In Bologna, locals are fanatical about their namesake dish, that very famous slow-cooked meat sauce called Bolognese. It must always dress tagliatelle (never spaghetti!) and it mustn't ever be rushed—simmering Bolognese can be an all-day affair.
This classic recipe, with its obsessive attention to detail, needs nothing extra. Yet chefs across the country have started to play around with it—not to improve upon the original, necessarily, but to use it as a springboard for something new entirely.
Case in point: a recent dinner at Còmodo, a tiny, candlelit nook in downtown New York, where at least half the tables were hushed over their plates, leaning forward to share a bowl of roasted poblano Bolognese.
This dish came from humble beginnings. "It all started with a chile rellenos special," owner Felipe Donnelly explains. "We had some stuffed poblano peppers left over, and for family meal, we chopped them up and mixed it with a handmade pasta. Right away, we knew we had something special."
The dish evolved over the next couple months into its final form. "Adding one simple ingredient can change the flavor complexity of a dish dramatically," Donnelly says.
"The pepper adds a bright flavor, so the finished dish feels a little lighter and more refreshing than a traditional Bolognese," adds Còmodo chef Carolina Santos-Neves. The silky fresh pasta, rich beef-based sauce and surprisingly crunchy peppers come together in an unusual, yet completely craveable Bolognese (see the recipe).
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Còmodo isn't the only restaurant playing with the classic recipe. One of the signature dishes at Melisse in L.A. is a lobster Bolognese. "I wanted to create a lobster and pasta dish without cream," said chef-owner Josiah Citrin. "When all the ingredients are slowly cooked together, it creates a deep, rich flavor. The end result tastes different, but also familiar." The sweet tomato and briny lobster are accented with a final luxurious touch: brown butter truffle sauce.
At Balena in Chicago, chef Chris Pandel brought the dish in yet another direction: snail Bolognese. Pandel first used the mollusk as a garnish for a fennel-based pasta dish, but quickly took things in another direction. "I wanted the flavor of the snails to coat the entire dish, not simply accent it," he says. He now runs it as a special, coating chewy chitarra pasta with an earthy, slow-cooked ground snail Bolognese.
While the Bolognese are busy crying foul, we'll be at the table, asking for seconds.