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My Mother's Spaghetti Sauce

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Long-cooked spaghetti sauce, also known as “Italian gravy,” is a signature dish for all the women in my family -- and some of the men, too. Each cook has his or her own preferences about what kind of meat goes in, how much cheese, garlic, parsley and other spices are added, how much tomato paste is used, how much puree. All these variables make it possible to turn out a sauce with its own special flavor, shaped by a cook’s individual preferences.

Italian gravy isn’t just for spaghetti and meatballs. It’s an essential component of homemade lasagna. It is also the basis of a sandwich called a "meatball bomber"-- a quick meal in itself when you don’t want to take the time to boil macaroni. Meatball bombers are easy: Toast Italian or French bread just until golden, top with hot meatballs (or other meat from the sauce pot), more tomato sauce, and more cheese – including mozzarella or provolone. On a cold winter’s day in Buffalo when I was growing up, that was true comfort food.  In the summer, we’d have cold meatball bombers – same thing, except that you don’t bother to heat up the sauce and meatballs, you use them cold from the refrigerator.

Mom has this to say about a particular type of meatball sandwich, called a "Roseland Special," from a local neighborhood joint. The main difference between it and a bomber is the bread used.

The "Roseland Special" was named after a neighborhood bar that we hung out at in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Take a slice of white bread, cut up about 2 meatballs on it. Put the other slice on and pour the some sauce over it. Add grated cheese if you like. When we went to Roseland’s, we only had one dollar with us. We would buy a beer for 50 cents and nurse it the whole night. After a few hours, when we finished the beer, we had a choice - buy another beer or get a “Roseland Special”. I usually got the special.

Another quick and delicious meal is eggs cooked in tomato sauce:

Aunt Josephine’s sister Sara told me about cooking an over easy egg or sunny side up egg. In a small frying pan scoop about 1/2 cup of sauce or to taste. When it’s starting to simmer, add your egg(s). Cook the same way you would for a sunny side up egg. Baste with the sauce. Yummy, tastes like ravoli. 

A note about the quantity: In true Italian tradition, the recipe I’m posting here makes a lot of sauce, about four gallons. Mom would cook the amount called for here, and that would be the basis of several meals for the next week, including dinner when guests came over. She would freeze the rest (assuming there was any leftover). Make sure you have a huge pot that can fit it all. If you don’t want to make that much, just reduce the recipe accordingly. Mom says she uses a huge stainless steel pot.  She doesn’t like to use aluminum because it is reactive and will give the sauce an off-flavor. So use only a pot that is non-reactive, such as stainless steel or enameled cast-iron.

A few other pointers:

  • Use only quality Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Avoid the green-can stuff.

  • The secret to this sauce is long cooking on the lowest flame possible – 12 to 24 hours, not including cool-down time, so plan accordingly. A flame-tamer is a good idea because it will distribute the heat more evenly. Start on the lowest flame possible and keep it there -- don’t raise it.

  • Patience! If some of the steps seem unnecessary (such as frying the tomato paste), just take a deep breath, put on some music, and do it anyway. You want authentic Italian flavor, right? Then you have to do it the way real Italians do – no shortcuts. The actual work time is about an hour. The rest of the time is the cooking time when the stove does all the work. Just remember to stir it occasionally. You don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night. Stir before bed, and then stir again when you wake up in the morning. If a burned crust forms on the bottom of the pot, leave it there undisturbed. Do not scrape it up – you’ll end up with burned-tasting sauce. Plus, it acts as an insulating layer. Scrape and scrub it out when it is time to wash the pot. Use oven cleaner if necessary.

  • Tomato puree options: You can use fresh tomato puree instead of canned puree. If you go the fresh-puree route, you will need about 25 pounds of quality tomatoes. Use the homegrown, in-season variety that are picked when ripe – they have more  flavor. (Get oudda here with those pale, hard-as-a-rock supermarket tomatoes – you’re wasting your time with them.) Scald the fresh tomatoes in boiling water for 2-3 minutes until the skin splits when you poke it with a small knife. Let cool, peel and core. Puree in a blender or food processor. No need to make the puree perfectly smooth, a few chunks add texture. My mother never bothered to remove the seeds, but you can if you like.  If you’re not using fresh tomatoes, use canned puree and canned crushed tomatoes. Mom says she uses about 4 to 5 cans of the 29 oz. size puree (that’s about 9 pounds of puree total) along with 5-6 quart jars of the tomatoes she canned in the fall (another 12-13 pounds for a total of about 22 pounds of tomato). As you add the home canned tomatoes to the pot (they’re usually in large chunks), squeeze them to break them up – this gives it texture. You can add a couple of 29-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes in addition to or instead of home-canned tomatoes, until you have about 25 pounds of tomato puree to start.

Step 1: Start cooking the puree. Start with about 25 pounds of tomato puree/crushed tomato mixture (either fresh or canned or a mixture, see notes above). Put it in a large non-reactive pot, such as stainless steel or enameled cast iron. Adjust the heat to the lowest setting possible and keep it there. If you have a flame-tamer, use it. To this mixture, add 2 cups water and stir. Mom says: I just add about 1/3 - 1/2 of the can (the 29-oz. puree) of water and swish it around then add the same water to the next can, until they are all rinsed out. Grandma always did it this way. I do the same thing with the tomato paste.

Now start preparing the meat.

Step 2: Fry the meat. You can use any combination of beef and pork. The Italian sausage is optional, but adds a nice variety. When I was growing up, Mom usually used mostly pork and Italian sausage, and beef occasionally. The old-timers also used about 2 pounds of pigs’ feet, but Mom says she hasn’t done this in years.

2 1/2 pounds of pork spare ribs or beef ribs

1 pound piece of pork butt left whole, or 1 pound of stew beef, cut into 2-inch chunks, or a rack of spare ribs, or a combination of all three (Mom says: I sometimes don’t bother with the piece of pork if I use spare ribs.)

Optional: About 2 pounds of Italian sausage or chicken sausage

About 1/2 cup of pork fat or bacon grease, or olive oil. You’re going for authentic Italian flavor, and the fat is important.

Heat a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) and add the fat that you’re going to use for frying. Sear all the meat, in batches, until brown. Don’t crowd it or it won’t brown properly. The spare ribs should be light brown, but the pork butt can be darker brown. No need to cook the meat thoroughly because it will cook in the sauce. Just sear it on a high heat to brown the outside. Remove from the pan and set aside. 

Step 3: Make the meatballs. Mom’s are the best. Here is her recipe:

  • 3 1/2 pounds of ground beef 

  • About 1/2 pound ground pork added to the ground beef – for flavor

  • 2 1/2 cups bread crumbs, from quality Italian or French bread that doesn’t have preservatives or dough conditioners. Use the kind of crusty bread that goes stale the next day. Make your own bread crumbs by pulverizing the stale bread in a food processor

  • 3 extra-large eggs, or four medium eggs

  • 1 1/2 cups fresh parsley (measure first, then chop)

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 tablespoon pepper

  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic

  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil or 1/2 tablespoon dried

  • 1/2 cup grated cheese, such as Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or a good quality Grana Padano (remember, no green-can stuff!)

  • 1/2 cup of the tomato puree that is already simmering in the pot

Mix the ground beef with the breadcrumbs and eggs. Add the rest of the ingredients. With wet hands, shape into balls. Fry in the grease from the meat you fried in the previous step. Your heat should be medium-low. Brown all sides. Remove the meatballs from the pan, let cool, and refrigerate. The meatballs will be added to the tomato sauce during the last few hours of cooking. If they’re added now, they will fall apart during the long simmer. 

Step 4: Add the final seasonings. For this step, you’ll need:

  • About a half a cup of chopped garlic

  • 6 six-ounce cans tomato paste (for a total of 36 ounces of tomato paste)

In the pan where you just fried all the meat, keep the remaining grease in there, and fry about a half a cup of chopped garlic just until golden. Keep the heat on the low side, and watch carefully; do not let it burn. Burned garlic tastes bitter, and you’ll have to start over if you burn it. Add six 6-ounce cans of tomato paste (for a total of 36 ounces of paste). At first, the paste will absorb the garlic and all the fat in the pan. This is good – this is what is going to give your sauce a lot of delicious flavor. Fry the paste until it becomes brownish-red and the fat starts to separate out. This will take about 10 to 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it, don’t let it burn, and stir as necessary. This is an essential step to great flavor, so don’t skip it.

Add the fried paste to the pot of tomato puree, along with any residual fat. Also add:

  • 1 whole onion, peeled and left wholle

  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh parsley

  • 2 cups fresh basil, chopped. That’s right, 2 cups. If you don’t have fresh, use about a half-cup dried

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano

  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper

Optional: About 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar – taste as you go and don’t add too much. Sugar cuts the acidity of the sauce, which ultimately depends on how acidic the tomatoes were to begin with. You may not need it at all if your tomatoes taste fine without it and if the salt level is correct, or you may need the full half-cup. Taste, season, then keep tasting and seasoning until you get it right. If you don’t want to use sugar, you can puree a carrot and add it to the sauce. The carrot will sweeten it.

Now add:

2 tablespoons butter (makes the sauce less acidic and smooths out the flavor)

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano cheese

Stir all this into the tomato puree. Now add the chunks of meat, but do not add the meatballs at this point. They will fall apart if cooked too long.

Stir about once an hour or so (except when you’re sleeping – you can just let it simmer undisturbed on the lowest possible setting). Fat and oil may collect on the surface – just stir it back in – it’s what gives this sauce its flavor. Stir all the way to the bottom to keep the bottom from burning. If the bottom does burn (and you’ll know, because it will feel like there is something sticking down there) do not scrape it up – let it stay at the bottom of the pan, otherwise, your sauce will taste burnt. During the last 5 to 6 hours of cooking, add the meatballs.

Serve hot. Let the sauce cool down before storing in the refrigerator or freezer. This sauce keeps for about a week in the refrigerator, and several months frozen. Mangia!

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