Rigatoni Bolognese is a make-ahead marvel that requires no tedious vegetable chopping. Both kids and adults will love this easy but elegant restaurant-quality dish.

Black bowl filled with rigatoni alla bolognese, with black fork digging in.

Rigatoni bolognese is a hearty and comforting dish I learned to make in culinary school. It’s a classic Italian dish that never fails to satisfy your taste buds.

Patience is key for this long-simmered meat sauce, but your patience will be rewarded with a depth of flavor that is worth the wait.

Today, I’m sharing tips for how to choose the best ingredients and the perfect noodle shape, as well as how to make rigatoni alla bolognese ahead of time, and refrigerate it or freeze it for future meals.

Why you will love this Meat Sauce Rigatoni

  • You BARELY need a cutting board, as your food processor is going to do almost all of veggie prep work.
  • This is a family-friendly recipe that will be loved by both kids and adults.
  • Once you’ve learned how to make the bolognese sauce, it’s a versatile sauce that you can serve with just about any type of pasta, or even on a bed of creamy polenta for a gourmet twist.

What is rigatoni bolognese?

Bolognese is a meat-based Italian pasta sauce, named for the city of Bologna. It is also known as ragu alla bolognese or simply ragu.

It can be used to prepare lasagna, or just stirred together with cooked pasta like rigatoni (or other options, discussed below).

I think making bolognese is relatively easy – if a little time consuming – but worth it. There’s some time spent up front getting a good brown on the beef, then the vegetables, then breaking up the meat into little bits.

But then, you get to the most important (and hands off) part of this rigatoni alla bolognese – the two hour SIMMER.

This is where you can go take a walk around the block, because you only need to stir every 30 minutes or so.

After the simmer, you’ll just need to cook some pasta and then stir it together with the bolognese before serving.

What is the difference between bolognese sauce and spaghetti sauce?

In the United States, “spaghetti sauce” is typically very tomato-heavy. It may sometimes have ground meat like beef or sausage in it. And it’s always served with, of course, spaghetti!

Bolognese sauce is meat-forward. It may or may not have some type of tomato product in it (in this recipe, there’s just a smidge of tomato paste). It’s thicker and richer than spaghetti sauce.

Bolognese also typically includes milk, which tenderizes the meat.

Overhead photo of Dutch oven filled with rigatoni bolognese.

Ingredients for Rigatoni with Meat Sauce

  • ground beef – the star ingredient that provides the rich and meaty flavor synonymous with bolognese sauce.
  • celery – adds a subtle earthy flavor to the sauce.
  • carrots – adds a touch of natural sweetness and color to the sauce.
  • onion – serves as an aromatic base for the sauce.
  • olive oil – for cooking the beef and vegetables.
  • red wine – adds complexity and depth of flavor to the sauce as it a simmers.
  • tomato paste – provides a concentrated rich tomato flavor.
  • bay leaf – infuses the sauce with a subtle herbal fragrance.
  • thyme – a versatile herb that adds to the well-rounded flavor profile of the dish.
  • whole milk – this may seem unconventional, but it’s a classic component of bolognese sauce that breaks down the meat and tempers the acidity of the tomato paste.
  • dry rigatoni – with its ridged shape and hollow center, it’s the ideal pasta for bolognese.
  • salt – critical for any well-seasoned pasta dinner.
  • Parmesan cheese and parsley – these are optional but encouraged garnishes for serving.

Best Pasta for Rigatoni Alla Bolognese

While in Italy, it is traditional to serve bolognese with freshly made tagliatelle, that’s not something that I can typically get my hands on.

Making fresh homemade pasta for fettuccine bolognese is not my favorite thing to do, and I don’t always have access to freshly made pasta to buy.

So, as evidenced by the name of this recipe, I’m partial to rigatoni! Both the tube shape of the noodle, and the ridges on the outside, make this the ideal pasta shape for the meaty sauce to cling to.

Penne is another great tube shaped pasta with ridges that works well with this sauce.

Home Chef Tips for Meat Sauce Rigatoni

  • Don’t want to open a whole bottle of wine? Try keeping mini bottles (187 mL) of both red and white wine on hand, just for cooking. Each bottle equals about 3/4 cup, which is exactly what you need for this rigatoni with meat sauce recipe.
  • Use the best quality ingredients for the best tasting sauce. Now is the time to go to the good butcher shop for meat, and finish your dish with Pamigiano Reggiano, if you can.
  • Bolognese tastes even better the next day. If you can make a batch of it and chill it, then reheat the next day, it’s magic!

Best Red Wine for Rigatoni Meat Sauce

I typically use cabernet sauvignon in this bolognese recipe, but pinot noir would also be great in this rigatoni alla bolognese.

As long as it’s not too sweet, just about any red wine will be just fine for rigatoni with meat sauce.

How to make Meat Sauce Rigatoni

  1. CHOP. Pulse the mirepoix in a food processor.
  2. BROWN. Brown the beef, then transfer it to a bowl.
  3. MIREPOIX AND WINE. Brown the mirepoix, and then add the beef back to the pan along with the wine. Cook until the wine evaporates.
  4. TOMATO. Add the tomato paste, bay leaf and thyme, and cook a bit longer until the tomato paste browns.
  5. SIMMER. Stir in the water, milk and salt and cook on low for 2 hours or until the meat is very tender. Remove the thyme and bay leaf.
  6. PASTA. Cook the pasta and then toss the cooked pasta together with the sauce.
  7. SERVE. Serve garnished with Parmesan and parsley.
Black bowl filled with pasta and meat sauce, with black fork digging in.

Rigatoni Bolognese Recipe Variations

  • Rigatoni Bolognese with Sausage – replace half or all of the ground beef in this recipe with ground Italian sausage (either mild or spicy).
  • Rigatoni Bolognese with Ricotta– dollop a spoonful of ricotta cheese on top of each bowl when you serve!
  • Baked Rigatoni Bolognese – this works great for making the bolognese ahead of time and reheating, or with leftovers. Prepare the recipe through step 8, then transfer pasta to a baking dish. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bake at 350 degrees F until warmed through and bubbly.
  • Rigatoni Bolognese with Peas – stir thawed frozen peas in at Step 8 in the recipe below to add an extra serving of vegetables to this dish.
  • Rigatoni Meat Sauce with Cream – to make a creamy rigatoni bolognese, stir in 1/2 cup heavy cream at Step 8.
  • Lamb Bolognese – swap out the beef for lamb using my lamb bolognese recipe!

Storing Rigatoni with Meat Sauce

Tips for freezing Meat Sauce Rigatoni

Bolognese sauce itself freezes great! I recommend that you make and freeze the sauce on it’s own (make the recipe through step 6, then freeze).

Then, when you’re ready to eat, simply thaw and warm the sauce, and cook the pasta at that point. Then, stir it all together and eat (steps 7 through 9).

How long does Rigatoni Alla Bolognese last in the fridge?

Rigatoni Bolognese will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Overhead photo of rigatoni with meat sauce in black bowl, with black spoon and blue linen alongside.

What to serve with Rigatoni Bolognese

Nothing pairs with a rich, meaty pasta like a salad with a bright, acidic dressing.

Some of my favorites are green salad with miso dressing or citrus vinaigrette, or my best Thanksgiving salad (which is great any time of year).

Parmesan broccoli is another one of my favorite side dishes to serve with this meat sauce rigatoni.

Rigatoni Bolognese Recipe

Rigatoni Bolognese Recipe

Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours 50 minutes
Total Time: 3 hours 10 minutes

Rigatoni Bolognese is a make-ahead marvel that requires no tedious vegetable chopping. Both kids and adults will love this easy but elegant restaurant-quality dish.


  • 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
  • 2 small carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • Kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup red wine
  • 1/3 cup tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 large sprig thyme
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 12 ounces dry rigatoni
  • Parmesan cheese and chopped fresh parsley, for serving


  1. In bowl of food processor fitted with knife blade attachment, pulse celery, carrots and onion until very finely chopped.
  2. Heat oil in large pot over medium heat. Break ground beef into about 8 chunks and add to pot. Season with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally but not breaking up meat, 6 to 8 minutes or until outside of beef chunks are browned. Using slotted spoon, transfer beef to medium bowl.
  3. Add celery mixture to pot and cook 10 to 15 minutes or until all moisture has evaporated and vegetables begin to lightly stick to bottom of pot, stirring occasionally.
  4. Stir in wine and reserved beef. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook 8 to 10 minutes or until wine is evaporated, using spoon to break beef into small bits as it cooks.
  5. Add tomato paste, bay leaf and thyme and cook 5 minutes or until tomato paste is slightly browned, continuing to break beef up as it cooks.
  6. Stir in water, milk, and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered, 2 hours or until mixture has reduced to a sauce consistency and meat is very tender, stirring about every 30 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf and thyme sprig. Taste sauce and season with additional salt if necessary.
  7. Heat large pot of salted water to boiling over high heat. Add rigatoni and cook for 2 minutes less than package directions for al dente.
  8. Reserve 1 cup pasta cooking water. Drain pasta and transfer to pot with bolognese. Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water. Increase heat to medium, and cook, while stirring pasta and sauce together, 2 minutes or until pasta is al dente and everything is combined. Add additional pasta water if necessary, to keep things saucy!
  9. Serve topped with Parmesan cheese and parsley.


Adapted from Bon Appetit.

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Nutrition Information:
Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 623Total Fat: 30gSaturated Fat: 10gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 16gCholesterol: 108mgSodium: 348mgCarbohydrates: 40gFiber: 4gSugar: 9gProtein: 39g

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