When news broke that President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, had both ordered the fennel and sausage rigatoni at Washington's Red Hen restaurant, a torrent of questions followed.
Who does that?
Is the pasta that good?
Can I make it at home?
As to the first question, my Washington Post colleague Emily Heil took a deep dive into the geniuses or weirdos, depending on whom you ask, who order the same dish as their partners.
As to the second question, the Mezzi Rigatoni With Fennel Sausage Ragu from chef and co-owner Michael Friedman has been on the menu at the Red Hen since it opened in 2013, thanks to popular demand.
And the third? The answer is now yes.
On the heels of the Bidens' order came a question in our live weekly Q&A: "Any chance we can get a recipe for the rigatoni from the Red Hen? I hear it's amazing." Tons more readers chimed in by email requesting the recipe, and, lucky for us, Friedman was amenable to sharing.
To further sweeten the deal, the chef scaled down and streamlined the recipe to make it even more accessible for home cooks. It requires an hour of work and a few pots and pans, but the effort is worth it for a dish that coats wide tubes of mezzi rigatoni in a sweet and spiced tomato sauce that shines with the floral, anise-y flavor of fennel pollen and ground fennel seeds. (Yes, this dish is for fennel lovers only.) Chunks of spiced Italian sausage (more fennel!) add bulk and meaty bite.
If you want to get the full restaurant experience of the dish, I highly recommend springing for the fennel pollen, which is most readily available online. It comes from the same plant as the dried seeds and fresh bulbs but is harvested from the blossoms that form on the fennel fronds. "It is a unique flavor profile" that channels the Mediterranean, Friedman says, lending depth generated by a blend of savory and floral notes. If you get a jar, he recommends using it in salad dressings and spice rubs for roasted meat, fish and vegetables.
The recipe easily feeds a family for one meal or a smaller household for several days. Once you taste this warm, saucy and satisfying pasta, you'll understand why the Bidens each wanted a plate.
Red Hen Mezzi Rigatoni With Fennel Sausage Ragu
Total time: 1 hour
5 to 6 servings (makes about 9 cups)
The fennel pollen is a signature element of this dish, but if you can't find it, you can swap in a pinch of dill seed or anise seed.
Make ahead: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months. Defrost, if needed, and reheat before adding the pasta.
Storage notes: Refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Where to buy: Fennel pollen can be found online, including at retailers such as Zingerman's, Spice House and Kalustyan's. Tomato passata, an uncooked tomato puree from brands such as Mutti, DeLallo and Cento, can be found at well-stocked supermarkets. Pomi strained tomatoes sold in a carton work as well.
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
One (24-ounce) jar tomato passata (see Where to buy)
2 teaspoons fennel pollen (see Headnote)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more for the pasta water
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound mild Italian sausage, preferably from links with casings removed, broken into 1-inch pieces
12 ounces dried mezzi rigatoni pasta (may substitute regular rigatoni or another short pasta with ridges)
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 tablespoons finely grated pecorino Romano, plus more for serving
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a small skillet over low heat, toast the fennel seeds until fragrant, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a plate to cool, then finely grind in a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
Meanwhile, in a cold large saucepan, combine 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the garlic. Turn the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is lightly toasted around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Slowly stir in the passata, followed by the ground fennel, fennel pollen, oregano, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the black pepper. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until somewhat thickened and darker, adjusting the heat as needed to prevent scorching or splattering, 20 to 25 minutes. When you drag a spatula through the sauce, it should briefly hold a line where you can see the pan underneath.
While the sauce is simmering, line a large plate with towels and keep it nearby. In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the remaining olive oil until shimmering. Add the sausage and cook, stirring occasionally, until well-browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer the sausage to the prepared plate to drain the fat.
Add the sausage to the tomato sauce and continue to simmer for an additional 10 to 15 minutes.
Once the water is boiling, salt it (for about 1 gallon of water, add 1 1/2 teaspoons of fine salt). Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions, until al dente. Reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta water, then drain.
Reduce the heat under the sauce to low, and stir in the butter until it is incorporated and the mixture is glossy. Add the pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and stir to incorporate and create a smooth sauce. Add the cooked pasta to the tomato sauce. Gradually add the pasta water, stirring until the sauce coats the pasta. If it seems a bit runny, continue to cook and stir over low heat until the sauce adheres to the rigatoni.
Transfer to a serving platter or bowl and serve warm, topped generously with more grated pecorino Romano.
Nutritional information per serving (1 1/2 cups), based on 6
Calories: 559; Total Fat: 29 g; Saturated Fat: 9 g; Cholesterol: 42 mg; Sodium: 1,103 mg; Carbohydrates: 51 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugar: 8 g; Protein: 19 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian's or nutritionist's advice.