Manuela, like many Neapolitans who emigrated abroad, used to make periodic trips home to see her family. On one such trip in 2012, she went to her grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner.
As one does in Naples when a relative returns to the ancestral home, her grandmother prepared a ragù sauce for her. It was a simple meal, but one that would forever change Manuela’s life.
When she finished eating, Manuela made the ceremonial scarpetta (dipping bread in the remaining sauce). Then a flash of inspiration came to her. “I thought, ‘Why isn’t there a place where you can eat only meat sauce? Where you can do the scarpetta like at home?’” she tells us.
So she set out to build such a place. In June 2013, Tandem was born, the first restaurant dedicated entirely to Neapolitan ragù meat sauce. It was an innovative approach to a very traditional meal.
At the time, Manuela was only 28 years old; today she’s 34 and the original Tandem has multiplied by five – five restaurants focusing only on meat sauce, pasta, bread and scarpetta. Incredible.
“Hey, it’s not only meat sauce,” Manuela says. “Ragù is more than a dish, it is a life philosophy.”
Ragù is a warm welcome, a dish that’s always ready for you. More than that, it’s a dish that requires patience, time, love and attention. And ragù – a symbol of togetherness – commands company during its preparation.
“Ragù must be eaten together with a friend, a partner, an acquaintance.”
First the vegetables are slightly fried, and then the meat is added to the same pot and browned. The sauce is left to pepetiare (to simmer) for six or seven hours.
So preparing and eating a ragù means spending hours with your partner, your mother, your family. Usually the sauce is started on Saturday and ready by Sunday morning, just in time for Sunday lunch.
Similar to the homemade version, the meat sauce at Tandem is cooked for at least six to eight hours, as Manuela’s grandmother used to do it. The house recipe was crafted by chef Achille Munari, who has very strict rules: after cooking, the ragù is left to rest overnight and then served with traditional pasta shapes, above all ziti, but also rigatoni and manfredi. The portions are generous yet prices are reasonable.
“The restaurant is called Tandem because it’s a place where you never feel alone; eating in Naples is a time for sharing, you can’t do it alone. Ragù must be eaten together with a friend, a partner, an acquaintance; it’s like riding a tandem bicycle,” says the fiery Manuela, who is petite and elegant but has the spirit of a lioness.
“Even a lone traveler at Tandem feels at home,” says Silvia, Manuela’s main assistant and friend, “because the ragù is a symbol of camaraderie.”
“Ragù is not cooked, it is achieved!” she continues, waxing poetic about the dish. “I love to see the sauce when, after cooking for hours, it changes color and reaches the perfect consistency for coating pasta.”
“But then we realized that the sauce is just as good on its own, without pasta, sopped up with a piece of fresh bread instead,” says Manuela. Which resulted in the first unique aspect of Tandem’s menu: it offers the famous scarpetta, which is normally limited to the family lunch at home. No one would make the scarpetta at a formal lunch.
And second? The short menu features ragù, ragù, and… ragù. In short, a one-trick pony. But oh, how good that one trick is.
Ragù is one of the best dishes in the Neapolitan culinary tradition, something that’s evidenced in popular sayings. If you invite a Neapolitan to celebrate a happy occasion, he will say you are inviting me for a ragù.
But this isn’t only true in Naples – what Americans call tomato sauce is the Neapolitan ragù. It’s a staple, something used to season any type of pasta.
Be careful, however, as ragù alla Napoletana is totally different from the Bolognese ragù, where the meat is minced and, as a result, cooks much faster. The Neapolitan ragù, on the other hand, must cook for at least six hours, and during this time the meat gives all its energy, its entire flavor, to the sauce.
How strange, the tomato originated in the Americas, and it was only later that it was brought over to Europe. But then we cultivated the crop so well that our San Marzano tomatoes – perhaps the best in the world – are exported to the United States. And today, what’s known as tomato sauce there is in fact Neapolitan ragù.
Speaking of Americans, Manuela’s most rewarding experience as a restaurateur involved an older American gentleman. “An American man, around 80 years old, came to Tandem and ordered our ragù. After tasting it, he began to cry and confided in us that his Neapolitan mother emigrated to America at the age of 12 and never returned to Naples. Every Sunday she prepared her version of Neapolitan ragù. After so many years, it was here that he tasted his mother’s cooking, the food of his childhood, again,” she says.
She has clearly hit on a nerve. Despite starting with the simplest of ideas, focusing solely on one ancient Neapolitan dish, Manuela now oversees a small empire, with around 40 young employees. She has steadily opened new locations, almost one per year, since the original Tandem opened its doors on Via Paladino. A few of the branches offer slightly different products – the take-away on Via Mezzocannone sells meatballs and meatball sandwiches – but the overall concept remains the same.
We imagine many restaurateurs in Naples are wondering, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Manuela has showed us that sometimes the best inspiration can be found at home, while eating grandma’s cooking.