Friday, May 18, 2007

Dad's Pasta Sauce

Okay, here it is -- the big one. Our dad's pasta sauce. Which he never would have called it. This is really Dad's "tomato gravy." Born to Sicilian parents on Long Island and raised in Queens, the word "pasta" was not really in Dad's lexicon. All pasta was called "macaroni," and the sauce was "red sauce" or "tomato gravy."

This is how his mother taught him to make sauce. As a side note, I'd like to address those who say that meatballs in sauce are not Italian. You don't know what you're talking about. The meatball is "native" to many European cultures, including Italy. You may not find Italians putting meatballs right on the pasta (it is more common for them to be served on the side), however, Sicilian-Americans definitely do. They (we) also tend to make meatballs larger than they do in the more northern regions, and we cook the meatballs (at least partially) right in the sauce. I've heard Alton Brown say that "he's never seen an Italian do that..." Well, he never came to our house I guess. Anyway, authentic native Italian food or not -- this is authentic Americano Siciliano food, you can believe that.

Dad's "gravy" is a vegetarian's worst nightmare. A veritable slaughterhouse buffet, the variety of meats contained in the sauce is the whole linchpin to the flavor. Without the meat, it is just runny red stuff. However, we didn't eat this stuff every day -- the way to do it is to freeze a few batches for later, or the arrival of last-minute company. Making this sauce is one of the only occasions on which I will buy red meat to prepare at home. And truly, it just has to be red meat. I've tried the sauce with all turkey-based products, and the outcome is nothing similar. So if you're gonna do it, go for it, and ask the animals' spirits to forgive you afterwards.

The sauce contains the Holy Meat Trinity: meatballs, Italian sausage, and short ribs. David prefers to use a leaner meat, like pork chops, instead of the short ribs (we argued about this once in the meat section of the grocery store). Well, Dad tended to use what was on sale. But for me, my memory is strongly attached to that tender short-rib meat falling off the bone after slow-cooking. You can fish the bones out before serving.

You prepare the meatballs, sausage, and short ribs as follows. Then you simmer them all in sauce, in a gigantic sauce pot or a couple of large standard pots, for half the day. That's pretty much it. So here are the ingredients, one at a time:

I like to use about three pounds of meatloaf mixture, or a mix of beef, pork, and veal. (I usually do the beef and pork). Again, it is the mix of different types of meat that is really key here.

Add to that:

  • about a half cup of Italian-seasoned breadcrumb

  • one meduim, thinly diced yellow onion

  • two or three cloves of minced garlic

  • about 1/2 cup finely chopped parsely

  • two eggs

  • one cup of milk and a little water

  • salt and pepper

  • a couple of shots of worcheshire sauce

Hand-mix the meatball mixture. Start slowly with the breadcrumb -- too much will take away from the flavor of the meatballs, and cause your cantankerous Zia to complain that "those meatballs were just terrible... that's all I gotta say." Make sure that the mixture is still moist when you form the meatballs, but not too wet.

Dad used to brown the meatballs in oil. To me, this is a bit time-consuming, and adds a little more fat than you really need for flavor. I prefer to put the meatballs on tin foil atop a cookie sheet in a really hot oven while I brown the rest of the meat. You have to brown all the meat. You need that caramel-y flavor, and it seals the juices inside the meat. Trust me, I've skipped it before. Don't skip it. The meatballs, especially, will fall apart in the sauce if you skip this part. So -- 375-400 degrees, for ten to fifteen minutes. They just need to be brown on the outside, and they will still be raw on the inside. Note: Let the sauce simmer for about an hour-and-a-half before you add the meatballs, or else they will fall apart too early.

I use one package of sausage, but I will split one package of hot Italian sausage with one package sweet sausage, so that I have one package of half-and-half, and then save the other package for later in the freezer.

Brown the sausage in a skillet, and then place them in a large sauce pot. Again, the meat will be raw inside.

Short Ribs:
I use two packages. I like to trim some of the mega-fat off the ribs, but not all of it. I also trim off the membrane that's on the side. Then I sprinkle the meat with garlic powder, salt, and black pepper. Then you brown the meat in a skillet, drain them a bit on paper towels, and put them each in the large pot with the sausage.

These proportions will make the one giant batch of sauce that dad used to make:

  • Two large cans of tomato puree (I think it is 32 oz., but truthfully I don't even look anymore. There's one in the next picture.)

  • Two small cans of tomato paste

  • One of each empty can (one puree can, and one paste can), filled with mostly water and a little wine

  • Three or four minced cloves of garlic

  • Italian seasoning to taste -- about 1/8 to 1/4 cup (use minced fresh oregano and basil if ya got 'em)

  • A sprinkle of red pepper flakes, to taste

  • Salt (start with about 1/8 cup or a couple healthy pinches) and pepper

Making it:
This takes at least four hours. Five is better. Stir all the ingredients, starting slowly on all the seasonings. Then bring it to a boil, and lower it to a simmer. Every twenty minutes or so, use a tablespoon to skim off the deep red grease from the top. When you've skimmed it, stir it again. Wait and then skim, stir again. After an hour or two, add the meatballs and continue. If it needs more seasoning, add it. The sauce starts off very watery, but remember, it will reduce and thicken a lot with the lid off. If it thickens too much, you add more wine or more water.

My problem was that some of the meat always stuck and burned to the bottom, no matter how diligently I stirred it. I think this is because I can't shell out the dough for a decent stock pot (large ones with a non-stick base are expensive), and the metal on mine is very thin. Also, all that meat sinks and there is so much of it, it becomes very difficult to push it around without breaking it all apart.

So I came up with a solution. Now, I brown all my meat, lots and lots of it, and split it into smaller batches (still raw inside.) I put packets that each contain a few meatballs, a couple of sausages (halved so that they are easier to manage on a fork), and a couple of short ribs into the freezer in foil. Then, when I want sauce, I just unwrap one packet of frozen meat and put it into the crock pot (including the meatballs -- you can add them all at once this way). I add half of the amount of liquid in a normal batch: one can puree, one can paste, and about one can (of the puree) or the water and red wine. I season it, turn it on, put the lid on it, and walk away for five hours. Then I only skim it once or twice just before we eat it. Much easier, and no burning at the bottom.

I know it seems complicated, but really it is so simple, and you can feed an army with one batch. Or your family, four or five times if you freeze batches of the finished sauce.

And you gotta go all the way if you've come this far -- tons and tons of parmesano or romano, and real garlic bread to mop up what the pasta left behind.

Mangiare bene! E la ringrazia, il papa!


  1. Wow this is closest recipe i have seen that my
    Grandmother who was from Naples, Italy used to make. she taught my mom and now I am carrying on the
    Grat recipe
    we are having 25 pisans over next weekend and this exactly what i will be serving

  2. Hi Bill,

    Traditionally, Dad used one pound beef, one pound pork, and one pound veal (all ground). But I don't do veal... It sure is tasty that way, though. :) You can use any mix or just one of those meats for the meatballs, but when you combine the three, that's really where the deeper flavor comes from. Now you can buy all three in a package sometimes, labeled "meatloaf mix."

  3. amazing. I'm not italian and this was my first attempt at making "gravy" Easy and delicious.

  4. Yay! I'm so thrilled people are trying this... It really is simple once you get the hang of the process.