Rich Barron comes into the bar area of Il Capriccio, his Waltham restaurant, and he knows everyone at every table and greets them by name. This is where many regulars sit, and some, he says, have been coming in for the three decades he has been there.
For most of that time, he has made Bolognese sauce, tossing it with linguine or fettuccine, stuffing it into ravioli, spooning it over gnocchi, or layering it with homemade sheets of lasagna, the dish on the menu now.
Barron, and his revered head chef, Pastor Avelar (“If he left me tomorrow,” says Barron, “I’d close the day after”), resist the urge to tart up the lasagna. It arrives on the plate in three thin, glorious layers of meat sauce, pasta, and cheese. It’s not high, there are no flourishes of sauce around it, nor are there dabs of another sauce around the edges (when will those go away and stay away?). It’s practically homely.
There’s a lot of flavor packed into this lasagna Bolognese. It tastes sweet, smoky, and porky. The pork taste comes from pancetta, which is in the pot with veal shoulder; fresh pork is added only when the chefs have some left from another dish. They grind the meats with onions, carrots, garlic, sage, salt, pepper, and tomatoes, then simmer the mix with veal stock and white wine. When it’s done, they strain the solids from the cooking juices, and let the juices reduce with heavy cream until they’re quite thick. The meat returns to the sauce with nutmeg and handfuls of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
House pasta forms the layers with the meat sauce, good domestic cow mozzarella, and more Parmigiano, all topped with something Barron calls “pink sauce,” an Alfredo tinted with tomatoes. It’s so tender you can cut it with a spoon. “Some people say, ‘This isn’t lasagna,’ ” says Barron. “It’s got a pudding texture.” It is soft, but in the best way, and so creamy and meaty and delicious.
At the turn of the 20th century, with the mass migration of Italians to this country, ragu (tomato meat sauce) became a fixture in the early spaghetti houses they set up, where immigrants could get a cheap, filling bowl. Italian-American kids were raised on nonna’s Sunday “gravy,” as it was called, which was made with an abundance of meat, an ingredient that had been scarce in the old country.
Marcella Hazan introduced Americans to authentic ragu as it was made in Bologna, where she ran a cooking school, in her groundbreaking “The Classic Italian Cookbook” (1973). Hers was called “Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style,” and the recipe, made with ground beef, went viral (no Internet, of course, just word of mouth). It wasn’t the heavy version Italian-American nonnas were ladling out, but lighter and creamier. It was made with cream and turned strands of spaghetti voluptuous and silky. The sauce was served tossed with the pasta, rather than ladled on top, the way many people had come to do it.
Marcella’s sauce simmers for at least three-and-a-half hours. Il Capriccio’s exceptional Bolognese is in the pot for 45 minutes. Barron says the taste comes from using the best quality ingredients, from the meats that go into the grinder to the generous sprinkle of imported Parmigiano-Reggiano at the end of simmering.
Il Capriccio regulars know that if they see lasagna Bolognese on the menu but want the sauce tossed with spaghetti, they can order it (though weekend requests are harder to fill, says Barron). The restaurant is the kind of warm and welcoming place where waiters make every effort to get you what you want. There’s little turnover among staff, says Barron, who runs a house where all tips are pooled. The warren of small dining rooms is always lively and filled, even after 36 years.
“We work hard to please,” says the affable owner. “When we say we’re in the hospitality industry, we’re really in the hospitality business. Somehow it works.”
888 Main St., Waltham, 781-894-2234, www.ilcapriccio