Rigatoni and Meat Sauce

There is nothing I love more than Sunday sauce full of meatballs, lightly fried in olive oil and hot Italian sausage. Yes, I said sauce, not gravy. This can be cause for debate amongst  Italian American families, but my family always referred to this masterpiece as sauce. And you know what? It doesn’t matter what you call it, all that matters is that it’s amazingly delicious, comforting and memorable! But, I digress. Sorry to fill your head with ideas of Sunday sauce, when this is a recipe for rigatoni with meat sauce.  Sunday sauce recipe to come soon, I promise!

Okay, task at hand, rigatoni with meat sauce. Weeknights are busy in this house, as they are for all of us, right? Meat sauce using ground beef, onions, garlic, tomatoes and basil can evoke almost the same feelings as Sunday sauce, but without the time investment.  So, this is a large batch of sauce and maybe you’re not into feeding 8-10 people during the week. Even though there may only be two of you for dinner, make the full batch. You’ll be grateful it’s waiting for you in the freezer after a long day.

This is not Bolognese sauce, a Northern Italian ground meat sauce containing pork, a bit more ingredients and a bit more time.  I do love you, Lasagna Bolognese, but we’ll save you for the weekend.  This recipe does require some cook time, but the hands-on prep time is so limited, you’ll be astonished at what you’ve accomplished without slaving away in the kitchen. If you’re a jarred sauce user, you won’t be anymore! Not only is the flavor of no comparison, but the quantity prepared and the quality of ingredients used, far surpass that of what’s sitting on the shelves at the supermarket. Now, rigatoni is merely a suggestion for this sauce, happens to be my favorite, but it’s also great over zucchini noodles (awesome gf option) or homemade cavatelli. When using so few ingredients, choosing the best you can find is extremely important. Quality beef, tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil are essential here. I’ve done blind, canned tomato, testing on numerous occasions, with a variety of participants. The general conclusion was, don’t waste your money on the San Marzano tomatoes for this recipe. According to a recent Food & Wine article, http://www.foodandwine.com/news/san-marzano-tomatoes-fake, it’s just not worth it.  I do like the texture of genuine San Marzano tomatoes, but in my blind taste test, the flavor was not as good as the two winners, #1 Muir Glen Organic Whole Peeled Tomatoes, #2 Red Pack Whole Peeled Tomatoes. The winners of the test are widely available and should be rather easy to find. More details on the canned tomato test in a later post.

If you’re someone getting home at 5:00 during the week and don’t  have two hours to spare for the cooking time, my suggestion would be to make this on a night when you’re having leftovers, cool it and pop it in the fridge for dinner the following night. The flavors will only benefit from an overnight of hanging out together. Accompanied by a simple chopped salad or sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic, dinner is done!

Servings 8-10    Prep Time 20 min.   Cook Time  2 hrs.


  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 lbs. ground beef (80% lean)
  • 1 large onion, small dice
  • 5 garlic cloves, sliced paper-thin
  • 1 pinch or 2 of red pepper flakes
  • 3 large (28 oz.) cans whole peeled plum tomatoes, blended until smooth in a blender or food processor
  • 2 tablespoon Kosher salt (salt preferences vary, start with one tablespoon and work up from there)
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 handful of fresh basil, roughly torn (Please, don’t sub dried herbs, unless you want your sauce to taste like bargain, grocery store, jarred sauce!)
  • 2 lbs. dried rigatoni pasta or pasta of choice *** If you’re not feeding a large group, you could just make 1 lb. of pasta and freeze any leftover sauce for another night.



Heat olive oil over medium high heat in a large stock pot or dutch oven. When oil begins to shimmer, add the ground beef. Sauté beef until evenly browned. Remove beef from pan, with a slotted spoon, to a medium bowl. If you have an excess of 2-3 tablespoons of fat in the pan, discard the extra fat. Now, over medium heat, add the onions and garlic to the skillet containing 2-3 tablespoons of fat. Cook for about 5 min., stirring frequently, until softened, but not browned. Add the pinch or two of red pepper flakes and sauté for about a minute. Return the ground beef to the pan. At this point, I add 1 tablespoon of salt and about 1 tsp ground black pepper and stir to combine. Blended tomatoes go in next and the heat is reduced to low. Simmer, stirring from time to time for about two hours. At the end of the 2 hours, check your seasoning and add more salt and pepper to desired taste. Finally, add freshly torn basil leaves. Bring a giant pasta pot or two large stock pots filled with salted water to a rolling boil. Cook pasta according to box instructions or your preference, drain, return to pot and add a ladle full of sauce to pasta to  prevent sticking. Transfer pasta to serving platter and top with sauce. I’m all for finishing pasta cooking time in the sauce, but that doesn’t work for me when feeding more than 4 people. Have plenty of Pecorino Romano for grating at the table (I like using a microplane grater for this).



4 thoughts on “Rigatoni and Meat Sauce

  1. Ready for your 10 minute sauce recipe!

    1. I’ll have that for you soon!

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