britain’s first Italian restaurants popped up in Frith St. It’s still there at No. 21 and still run by Antonio, a grandson of the founder Lou Polledri.
The Spaghetti House chain had it’s beginning in 1955 when Simone Lavarini and Lorenzo Fraquelli, after talking about it over coffee in Bar Italia, set up the first iteration in Goodge St. Today, with 10 restaurants across London, it is still a family-run business with the Lavarinis at the helm.
The Goodge St site (pictured) is still there and still serving up the kind of authentic Italian dishes made famous by its founders. Plus, naturally, spaghetti bolognese, authentic or not.