I love Italian food. I love real Italian food. Good pastas, great breads, full hearty flavors that embrace quality ingredients and ancient traditions. I love American pizza – pretty much any variety that doesn’t include Provel cheese. And I love that amalgam of traditions that’s become Italian-American food. Rubinos pizza in Bexley Ohio – a cracker thin almost Matzoh like crust with barely seasoned tomato sauce and almost burnt cheese wrapped in paper. My mom’s ground beef and contadina paste based spaghetti sauce over dried pasta and laden with grated Parmesan from a paper can. Baked shells with spinach and ricotta. ”Red Sauce” Italian. And the holy grail of “red sauce” Italian – at least as far as this Scots Irish Ohio boy is concerned? Meatballs. Sunday Gravy. Spaghetti.
Sunday Gravy is one of those strange Americanisms … maybe even more an East Coast-ism. I don’t have proof, but I suspect that the use of Sunday Sauce, Sunday Gravy, and just Sauce to describe a rich slow cooked meat infused tomato sauce tracks pretty closely with the same areas where sweetened carbonated drinks are soda … and all A-s are Ahs. These are simple flavors, rich ones, happy ones. Flavors and plates that recall family dinners and celebrations, first dates at small town restaurants, warren like alleys of the little Italys of Northeastern and Midwestern cities.
So one Sunday a few weeks ago, we set out to make ourselves a classic. Gigantic beautifully seasoned meatballs, unctuous long cooked red sauce, and spaghetti … all served with some crusty bread and fresh grated cheese.
Meatballs can be tricky. It’s easy to make a meatball … it’s even easier to make a really bad meatball. The world is full of terrible meatballs ranging from bouncy little balls of egg and breadcrumb only lightly shot through with meat to crumbly dry all beef monstrosities still grainy with the grocers grind. See, the real key to awesome meatballs is veal. No, not a poor little cow imprisoned and fed only milk for it’s whole life. Humanely raised veal isn’t any worse than lamb – it’s simply a young calf - which means that the meat is rich in collagen. That’s going to help make a tender juicy meatball. We ended up making ours with pork, veal, and turkey. That’s a little off the traditional triumvarate of pork, veal, and beef, but what we ended up with was absolutely perfect. Recipes follow…
Simple Winter Red Sauce “AKA Sunday Gravy”
1 lg can Italian plum tomatoes
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
2 large cloves garlic
2 tbsp rendered bacon fat or sub olive oil
1 tsp dried red pepper flake
salt to taste
Mince garlic and soften in the fat, being careful not to burn the garlic. add remaining ingredients and bring to a gentle simmer. After an hour or so, use a spoon or potato masher to break up tomatoes, and continue simmering. Simmer for at least 4 hours, and as many as eight, adding water or stock as necessary to keep moist. I find that seasoning early really helps break down the tomatoes, so while you should probably re-season at the end, make sure your salt and seasonings are in initially.
F’in Big Awesome Meatballs
1 Lb ground turkey
1 Lb Ground Pork
1 Lb Ground Veal
1 cup whole milk
1 small onion diced small
3 1 inch thick pieces of Italian or french bread including crust
1 large egg lightly beaten
1 tbsp olive oil + 2 tbsp for frying later
1 tsp fresh rosemary
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried red pepper flake
1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
salt to taste
In a decent sized bowl, pour the milk over the bread and allow to soak/soften for at least 30 minutes.
While the bread is soaking , warm a pan, dice the onion, and add the onion and herms and seasonings to olive oil in the pan. Sautee until the onion is wilted, but be careful not to burn the onion. Allow to cool.
When the bread crust is good and soft, pour off any milk still standing in the bowl and squeeze out some of the milk in the bread – but make sure the bread stays sodden – you’re looking for a french toast sort of texture. Add the meat, egg, and onion/herb/seasoning mixture to the bowl. Knead with your hands to combine VERY well. Once combined, put the entire mixture into the fridge for at least an hour, and preferably 2-3 hours to set and for the flavors to combine.
Remove from the refrigerator, form into balls, and carefully fry. After frying, simmer in gravy to finish/keep warm.
To serve, top spaghetti or buccatini with sauce, a meat ball or two, and top with grated parmigiana (the good stuff). Serve with a nice high bitter acid salad and crusty white bread – and if you really wanna go all out, put some Tommy Bennet/Frank Sinatra/Rosemary Clooney sort of stuff on and have it all with a nice (and by nice here I don’t mean nice, I mean reed wrapped bottle) Chianti.
Note: How you cook the meatballs really depends on the size you’re shooting for. Walnut sized meat balls can go straight from the frying pan into the pot – but the baseball sized monstrosities I made in the picture above needed some oven time to cook through or the would lose their shape in the sauce. They got about 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven after being browned evenly on the outside before spending another 40 minutes or so simmering in sauce. The result was delicious.