Who started this debate?
Italian cuisine is defined by region so this is merely a debate outside of the country because here in Italy, everybody knows that Ragù is a pasta sauce and Bolognese means 'from Bologna'.
Ragù - the sauce
Ragù is essentially a meat sauce with a touch of tomato added. The history of the word stems from 'stew' in French - ragout, although has most likely been around in Italy since tomatoes were brought to Europe from the Americas via the Spanish in the early 1500s.
Some regions use mince, some use chunks of meat, some pork, some goose, some lamb but the idea is one and only - create a liquid sauce with a base of onions, celery and carrot (il soffritto) and cook it for many hours. Then serve it on pasta.
Bolognaise is the French word for Bolognese in Italian.
Now I am sorry to bust a myth but Spag-bol? In Bologna, there's no such thing... Spag-ragù maybe or Tag-bol even, but no Bolognese would ever put his mamma's Ragù on a plate of spaghetti - it's a no-no in here, where food rules are strict. These people take their food rather seriously and insist it's the best. They do have many claims to fame and many a DOP (regionally protected) product and geographically-stipulated recipe but doesn't most of Italy? Well, actually no. The region of Emilia Romagna holds the highest record of IGP and DOCG products in Europe, 44 exactly excluding wines which makes up 15% of Italy's nominated products.
Moving along, Bolognese (the sauce, not the person) is short for Ragù alla bolognese (Ragù from Bologna) and is served with tagliatelle or any flat, long pasta - including lasagna sheets (which must be green by the way) but never spaghetti, and never tortellini. Flat pasta holds meat sauce much better and if you must know, all of those pretty pasta shapes are not just pretty, they're masterfully tailor-made around the sauces they complement, and the other way round. Rigata (ridged) will hold a liquid sauce better and conchiglie (shells) will hold a chunky sauce better but to be honest, the pasta and sauce love story is a world in itself and possibly another day's blog post.
Getting back to Spag-bol, seeing as bol stands for Bolognese/Bolognaise, and in Bologna, spaghetti does not go near bol, let's just call it another Italian-oopsie, like one panini instead of one panino. Anyway, who's judging? Italians also get English things wrong, like footing which means jogging.
Ragù alla Bolognese Recipe
Let's take a very close, recorded-in-the-Chamber-of-Commerce, look at the recipe for Bolognese, it's the easiest way to explain things.
While the rest of Italy makes their Ragù how they regionally choose to, Bolognaise sauce has been recorded by the Italian Academy of Food since 1982 and is officially made this way:
Ingredients for 4 people:
300 g of roughly-minced beef meat (cartella or pancia or fesone di spalla or fusello)
150 g of unsmoked pancetta
50 g of yellow carrot
50 g of celery stick
50 g of onion
300 g of tomato passata or peeled tomatoes
½ glass of red wine
1 glass of full-cream milk, some broth, olive oil or butter
salt and pepper
½ glass of single cream (optional)
Sauté the pancetta chopped firstly into cubes and then finely chopped with a mezzaluna knife, in a terracotta or thick aluminium pan of about 20cm in diameter.
Add three tablespoons of olive oil or 50g of butter and the finely-chopped vegetables and sauté gently. Add the minced meat and stir well with a spoon, letting it brown until it sizzles.
Add the wine and stir delicately until completely evaporated.
Add the passata or peeled tomatoes, cover and let it slowly simmer for about two hours, adding the broth when needed.
When almost finished, add the milk to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.
Season with salt and pepper.
When the ragù is ready, according to Bologna tradition, cream is added if you're using dry pasta. For freshly-made tagliatelle, it's not necessary.
At MangiaMangia, we cook ragù Nonna Lili-style and follow her recipe because we all think it's the best! It's very similar to Bologna's famous recipe but we use a combination of pork and beef mince and no wine or cream is added. Also, we cook ours for at least five hours, which inevitably ends up being six.