Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Pappardelle, Tuscany, and ragù di cinghiale (wild boar sauce) are all linked together in my memory of my time living and cooking in Italy. Just thinking about wide, satiny, egg-rich pasta ribbons tossed in meaty, herby, Chianti-kissed sauce transports me back to Siena. I wish I could recreate this iconic dish exactly as I remember it, back home in the U.S., but I just don’t cross paths with any wild boar on my little island off of Cape Cod.

Making the pappardelle is manageable, even here in America. Use good eggs, plenty of yolks, knead the dough lovingly, roll it paper-thin, and use a sharp knife to cut the noodles. Check. But, making ragù di cinghiale without the cinghiale is a much more intimidating task. Could good ‘ol American pork work in a traditional Tuscan wild boar sauce? I set out to at least give it a whirl. 

An Unexpected Substitute for Wild Boar

While my experiences in Tuscany with ragù di cinghiale revolve around the named star ingredient of wild boar, I knew that for this recipe I would need to substitute with a more widely available cut of pork. My instinct when I started my recipe testing was to use pork shoulder in place of wild boar. Since I knew I would be marinating the pork and slow-cooking it, I thought pork shoulder would perform well. When cooked slowly, the large amounts of connective tissue in the shoulder break down while the fat slowly renders, to create soft, shreds of pork fit for a spoonable sauce. I got a picnic shoulder and cooked the heck out of it, low and slow. The results were mixed. Some parts were really tender and delicious but others were dry and almost stringy. Also, using a larger sized shoulder cut was just too much meat for the final amount of sauce I wanted to make. The amount of pork in the sauce needed to perfectly cling to the pappardelle noodles without overwhelming the pasta. 

Serious Eats /Lorena Masso

In a funny turn of events, there was an epic sale on St. Louis–cut ribs at my local grocery store that caught my eye. Although I hadn’t envisioned using ribs for this project, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. One rack of ribs was convenient from a purchasing perspective, plus I knew that a rib rack simmered and braised in an aromatic sauce for a long period of time would render shreddable meat, and a sauce well flavored from all of the rib bones, collagen, and connective tissue. I cut the rack into three equally sized sections so they would easily fit into a pot, then marinated and cooked them on the bone. The results were great! The pork was consistently tender and rich, and infused with the flavorful wine marinade. Most importantly, the rib meat broke down into perfectly-sized shreds that clung to the pappardelle when twirled on a fork.

When a Marinade Is More Than Just a Marinade

Almost all the Tuscan recipes I came across for ragù di cinghiale started off by marinating the wild boar overnight. This serves two purposes; it tenderizes the meat and tempers the gamey flavor of the boar. Applying this treatment to our supermarket rack of ribs might not be necessary, but it couldn’t hurt to try. I mixed garlic, juniper berries, black peppercorns, and bay leaves into the better part of a bottle of Tuscan red wine and let the pork soak in it overnight before I prepared my ragù. 

I also experimented with adding different amounts of red wine in the marinade; while I wanted the final sauce to have an undeniably wine-forward flavor, I did not want it to taste astringent or sour. And, I certainly didn’t want to ask home cooks to open more than one bottle of wine for cooking. A little more than two cups cups of red wine relative to the quantity of pork was enough to coat the meat and develop robust flavor in the marinade without letting any go to waste.  

Even with a moderate amount of wine in the marinade, it still seemed a shame to discard it the next day and use fresh wine for the braise (something many recipes do), especially once it is infused with all those great aromatic notes from the garlic and spices. Rather than pouring it down the drain, I strained the marinade and added that to the sauce to simmer the pork in. This developed great flavor and was a smart and efficient way to build flavor into my sauce.

Finding the Right Balance In the Final Sauce 

The Tuscan boar ragù this recipe is based on often incorporates a few key herbs and spices, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and juniper among them. Bay leaves and black peppercorns are easy enough, and add a welcome complexity to the sauce. But why the juniper berries? They are a staple in Tuscan stews and meaty sauces. And as Max Falkowitz informs us in his Spice Hunting story, “It [juniper] tastes something like rosemary crossed with a berry. Its resinous-but-not-too-piney flavor is the perfect thing to cut through fat or otherwise overwhelmingly strong flavors. It’s most at home with game, be it avian or mammal, as it subdues excessive gaminess and practically transports tasters to 4 a.m. hunting grounds.” Yeah, so maybe we do need these berries to do their magic and give this grocery store pork a pseudo-cinghiale vibe. 

The final element of the sauce that I had to figure out was the tomato. The sauce should be both assertively meaty and wine-y, and when I first cooked a version of this ragù with a big 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, the flavors I had developed with the overnight wine marinade were overshadowed by the tinned tomatoes. After a long simmer, the tomatoes became thick and jammy–not what we want here. Swapping out half of the tomatoes for chicken broth resulted in a much more balanced sauce where the savory flavors of the pork, wine, and aromatics could shine.

For the Marinade: In a large bowl, mix together the wine, garlic, salt, juniper berries, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Add the rib pieces to the marinade, making sure they are fully submerged. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or up to 24 hours.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the Ragù: Remove ribs from marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade and discard solids. Set strained marinade aside.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In a large Dutch oven or deep sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches, brown the rib pieces, meaty side down, and cook until well browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer browned ribs to a clean plate and set aside.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

In now-empty Dutch oven, add remaining 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil and heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add carrots, celery, and onion, and cook stirring occasionally until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, garlic, sage, and rosemary and cook until the mixture is fragrant and the paste begins to brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in the reserved strained marinade, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until mixture is reduced slightly and thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and broth and return to a boil.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Nestle ribs and their juices, meaty side down, into the sauce, cover Dutch oven, reduce heat to low and cook until pork is fully tender and falls off the bones, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Remove and discard rosemary sprig. Transfer ribs to a clean plate and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Using 2 forks, shred meat, discard the bones, and return shredded meat to sauce. Simmer ragù over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until ragù is reduced to a saucy consistency, about 10 minutes.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

For the Pappardelle: In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta. If using fresh pasta, cook until noodles are barely cooked through. If using dry pasta, cook until just shy of al dente (1 to 2 minutes less than the package directs). Using tongs or a spider skimmer, transfer pasta to ragù in Dutch oven along with 1/2 cup (120ml) pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 2 cups (500ml) pasta cooking water.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Return Dutch oven to medium-high heat and cook, stirring and tossing pasta until it is al dente and ragù clings to the noodles, about 1 minute. Add pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments to thin sauce, if needed. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide pasta between individual serving bowls. Serve.

Serious Eats / Lorena Masso

Special Equipment

Large Dutch oven or deep sauté pan, large pot


Passata di pomodoro is a cooked tomato puree that can be made at home, or jarred versions can be found at most supermarkets.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The ragù can be cooked (through step 6), cooled, and refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 3 months. When reheating ragù, thin with water as needed to reach desired consistency.

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