Say you were scrolling on Gemma Lionello’s Instagram feed and you didn’t know that she is the executive vice president and general merchandise manager for accessories and beauty at Nordstrom — you wouldn’t be remiss in thinking you’d stumbled upon the social media presence of a top chef. The account, @glionello, is filled with mouthwatering pictures of pollo arrosto con patate and tagliata di filetto e arugula and Lionello’s personal favorite, her signature ragu.
Lionello grew up in Fratta Minore, a small town about 12 miles outside of Naples, and there is nothing she relishes more than re-creating the food of her youth. “My mother was a fantastic cook and I was always her assistant,” said Lionello. “After she passed away and I moved to the U.S., cooking made me feel close to her. Food is love for us Italians.”
During the quarantine, Lionello has been making Sunday feasts for her son and husband (who is on weekly dish duty), cooking both old family recipes as well as those she’s inspired by from her collection of cookbooks. “I have so many,” she laughs. “I love leafing through them in the morning and deciding on what I’m going to make that day.” Her current favorites are The Silver Spoon’s “Naples and the Amalfi Coast,” “Amalfi Coast Recipes” by Amanda Tabberer and “Naples at Table” by Arthur Schwartz. (Notice a theme here?)
But her go-to is her mother’s ragu. Lionello happily shares the secret — add water — that gives the sauce what she calls “a freshness rather than the density of some sauces” and she makes it year-round. “As soon as I make it, it brings me back to Italy and makes me think of my childhood,” she said. “It’s not just good food, but good memories.”
Gemma Lionello’s Signature Ragu:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion (very thinly sliced, and then chopped)
10 Italian sausages, preferably mild (or 1 lb. of ground beef)
1/2 cup red or white wine
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste, (no seasoning)
2 (29 oz.) cans tomato sauce, (no seasoning)
7 ¼ cups water
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1) Put the oil in a large pan, add the onion and lightly sauté on medium heat.
2) Add the sausage and brown on both sides, being careful not to burn the onions.
3) Add the wine and cook with the sausage until most has evaporated.
4) Add the tomato paste and stir until it’s mixed with the sausage.
5) Add the tomato sauce.
6) Fill each empty tomato sauce can with water and add to the sauce.
7) Add salt and pepper.
8) Stir and bring to a soft boil, then bring to the lowest heat so that the sauce barely bubbles; simmer for at least three hours. Stir often. Cook until the sauce reaches a good consistency, not too thick and not too dark.