Mezze rigatoni, penne, cavatappi, and orecchiette are so much fun to eat. And they are neater than long pastas like spaghetti, fettuccine, and linguini. The thing is, you need a sauce that slides into all the holes and dents, not just covers the exteriors.
Plain old spaghetti sauce with or without meat certainly will do that, but you might welcome a spicier and more robust sauce like the one I learned to make from a friend who grew up in a second generation Italian-American family. As always, I tinkered with his process at which he, the traditionalist, would no doubt roll his eyes and shake his head, but I like my result.
In this sausage sauce the goal is to make a mostly meat sauce loosely held together with tomato paste; the sausage cooks apart and the finished product looks like mostly ground up meat. I enjoy a combination of sweet Italian sausage (with lots of fennel) and hot Italian sausage. You can adjust the level of heat by the balance of sweet and hot sausage — more sweet if you prefer mild or more hot sausage if you like a zippier sauce.
You could, of course, use all one or the other.
It’s best to start with a rib of celery, a small carrot, and onion either grated or chopped very fine and sauteed in olive oil. Unless you use bulk sausage, take the sausage out of its casing and cook it until it all falls apart. A splash of wine helps that process. Add some tomato paste or canned tomatoes, and at the end, a dollop of cream smooths it all out.
I never paid much attention to mezze rigatoni until just the past few years. I grew up in a spaghetti and elbow macaroni kind of family. To make what we just called “spaghetti,” Mom used Chef Boyardi kits that contained a can of sauce, plus a little packet of seasonings that she added to it, and the pasta. Macaroni was for mac and cheese or macaroni salad in summer. All the fascinating pasta shapes available now are part of my adult life. Of all of them, I think mezze rigatoni is one of the more fun to cook, because, as my friend showed me, you toss them into the boiling water, and as the little tubes cook to tenderness, they sit up on their ends; when you look in the pot, you see a whole bunch of circles. And I love the way rigatoni fills up with sauce.
The directions below will make enough for four moderate eaters. You can scale it back if there are only two of you, or just one. Or you can make more and freeze it for a quick supper later. There is nothing wrong with plain old seasoned marinara sauce. I just like this meatier and zesty concoction from time to time for a change, and maybe you will, too.
Zesty Sausage Sauce on Mezze Rigatoni
1 rib celery chopped very fine
1 small carrot, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, chopped fine
4-5 links of mild or hot Italian sausage, skins removed, or about a half pound bulk sausage
¼ cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon cream, optional
Mezzi Rigatoni or your choice of pasta cooked according to directions on package for four servings
Put enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a heavy pot.
Add the celery, carrot, and onion, and cook covered, stirring occasionally, over a medium low heat until the vegetables are quite tender about 15 minutes.
Add the sausage, breaking it up as it cooks into small pieces. Add the white wine, and cook, stirring, as the meat cooks through and continues to crumble apart.
Add the tomato paste and a very little water, stirring so a little sauce forms. Simmer over a low heat for at least 30 minutes.
Sample the sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
At the end, add the cream if used, and mix it in well.
When your pasta is cooked drain it and add it to the sauce, tossing well, and serve with parmesan, if desired.