Almost all ragus, whether red or white, start with a soffritto—a sautéed mixture that typically includes finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery and sometimes meat. I kept the onion but ditched the carrot and celery since I planned on using a large fennel bulb. The fennel would offer an herbaceous sweetness instead of the earthy, mineral-y flavors of carrot and celery.
I softened my soffritto in a Dutch oven with a little olive oil and then added fresh thyme and garlic, stirring until the heady scents of the aromatics were released. Instead of loosening the fond with the usual white wine, I deglazed with lemon juice and water.
Next, I nestled a 1½-pound boneless pork butt roast—a deeply marbled, relatively inexpensive cut from the upper part of the pig's shoulder that we often use in pork braises—into the soffritto. I transferred the pot to a 300-degree oven, where the pork would spend more than an hour in the 140- to 190-degree zone. In that temperature range, collagen breaks down more rapidly than it does at lower temperatures, turns to gelatin, and enhances tenderness, but the muscle protein doesn't overcook.
Sure enough, about 2 hours later, the meat was supple and fork-tender. I removed the roast from the pot, let it cool a bit, and tried to shred it with two forks. That turned out to be quite a chore with such a large piece of meat, but I ignored that problem for the moment and tossed the sauce with pappardelle—wide egg noodles that would pair well with the chunky ragu—along with a bit of the pasta cooking water and a few handfuls of grated Pecorino Romano.
The large bites of pork were perfect, but the rest of the dish was far from it, with a dry texture and little to no lemon flavor. In the frank words of a colleague, I'd served up “the pork version of a bad tuna casserole.”