Grandma Z’s Ragu

grandma-z-001-small-731x1024_thumb.jpgMy maternal grandmother was first-generation Italian immigrant, born in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. I went through several phases of knowing her. First as a live-in grandma when my dad went on a tour abroad and my mom, brother, and I lived with my grandparents. I don’t remember much of that phase except an unexplained familiarity with polka music (my grandpa was first-generation Polish immigrant), a love for lemons from the garden, and oh boy, the spaghetti sauce. I mean, yum!

After we moved to Montana and I grew up, Grandma would come to visit and became the voice telling my mom to get whatever I wanted from the Victoria’s Secret (which was always tamer than you’d think) and exclaiming “Don’t touch my sauce!” any time I tried to help her cook up her lovely concoction.

Later, as an adult, I managed to get staffed as a consultant back in her adopted town of San Diego and was able to help her through recovery after knee surgery and share memories with her with a new level of understanding and respect, a woman who had lived through a world war, crossed an ocean alone with 3 small kids as an Air Force spouse, and tended to my ailing grandfather for years after his stroke.

And always, there was Grandma’s sauce. When she finally shared her secrets and her recipe, it was a treasured gift, a legacy of love from a woman I adored and who’s looks I had inherited along with a love for books and libraries.

We lost Grandma Z even before her passing as dementia took hold which made the recipe I’d captured even more heartfelt. I cook it whenever I want to feel her with me, in the kitchen, making sure I’m stirring the sauce but not too much. And also when I’m just hungry for a damn good pasta sauce.

Grandma’s version took hours in a pot on the stove, no crockpots for her. She had actually whittled it down to 3 1/2 to 4 hours leveraging modern shortcuts. Maybe in the earlier days, she might have used  fresh tomatoes or other ingredients but Grandma was nothing if not practical in the kitchen.

In that vein, I recently felt like it was time to do an update to the recipe, leveraging my Instant Pot. I know she would definitely approve. When I first went looking for the recipe cards, I couldn’t find them. This was after 3 moves in 3 years and I’m not always as organized as I should be with my recipes, stuffing them into other books or magazines along the way. But a quick shoutout to Grandma Z in heaven and sure enough, she helped me find it.

Interesting enough, Grandma’s sauce is technically a ragu because there’s meat in it. Obviously, season to your own taste, step back from the garlic if you’re a vampire, and swap out fresh for dried herbs if you add them in later. Except the parsley. Best fresh, best added last for that freshness.

Grandma often ate the parsley while she added it. She was fresh that way.

Grandma Z's Pork Ragu - Instant Pot version

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Authentic but easy rustic pork ragu sauce especially good with spaghetti.

We use this sauce for spaghetti or lasagna. If using for lasagna, you may want to thin it a bit. For slow cooker version, let simmer on Low for 6-7 hours. (No point in using a slow cooker on High. )

Credit: Grandma Z


  • 2 country pork ribs (bone or boneless)
  • 2 medium (14.5 oz) cans diced fire roasted tomatoes
  • 2 medium (14.5 oz) cans Italian style diced tomatoes
  • 1 small (6 oz) can tomato paste
  • 1/2 a whole small garlic, about 6-8 cloves
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/4 tsp ground cayenne red pepper
  • 2 sprigs fresh parsley, right at the end


  1. Peel the garlic cloves. If you want stronger flavor, smash the cloves first. If you want a more mellow flavor, leave them whole.
  2. Remove pork from packaging and set within reach of your Pot.
  3. In the instant pot insert, pour olive oil, and turn on your Pot to Saute mode (for certain version, set to Low Saute.) REMEMBER: NEVER hit Saute and walk away.
  4. Place garlic in the insert and saute for about 2-3 minutes.
  5. Sear outside of pork ribs by putting first in, turning it on each side while making sure garlic stays in motion in the pot.
  6. Add the second rib and repeat. Add more oil if needed.
  7. Turn off Saute (hit Cancel).
  8. Add all cans of tomatoes, can of tomato paste (keep 1 empty can of tomatoes and can of tomato paste for later if you need more liquid.)
  9. Add all the spices, minus the parsley, and stir.
  10. Secure Instant Pot lid, press Manual, set to 35 minutes.
  11. Let natural pressure release (NPR).
  12. Open lid. If you used bone-in ribs, get bones out.
  13. Use masher to break up pork meat.
  14. If sauce is too thin, put on Saute for a few minutes. If too thick, use the tomato paste can first and add 1/2 a cup at a time until desired thickness.
  15. Serve or Can.

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