In my mind, this Sardinian sausage ragù is close to perfect: glossy, richly flavored sauce, juicy morsels of sausage, and an extra hint of something that makes it special… It's not the casually torn basil or the finely grated cheese… The special "somethin-somethin" is a pinch of that notoriously pricey spice, saffron. The pairing of saffron, basil, and hearty tomato ragù is one of those flavor combinations that's instantly comforting, but still feels special. There is something elegantly elusive about this ragù, yet it's still so homey.
When describing this recipe to others, I always begin by using fennel as a point of reference. Not because it tastes like fennel, but because fennel also has a floral sweetness, without being "desserty." Think how well that floral fennel flavor works in a classic Italian sausage. The slightly floral notes of saffron work in a similar way, adding character to the sauce without out-shining the other ingredients.
This recipe is my adaptation of a ragù that is, apparently, typical in Campidano, a region in the south of Sardinia. I say "apparently" because I've never actually been to Sardinia. The core of this dish is my own staple ragù technique. The Sardinian-inspired flavors are drawn from somebody else's memories, gathered in conversation.
Saffron: If you like risotto milanese, try ragù alla campidanese!
Saffron really is well-traveled, with a rich history long before it was first cultivated as a crop. You might have tasted it in rice dishes like paella, vibrantly colored risottos, or Samin's Persian-ish rice. It has a floral-grassy, nutty, and almost fruity flavor, but I don't find it to be a strictly sweet aroma.
Pecorino, or Pecorino Sardo
When paired with grassy pecorino and beautifully bright fresh basil, this Sardinian sausage ragù really is out of this world. And, thanks to the modern oddity that is vegan meat, it's incredibly easy to make this meat-free. (In fact, that's the default below, with notes on how to swap in meat if you so choose.)
A quick note on cheese: If you can find pecorino sardo, definitely use that instead of pecorino romano. Pecorino sardo has that yummy, grassy sheep's milk flavor, but it's sweeter and nuttier than the pecorino romano we're all familiar with. It's not widely available in the states, but I have occasionally found pecorino sardo in specialty markets and some chain stores, like Whole Foods. (PSA: this cheese is not to be confused with fiore sardo, which is smoked and quite pungent.)
Traditionally served with gnocchetti sardi, this ragù demands a pasta with texture.
Pasta alla campidanese would normally be served with gnocchetti sardi ("Sardinian little gnocchi"), also called malloreddus. They are little rolled pastas, very similar in shape to cavatelli... In fact, I'm pretty ding-dang-certain that they are the same pasta with different regional names. (Please correct me if I'm wrong in the comments below!) Gnocchetti sardi are made from an eggless dough, rolled into a long rope, and cut into short lengths. They are then pressed along a hard (often textured) surface to create an internal little cup and a ridged exterior. You can see photos of the process in the links above!
If you're working with a limited pasta selection, you'll want to pick a short pasta with some sort of texture and a cavity to catch everything. Orecchiette is a great choice, since its little cupped shape perfectly cradles the chunky bits of ragù and catches any extra grated cheese. The ridged texture on the other side is also perfect for helping the sauce to cling. The twists and ruffles of campanelle (pictured) do the same work, as do the ridges and cups of any medium shell pasta.
"What if I don't think I like saffron?"
Even if you’re a bit hesitant about the saffron, I do suggest trying the recipe as-written. It’s a conservative amount, and well balanced by the surrounding strong flavors. This is still true even if you have gorgeous, freshly harvested saffron like that from Diaspora Co. You will taste it, but at just a quarter teaspoon you’re not in danger of ending up with saffron overload. (You can, of course, omit the saffron entirely. But then you’re just having a standard red sauce with sausage, aren’t you?)
If, on the other hand, you’re excited by the saffron, feel free to bump up the quantity to suit your mood. The ragù can take it!
"Can I make this vegan?"
Yes! Omit the cheese, or use your favorite vegan Parmesan/Pecorino alternative. Instead of meat, use your preferred vegan pork sub. I always recommend Impossible over Beyond, but pick what you like.
Looking for more pasta recipes? Take a peek at these!
Pasta with Cabbage, Caraway, and Dill (Russian Piroshki Pasta)
Pearl Couscous and Zucchini Salad with Tomato Vinaigrette
Red Wine Mushroom Ragù with Pappardelle (veg/vegan)
Pan-Seared Cauliflower and Gnocchi in Lemony Miso-Butter Sauce
Gruyere and Herb Pasta Frittata
Sardinian Sausage Ragù (Pasta alla Campidanese)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- ¼ cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
- ¼ teaspoon saffron, crushed, See Notes
- ½ pound bulk vegan sausage or pork Italian sausage, See Notes; Remove casings if using links
- One 14½-ounce can tomato puree or crushed tomatoes
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound pasta, preferably gnocchetti, cavatelli, or orecchiette
- ¼ cup finely grated pecorino romano, plus more to serve, Or pecorino sardo, if available
- ½ cup coarsely chopped basil, plus more to serve
- Step 1In a large skillet or sauté pan, combine the oil and garlic. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the garlic is golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the wine and saffron and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine has reduced by about half, about 5 minutes depending on the surface area of your pan.
- Step 2Add the sausage and break into smallish pieces, roughly ½-inch in size. Once the sausage is broken up, add the tomatoes and two generous pinches of salt. Bring to a simmer, cover, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the sausage is cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes. Keep warm over low heat until the pasta is cooked.
- Step 3While you are cooking the sauce, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Cook your pasta to al dente, keeping in mind that a proper al dente is often as much as 2 minutes less than indicated on the package. When the pasta is finished cooking, reserve 1 cup of pasta water, drain, and add the pasta to the skillet with the finished sauce.
- Step 4Stir to coat the pasta, then remove from heat. Mix in the pecorino and 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water, adding more pasta water a drizzle at a time to adjust the texture of the sauce. It should coat the pasta without being sticky. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in the basil when ready to serve. Garnish with extra cheese, extra basil, and a drizzle of olive oil.
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