We normally begin a new year with a super-healthy dish, but after nearly a week of battling post-Christmas stomach and cold flus, all our little family wanted was some comfort to ring in the New Year. Thank goodness for Giovanni's Comforting Pasta Bolognese.

Our 12-year-old son, Giovanni (or Gio), created this recipe last fall after watching an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on Food Network.

The host, Guy Fieri, was visiting the Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis, where the owner demonstrated how they make their own pork sausage by adding minced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and toasted fennel seeds to ground pork.

A lover of all things sausage, Gio was intrigued by this discovery and wanted to replicate the process at home.

Instead of making a pizza topping, he set upon making his very own recipe for Bolognese sauce.

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It turns out the sauce is also great on pizza.

While a traditional Italian Bolognese is a fairly complex, slowly cooked meat-based sauce, Americans are more familiar with a simplified version that combines either ground beef or pork with tomato sauce. Giovanni's sauce follows this path, with a few creative twists to make his Bolognese really stand out.

Gio begins with unseasoned ground pork from our local grocery store and uses his hands to mix in the herbs and seasonings.

It's important to mix the ground pork until all the ingredients are incorporated, and Gio spends about three to five minutes working the mixture until everything is combined.

Once the sausage is mixed, it is then cooked before adding to the sauce. For a single batch, this can be done in a frying pan on your stovetop.

But last weekend, Gio made a triple-batch that yielded nearly 12 quarts of sauce, so we followed the advice given by the owner of Pizzeria Lola and pressed the sausage onto baking sheets, covered it with tin foil, then baked it in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes. We removed the foil and baked it for another five minutes to brown the meat.

I'd never tried this method before, and this simple shortcut worked great. The meat in a Bolognese sauce should be crumbly, so we used a sharp chef's knife to finely chop the sausage until it resembled coarse crumbs.

For his sauce, Gio begins with a simple base of extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic, red pepper flakes, yellow onion and whole, peeled tomatoes. To achieve the right consistency, the tomatoes should be pureed first, either in a liquid blender or food processor.

Next, Gio adds a creative blend of Italian herbs and seasoning, using both fresh and dried varieties of basil, thyme and oregano as well as a mix of dried Sicilian herbs.

This double use of fresh and dried herbs is optional, Gio says, and you can use dried or fresh herbs, and the sauce will still taste great.

Once the ground sausage is added, the sauce can cook anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. For best results, Gio recommends refrigerating the sauce overnight as this allows the flavors to really come together.

Gio serves his Bolognese with penne pasta, which has ridges to perfectly capture all the delicious bits of sausage, and adds a final flourish with spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms at the end.

Cooking is just his hobby, Gio says, as his real passions are history and geography. We'll gladly support all of his pursuits, as long as he keeps making us his comforting Bolognese.

Giovanni's Comforting Pasta Bolognese

Serving size: about 3 quarts

Sausage ingredients:

2 pounds ground pork, unseasoned

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (more for spicier version)

1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Sauce ingredients:

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced

1½ teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

Half a yellow onion, finely diced

3 28-ounce cans whole, peeled tomatoes, pureed

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon Sicilian herb blend (can be found in specialty stores)

2 sprigs fresh oregano

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh basil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup Parmesan cheese (to garnish)

Optional add-ins:

1 cup fresh baby spinach leaves

1 cup baby portabella mushrooms, sliced

1 cup grape tomatoes, diced


In a small pan, toast the fennel seeds over medium-low heat until golden and aromatic, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients thoroughly with your hands until well combined, about 3 to 5 minutes.

In the same frying pan used for the fennel, cook a small piece of sausage over medium heat until cooked through, then taste and adjust seasoning if desired.

Cook the sausage in a large frying pan over medium heat until lightly golden brown and cooked through. Once cool enough to handle, use a large, sharp knife to finely chop the sausage until it resembles coarse crumbs; set aside.

In a large stock pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, add the garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.

Add the crushed red pepper flakes and cook for one more minute. Add the diced onion and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the pureed tomatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Add the cooked sausage, herbs, salt and pepper and simmer over medium-low to low heat for 30 minutes up to 2 hours, stirring occasionally. May serve immediately or, for best results, refrigerate overnight before serving and reheat on the stove.

As the sauce simmers, cook the pasta according to the directions on the package and set aside.

Just before serving, add the spinach, grape tomatoes and mushrooms to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat until the mushrooms soften, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Toss the sauce with the cooked pasta until each noodle is evenly coated, then transfer to serving bowl. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and serve with crusty bread.

To store:

May be refrigerated for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

Gio's Tips:

  • Choose a noodle with ridges, like penne, to catch as much meat per noodle as possible.
  • Use any mix of the fresh and/or dried herbs mentioned. You may also vary the amounts according to your taste.
  • This recipe can easily be doubled and tripled. For large batches, the sausage can be cooked in a 400-degree oven for easy preparation. Simply press the sausage onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, cover with tin foil and bake for 15 minutes; then, uncover and bake for 5 minutes more, until the meat is lightly browned.
  • For larger batches, the tomatoes can be added whole and then pureed with a handheld immersion blender once the sauce is brought to a boil, before adding the herbs.
  • This sauce is also excellent on pizza.
  • You can find an excellent Sicilian herb blend in the gourmet aisle at the Fargo TJ Maxx store.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 12-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at sarahnasello@gmail.com.

All previous recipes can be found at thelostitalian.areavoices.com.