Is This Marcella Hazan's Most Overlooked Pasta Sauce?

March 29, 2021

You can’t go wrong with a Marcella Hazan recipe. Her Tomato Sauce With Onion & Butter is legendary. As is her bolognese. And while both deserve all the praise they get, there are countless gems in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that don't get the shine they should—especially chicken liver sauce.

I seek out chicken livers wherever they’re available. Deep-fried, sautéed, blended into a pâté—to me, it’s all good. I love the iron-rich flavor and velvety texture. But chicken livers are often overlooked in homemade pasta sauces (and often overlooked in general) throughout the U.S. Out of the 1,010,000,000 chicken recipes on Google, only 6.2 percent use livers. It’s a thigh and breast world that we’re living in.

But such popularity means those cuts come at a higher price tag. On FreshDirect, you can buy a pound of chicken breasts for $8.99, chicken thighs for $5.49—and chicken livers for $2.99. More affordable, just as meaty, with a silky-buttery finish.

A simple pesto, eggy carbonara, and creamy Alfredo are all special, but there’s something luscious and inviting about chicken liver sauce that I haven’t been able to find elsewhere. It’s also a breeze to make.

Like most good sauces, this recipe is built on a foundation of shallot, butter, and garlic. Then comes the ultimate trinity of pork, beef, and chicken. (Yes, it is a lot of meat. And yes, it’s good that way.) As soon as it hits the heat, salty prosciutto flares and curls, leaving crisp edges. Tomato paste and wine add acidity, balancing the richness. Whole sage leaves lend an earthy quality. And the chicken livers give the dish a pâté vibe.

It may sound like a lot of effort, but the whole sauce cooks in 15 minutes flat. Simply add pasta and dinner is done.

Hazan recommends a thick pappardelle—I’ve used tagliatelle and fettuccine with great results. A wider pasta is best because it helps carry the sauce, but any pasta of your choice would be just as tasty. The sauce leaves every noodle licked in a glossy coating, and I can’t help but be transported back to Italy.

I’ve made this dish for my closest friends, my husband, and even his boss—everyone has loved it. It might not be as famous as the tomato sauce, but it's just as iconic.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Lisa Swanson
    Lisa Swanson
  • Michael Orosz
    Michael Orosz
  • M
  • Smaug
  • M
Food writer, recipe developer, おにぎり fangirl.


Lisa S. April 2, 2021
Fantastic on risotto!! I have been making the original of this recipe from Marcella's first Classic Italian cookbook for years always with risotto as she suggests. It is magnificent--a "morsel fit for a cardinal" as she puts it.
Michael O. March 30, 2021
I have ALWAYS been told that TRUE BOLOGNESE Sauce was made with Chicken Livers and hardly Any Tomato products at all.
I have made it that wayfor years, with of course, the carrot, onion and a bit a celery trinity. I do also use some Garlic and Onion OF COURSE!!!!
Please enlighten me....
Does true BOLOGNESE Ragu have Chicken Liver in it?
Thank you very much!!!
Mikeyo from New Jersey
Smaug March 31, 2021
There are a lot of cooks in the Bologna area and they don't all cook alike, and of course restaurants tend to mess around with recipes- usually by finding ways to add more fat and salt- so there isn't really a "correct" version; some use chicken livers. Personally, I like to go with Hazan's recipe (which surely counts as authentic). It's a tomato based sauce. The things that interest me about it are that it generally avoids umami loading (which has become a bad habit among recipe writers)- onions and meat are not browned, white wine is used rather than red, etc.- and the way the meat is cooked very slowly with milk at the beginning of the recipe. This seems to be a widely misunderstood process; a lot of people do such radical substitutes as adding a bunch of cream at the end of cooking, which produces a completely different effect. The finished sauce shows no obvious sign of containing milk, as the milk proteins combine with meat proteins early on and stay there. As best I recall, Giuliano Bugialli's recipe (my other most trusted source) does include chicken livers. Ragus from farther north are something completely different, being more or less stews with little or no tomato.
M March 29, 2021
If it's not as famous, it can't be as iconic. And if it's overlooked, it's definitely not iconic?

Outside of the prosciutto, very similar to sauces in poor Italian communities where livers were used to bring richness and depth at low cost.

Having finally made the Hazan tomato sauce recipe myself, I find it hard to go back to sauces that start with sauteed garlic and onion. Such a new world of flavour letting a whole union quickly cook in tomatoes.
Smaug March 29, 2021
I don't eat dead chickens so haven't tried this recipe, but a quick reading indicates that the main differences from Hazan's recipe (should anyone lack the book) is the use of high fat ground beef (she recommends lean) and the use of whole rather than chopped sage.
M March 29, 2021
(So why bother commenting?)

This recipe seems delicious - I've been seeing a renewed interest in livers lately. Curious to see why the world's returning to organ meat - not that I'm complaining.
Smaug March 29, 2021
Why bother commenting? Because the author has seen fit to change a recipe from a truly great recipe writer; those without access to the original might wonder how and why. I still wonder why.
Mitchell H. March 30, 2021
Actually the recipe in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking calls for whole sage leaves and ground chuck.
Smaug March 31, 2021
Interesting- now I wonder why SHE (or her editors) changed it. Of course you can make fairly lean ground chuck, but you need to work at it some.
Mitchell H. March 31, 2021
It's also interesting because the changes in Essentials usually involved reducing fat.
M April 1, 2021
For a second I wondered if I had completely forgotten commenting a second time! But I'm not that M.

I wish our recipe traditions included source + adjustments. Or some differentiation between what's needed, and what's changed for problem solving or whim. Recipes have become so postmodern that the original can be a revelation!