One of the pleasures of being in a new place is tasting local dishes and then trying to figure out how to make them. In Italy, part of the fun lies in consulting butchers, greengrocers, cheese purveyors, wine merchants, and really, any Italian who eats, because they are all happy to offer advice. As soon as the days grew cooler, I knew what I wanted to make: Coda alla Vaccinara (Oxtail Stew) served over rigatoni–an old-style dish appearing on many Roman menus.
In previous times, the slaughterhouse workers of Testaccio (the vacccinari) were given offal and oxtails to pad their slim salaries. Their wives rose to the challenge and created dishes that made the most of the available ingredients. In Coda alla Vaccinara, the oxtails are braised in a sauce made with pancetta, lots of celery, onions, carrots, tomatoes, wine, and spices, though the stew is open to interpretation; everyone I asked prepares the dish in a slightly different way. Some people make it with red wine instead of white, some add water, some forego the carrot, some add raisins. Large pieces of celery are de rigueur, but in a rebellious break from tradition (and knowing I wanted to turn the entire stew into a sauce), I finely diced all the celery and survived to tell the tale.
However, I did not escape looks of shock and dismay on the faces of two Italian friends when I mentioned I had added a pinch of cinnamon to the stew. “Cinnamon? CINNAMON? No. NO.” But I say “Yes.” In addition to cloves, cinnamon very frequently appears in recipes for Coda, which is meant to have a warm-scented, delicately sweet undertone. So here is the resulting recipe, a hearty interpretation perfect for autumn and winter. And following on the advice of Alessandro Volpetti (and I’m happy to take the word of anyone at Volpetti’s), I topped the Coda with grated Ricotta Salata cheese, one of my favorites. But omit the cinnamon if you prefer, top with Parmesan or Pecorino Romano instead–this dish is yours to interpret.
Rigatoni with Oxtail Sauce (con Coda alla Vaccinara)
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
2.2 lb. (1 kg.) oxtails
salt and pepper
4 oz. (about 112 grams) pancetta, cubed
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely diced (or coarsely grated)
5 stalks celery, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/8 -1/4 tsp. chili flakes
4 whole cloves (or 1/8 tsp. ground)
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
1.5 tbsp. tomato paste
1.5 c. white wine
1 large (28 oz./800 grams) can peeled Italian tomatoes
fresh parsley and marjoram (or oregano)
tiny pinch sugar
1 lb. (500 grams) rigatoni
Ricotta salata cheese, grated
1. Lightly season the oxtail pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven, then brown the oxtail pieces, turning them on all sides. Remove from the pot and place in a bowl.
2. Add the pancetta to the pot and cook until mostly crispy and the fat has rendered; do not drain the fat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook until soft, deglazing the pot as you go. Sprinkle the onion mixture with more black pepper, add the garlic and bay leaf, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the chili flakes, cloves, and cinnamon and cook for a minute or two while stirring. Add the tomato paste and the wine. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes to reduce the liquid slightly.
3. With clean hands, take a peeled tomato from the can and crush it into the stew; repeat with all the tomatoes. This is a very satisfying technique—but moderation is key; if you are too enthusiastic, you may end up shooting tomato bits across the kitchen. If you prefer a slightly less visceral experience, you can cut the tomatoes while in the can, or remove them and dice, adding all the tomatoes and all the tomato sauce/juice from the can to the pot.
4. Mix in the pinch of sugar, nestle the oxtail pieces into the vegetable mixture, pour in any liquid from the bowl they were in, sprinkle with more black pepper, and then scatter some of the herbs on top.
5. Cover the pot and simmer on low heat for about 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender when pierced with a fork (it may take longer depending on the oxtails). Remove the oxtails, place on a dish, let cool, then pull off as much meat from the bones as possible (this will require some patience). Return the shredded meat to the sauce; keep warm.
6. Cook the rigatoni according to package instructions until al dente, drain, return to its pot, and then mix in the Coda sauce. Scatter more fresh herbs on top and serve with the grated cheese.