Sunday Dinner

auntiida.jpgHey, come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for twenty guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?... And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick.
-Clemenza teaching Michael to cook. The Godfather, Part I.

When Jeff and I were dating, we would on occasion deliver papers for his family’s Sunday morning paper route. I distinctly remember his mother’s detailed descriptions of whose paper went where: Mr. Lisi, the front door, Ms. Vitale, the side door, the Di Fusco’s, the front door if the screen was open but the back if it was locked. I also distinctly remember the smell that hit you when you walked up each of the little driveways early in the morning and opened the screen doors. Not coffee, not maple syrup, not bacon and eggs, but gravy.

Many Italian-Americans on the East Coast refer to tomato sauce that is cooked with meat (pork and/or beef) as “gravy.” To make it correctly takes hours, and where we grew up, every Italian-American woman with any pride started the gravy at breakfast to be ready for 2:00 Sunday dinner.

meatballsinpan.jpg Though every family had variations, the basic premise was the same: braise cuts of pork (sausages or other cuts from the butcher) in garlic and olive oil. Make a sauce from fresh or canned tomatoes. Then make a huge batch of meatballs to be added to the gravy. Last, make the pasta, which was always cavatelli. Cavatelli (pronounced cah-va-ti or cah-va-tel by most Rhode Islanders) was never a mid-week pasta, maybe because it never made as much as other types of pasta, like spaghetti, and because it was more expensive. Add some chicken (on the side), salad, a loaf of crusty Italian bread, and some red wine (just from a screw top gallon or in my parents’ generation, homemade wine), and Sunday dinner was complete.

It was exactly the same every Sunday, (save for a few radical variations like raisins in the meatballs or prunes in the gravy in the 80’s) yet we always looked forward to it. My mother, like her mother before her, managed to make a hearty meal for the whole family without blowing the weekly budget. From the time my hands were big enough to roll the meatballs, it became my contribution. Standing in the kitchen for hours with my mom never seemed like a chore to me; we talked and laughed the entire time I rolled the meatballs, without regard to my cold, wrinkled fingers. There was never a recipe – you just knew how they should look, feel, and smell.

breadingravy.jpgThe amazing thing is long before we knew each other, 6 miles away at Jeff’s house, at that very same moment on Sunday mornings, his mother and grandmother would be in their kitchen cooking the gravy and rolling the meatballs. Jeff’s contribution at his house was periodically dunking the bread in the gravy. Who could blame him? Everyone knows that’s the best part.

Sadly, I can’t imagine cooking these Sunday dinners today; it seems old-fashioned. Instead, we quickly cook some tomatoes on the stove top, add some fresh basil, and we're done. Who’s got 6 hours to make the Sunday dinner? Most of us are too busy; today we are a “30-minute-meal” society. But then I think, weren’t our mothers busy too? How did they do it?

I sometimes wonder if I would have preferred to have been born in my parents’ generation; my mother tells me I romanticize this. Yet, there is something comforting about the predictability of a ritual like making the gravy on Sundays. In fact, Jeff and I have lived away from home for about 10 years, and while we love our independence, we still reminisce about Sunday dinners. It’s not just the food we miss, but the people. The way no one would dare eat until my grandmother was situated at the table. The way Jeff’s grandfather would always be the last to finish – usually after the dishes were already cleared. I remember the kitchen windows steaming up from the simmering gravy as I stood next to my mother talking and rolling and stirring. Even though I haven’t made a meatball in close to 20 years, I still remember exactly how to do it.

This past Sunday, I rolled up my sleeves and rolled out some meatballs. Starting early (well, after the gym anyway) Jeff and I made Sunday dinner for two. The sound of the wooden spoon banging on the pot to shake off the gravy, the site of bits of red tomato splattered on the white stove, and the smell of frying meatballs brought us right back. If only we could have everyone over.

Italian-American Gravy

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 sweet Italian sausage links
3 (28-ounce) cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 large onion
2 whole garlic cloves
3/4 cup red wine
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt, to taste
7-8 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

1 pound of ground beef (I used lean)
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1/8 cup olive oil
1/8 cup canola oil

1 pound of pasta
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

In a large heavy pot over medium-low heat, warm 1 Tbsp olive oil and add sausages. Cook about 4-5 minutes on each side, or until browned all over; remove from heat.

Pour the San Marzano tomatoes in a large bowl, and crush them with your hands (or use a food mill if you prefer).

Heat the second Tbsp of olive oil in the same deep pot; add garlic cloves and saute for about 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove and discard garlic. Pour in the tomatoes (with their juice), red wine, crushed red pepper, and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, for about 35-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Find your mother or daughter or other suitable companion, then...

Place the meat in a large bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, cheese, and parsley. In a small bowl, beat the egg with some salt and pepper; add to the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with your hands until the consistency is moist and the meat holds together well. If it’s too dry, add some water or another beaten egg. If it's too moist, add more breadcrumbs. Once the consistency is right, using your hands, roll the meatballs into 1 ½ inch balls. It should make about 22-24 meatballs.

Mix the olive and canola oils in a large skillet over medium heat. Fit as many meatballs in the skillet as you can without overcrowding so you have room to turn them. Cook about 2-3 minutes until browned, then turn over and cook another 2-3 minutes, until all sides are evenly browned. Place on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb any excess oil. Repeat as necessary.

The meatballs can also be baked if you prefer not to fry them. To bake them, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place meatballs on a tinfoil-lined baking sheet (for easy clean up) and cook for 20 minutes, or until browned.

Add the cooked meatballs and sausage to the gravy after it has simmered for about an hour. Simmer for an additional 60 minutes (or up to several hours if you want to be authentic). If the gravy becomes too thick, simply add small amounts of water or water mixed with a bit more red wine.

In the meantime, cook pasta in salted water according to the directions until al dente. Once cooked, add the gravy, top with meatballs and sliced sausages, and sprinkle with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and fresh basil.

"Hey, I can't eat this crap. Bring me some pasta with gravy and meatballs.”
-Paulie Walnuts to Italian waiter after being served a plate of seafood pasta while visiting Italy. The Sopranos.


Susan Russo is a free lance food writer in San Diego, California. She publishes stories, recipes, and photos on her cooking blog, <Food Blogga and is a regular contributor to NPR’s <Kitchen Window. She is also the author of  Recipes Every Man Should Know.