Sugo Bugiardo: Fakes, liars and runaway chicken

Like in many traditional peasant cuisines, Tuscan cooking was quite imaginative when faced with hard times. Tuscans are very good with using up their leftovers, or turning the less noble parts of animals into unforgettable meals. But they were also very good at imagining that they were eating something that they weren’t.

My mother-in-law, born right after the war in central Tuscany, once recounted to me that when she was a little a girl they didn’t have the luxury of choice. In the spring and summer, lunch was pasta with tomatoes. Every day. In the winter, they had pasta with ragu. Every day. You could imagine that in more difficult times, it was probably even less than that, and that sometimes the same thing – or lack of it – could be quite depressing. This is when they began to play imaginary games with their food. A case in point are these three brilliant pasta sauces: sugo finto, sugo bugiardo and sugo al pollo scappato.

Sugo Finto, means “fake sauce” – it’s made with your classic soffritto of sautéed onion, carrot and celery, and then some tomato paste, canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes are added to it. Simple. Healthy. And importantly, cheap. But it’s “fake” because it’s missing the usual minced meat that is classically present in a ragu pasta sauce.

Sugo Bugiardo is one of my favourite pasta sauces – “liar” sauce. I first tried it in the beautiful countryside of the Val d’Orcia, south of Siena, near the town of Trequanda. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

What has this sauce done that allows us to throw accusations at it? Well, it too is missing the beef, but in its place is the local red wine, home made sausage meat and sexy rigatino – peppery, dry cured pork belly – a very deceiving sauce, as its name suggests, I highly doubt you’d worry about what happened to the beef while eating this. It is so deliciously tasty and salty and moreish that I actually prefer it to regular ragu. From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, many Tuscan peasants in the area lived off game, poultry or pork instead of the more expensive beef that many could not afford – this sauce simply grew out of a cheap substitute for beef, using the cured products kept in the home larder.

Pollo Scappato is another Tuscan homestyle pasta sauce, rarely seen on menus, which really puts in my mind a picture of nonna having to tell a few tall stories to the kids to get them to think they were eating something exciting – the “escaped” chicken of the sauce’s name is essentially non existent. This sauce is made much like the sugo finto – but often with just onion and parsley as a base, and tomato conserve. Some also say sugo al pollo scappato came from using leftover sauce of chicken alla cacciatore (after all the chicken had already been eaten) as a pasta sauce, so it at least it still tasted of the runaway chicken.

Plenty of similar dishes born out of the need to feed hungry stomachs and make a dish sound appetizing exist in other regions around Italy too. For me one the most memorable of these is a dish from the small Southern region of Molise. They have a pasta sauce which in dialect is essentially known as pesce finto, “fake fish” sauce. The recipe goes: take three rocks from the sea and heat them slowly in some oil to infuse the oil with the flavour of the sea…. Then add a chopped onion and some fresh tomatoes. Take the rocks out before tossing the sauce with pasta. To me, this recipe is a poem about the incredible imagination of hungry people.

Here’s the recipe from the restaurant of Fattoria Il Colle for Sugo Bugiardo. Making it the day before means it’s even tastier as the flavours have had plenty of time to mingle. This makes enough for 6-8 people but can easily be halved for a smaller portion:

  • 1 onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • Italian parsley
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 300 grams of rigatino (pancetta)
  • 4 Tuscan style sausages, taken out of their skin casings
  • 1 glass of red wine (Sangiovese, if possible)
  • 1 kilo of canned whole tomatoes
  • chili, salt and pepper to taste

Prepare the soffritto by chopping the onion, carrot and celery finely and sautéing them gently in some olive oil. When they are golden, add the rigatino and the sausage meat, crumbled, and brown the meat slightly. Add the glass of wine, tomatoes and a pinch of salt and bring it all to a simmer on low heat to reduce slightly. Meanwhile, put on a pot of water to cook the pasta (this goes well with a ribbon pasta like pappardelle, or at least any long pasta). Serve with your pasta of choice and a sprinkling of parsley.


  1. Mikey says:

    That pesce finto story is something else. How amazing.

    • Emiko says:

      Mikey, I know, it got me too, I had to slip it in. I’m keen to try it one day and see if it works – will it really taste like the sea?!

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