Making Red Sauce
Sicilians Call It Gravy
By: Charles Giuliano - 09/06/2006
I diced twenty pounds of tomatoes, added several large fried Vidalia onions, a couple of pounds of mushrooms, chopped basil and herbs from the garden, a few cans of tomato paste, a couple dozen grilled Italian sweet sausages and brought the large pot to a boil for twenty minutes before putting it on simmer for several hours. Sometimes I leave it over night but you have to get up a few times to stir the pot. And resist the temptation to eat all the sausages which are just so good as they marinate and pick up the flavors of the sauce.
Once the mix is cooled down it is ladled into containers and stacked in the freezer. Right now there are about 24 portions enough for a meal for two with nice leftovers for lunch the next day. We also freeze a stash of pesto but to be honest the basil this summer was a bust. Too much rain not enough sun. The garden in general was a disappointment. Last summer we had beans up the wazoo and this summer, not a one. Ditto the lettuce and our tomatoes are small and still not ripe. My dream of retiring to the country and becoming a gentleman farmer with my own line of pesto "Giuliano's Own" is gonzo. Farming in the Berkshires is iffy and is best left to the pros at the farm stands like Racines which sells eleven pounds of tomato "seconds" for just five bucks. Hey that's like fifty cents a pound for tomatoes bursting with flavor that may be a bit soft, bumpy or have irregular skins and blemishes. Which matters little if you get them right into the pot to boil and bubble.
Everyone has a different idea of how to make red sauce which Sicilians refer to as "gravy." I have seen TV chefs blanche and remove the skins or squeeze out the seeds. That's ok if you are paying twenty bucks for a bowl of pasta at a restaurant. But truth is they can't beat my homemade sauce. It's in my DNA. My approach is chop it all up and throw it in. Portions and ingredients are never quite the same. If the mood takes me I might add some red wine, soy sauce, chili pepper, but never sugar.
When my parents were newlyweds my Irish mom, Dr. Flynn, watched her mother in law, Maria, in the kitchen. The old woman, who died before I knew her, spoke no English but mom took notes and repeated the family recipes. She became a decent cook, could throw a tasty meal on the table, but nobody compared to my dad in the kitchen. Every other Sunday, the maid's day off, Dad would cook. It started on Friday with a trip to the North End for the fresh ingredients. They were the only butchers who knew how to butterfly a steak and pound it out to make the braccioli. He lay the steak out flat. filled it with bread crumbs, grated cheese, sliced hard boiled egg, carefully rolled it and tied it with string. This was browned in a pan and then put into the sauce to simmer. I have ordered it in restaurants and always been disappointed. Dad would cook all Saturday night, the sauce and some meatball soup. Sunday morning when we went to church, Dad stayed home with the excuse that he was still cooking. The Sunday meal was phenomenal and took several hours. There were small glasses of jug red wine for the kids. The Irish relatives used to love to come to our house for holidays almost as much as I dreaded eating at theirs.
What is it about Sicilians and their "gravy." It has become embedded into the mainstream of American popular culture. In the Godfather when Pop, Don Corleone, got gunned down and languished near death in a hospital the clan prepared for war. The Corleones hired extra soldiers and they were all living under one roof on the gated New Jerseyestate of the family. Lou Cabrazzi was in charge of the kitchen. After all an army moves on its stomach and Lou showed us how to make "gravy." They may die tomorrow in a gang war but they were not destined to go hungry to the grave.
There was a memorable scene from 'The Sopranos" when Tony and some of the capos were conducting business in Naples. They were hosted to an elegant dinner by the Naples mobsters. The waiters placed a dish of pasta nero con vincolli in front of Pauley Walnuts; he of the dramatic silver haired wings and violent temper. It is a delicacy I once had in a restaurant in Sienna. It took forever to be served but was worth the wait for a bowl of pasta made with octopus ink and small clams. Pauley cussed out the waiter in his Joisey Italian. "Hey, I can't eat this crap," he said. "Bring me some pasta with gravy and meatballs." Behind his back in a Napolitano dialect (subtitled) the waiters said "These---------- think they're Italian." It was hilarious up there with the best "Sopranos" episode when Pauley and Christopher were stranded in the woods on a cold winter night fighting over small packets of ketchup and relish.
The annual ritual of making a big stash of sauce always reminds me of dad. Man he could cook. During WWII he had a plan to survive in the event that things went poorly and America was invaded. In a small, scary, dark room in the basement he horded boxes of olive oil, whole tomatoes, paste and pasta. If worse came to worse we would survive on spaghetti just as he had as one of ten kids growing up in immigrant poverty in Brooklyn. He described how his mom made the sauce on Sunday, which was thick and tasty, but got thinner and thinner during the week. On Sunday you got a meatball.
Well into the Fifties while cooking Dad would say, "Go down to the basement and get a can of Olive Oil." Actually it's not a bad idea to keep a stash against whatever. Excuse me a moment. I gottah go stir the sauce.