At the end of the classic mob movie Goodfellas, Ray Liotta complains about Witness Protection placing him miles away from decent Italian restaurants. “I ordered spaghetti and marinara sauce and got egg noodles and ketchup.” He adds that he feels like a “schnook.”
By the same token, if you’re a non-Italian at home making what you think is a dish of spaghetti and meatballs, you could be eating hamburgers and ketchup.
So, this is a public service announcement. (It’s really not, since most PSAs tell you to plant a tree or make your kids go outside and play.) I’m simply tired of seeing people think they’re eating decent Italian food made without half the necessary ingredients. And since there aren’t a ton of Italians around Alabama to teach youse guys (y’all) about the care and feeding of paisans, let me offer assistance.
Before we go any further, stop if any of the following applies:
-You have ever burned a salad.
-You paid fifty bucks to have four chicken breasts and an avocado delivered to your home from one of those meal services because the thought of going to the grocery store makes you break out in hives.
-You think “separate the eggs” means moving them to the opposite ends of the kitchen counter.
-The fire department ruined your fried Thanksgiving turkey.
Now, a final warning before we press on. This will take about four hours. There is no microwave involved. There are no shortcuts. You will make a mess. The kitchen will be a disaster. But when we’re done you will be eating real Italian food.
There is one big secret to making decent meatballs and sauce: pork. Without it, we’re back to the hamburgers and ketchup. Pork gives everything its flavor. Yes, we will be adding a lot of different spices, but without the pork, it makes no difference.
How do I know this? Well, besides, the vowel at the end of my Sicilian last name and growing up in a New York City suburb, I started attending cooking class when I was about seven. Every Saturday morning I would assist my grandmother (the master) who would whip up something wonderful for the weekend. Everything was made from scratch. My grandmother lived through the Great Depression so nothing was wasted. Stale bread would be placed in the gas oven to dry it out, then I’d roll a milk bottle over it to make the breadcrumbs. I later worked in my father’s delicatessen through high school and college, cooking up meatballs, stuffed shells, lasagna, eggplant parm, and other dishes.
Now I normally make a giant vat of sauce and about a hundred meatballs, since it doesn’t make sense for me to take all day for a small batch. Then I divide things up into containers. Some go in the freezer, some given to friends. But since I don’t want you to make a massive amount of food from a recipe you haven’t tried, let’s start small. Here’s what you’ll need:
Two pounds ground chuck (not the cheaper ground beef that’s 73 percent fat. If you cheat here, you’ll not only end up with greasy sauce, but you’ll be known as a stunad. That’s Italian for idiot. Plus, you’ll feel like a schnook.)
One pound ground pork (it’s always a two-to-one ratio of ground chuck to pork)
One pound Italian sausages (not breakfast sausage)
Four cans of tomato puree (not sauce, not paste, but puree.)
Parsley (freshly chopped really makes a difference)
Basil (fresh is best, and it’s easy to grow)
Salt & pepper
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
One bottle of your favorite wine (red or white, it makes no difference)
One large frying pan and one large pot
One garlic press
One old red shirt. (You will get splattered with sauce.)
Okay, let’s rock. First empty the four cans of tomato puree into the large pot, throw in the sausages, and turn on the stove to medium heat. As soon as it starts to bubble, reduce to simmer. It will stay on that setting for the duration. The sauce will begin to pick up the flavor from the pork in the sausages.
Now we need to mix up the meatball mixture in a large bowl. Put the ground chuck, ground pork, eggs, a handful of parsley, a little salt & pepper, and press a few cloves of garlic. You’ll notice there are no specific amounts in this recipe. It’s a taste thing, a lot of trial and error. The mixture will be sticky due to the eggs, so slowly add the bread crumbs until the mixture is barely sticking to your hands. Now we’re ready for the sampling stage. Roll out a couple meatballs.
Pour some olive oil into the frying pan. Do not, I repeat, do not use any other kind of oil. You’re not frying chicken or catfish here. Again, medium to low heat since olive oil can burn. When the oil starts to get hot, add the sample meatballs. When the meatballs are done, give them a taste. This is to see if you need more salt. There should only be a faint taste of salt. If you don’t taste any salt, add a little more to the mixture.
Once you’ve done this, it’s time to start frying the meatballs, but you’re only going to cook them halfway, just enough to hold them together. Then put the meatballs into the sauce. The heat from the sauce will cook them the rest of the way, keeping them soft while again picking up the flavor from the pork in the mixture. Now add the rest of your spices to the sauce … more parsley, garlic, basil, oregano, pepper and cheese. This is again a trial-and-error thing. If you don’t like spicy food, add just a little of everything. Once the sauce gets going you can taste it along the way. It’s easy to add more spices, impossible to take them out.
This needs to simmer for a couple hours. Make sure you stir the sauce every 15-20 minutes. After two hours, turn off the heat. The sauce will be blazing hot at this point and will continue to pick up the flavor. After an hour, turn the heat back on and let it simmer for another hour.
Okay, you’re done. The whole house should smell like an Italian restaurant by this point. If you want the full effect, go outside for a minute and then come back into the kitchen. You should look like you’ve lost a paintball war to the red team and may now throw your shirt in the washing machine.
As for pasta, I’ll bet you haven’t tried the fresh variety. You can find it in some grocery stores in the dairy case next to the cheese. Fresh pasta has a very different taste, and you only have to cook it for two minutes. That’s right, two minutes. (Instant gratification alert!) Then ladle the sauce, meatballs and sausages over the pasta. Now mangia. (That’s Italian for eat.)_
One more life skill: please learn the correct pronunciation of mozzarella cheese. It’s not “Motz-a-rell-uh” but “mootz-a-rell.” Italians like to drop the vowels at the end of various foods.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the results of your labor. You might be sitting back, ready for a nap, and all of a sudden something might occur to you:
Hey, we forgot one of the ingredients! What about the wine?
Don’t be a stunad. You really don’t know what the wine is for?
Randy Tatano lives in Brewton and is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer.. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com