I am a fan of the Italian- American red sauce, the fond name given to a hybrid recipe that developed as first and second-generation Italian-Americans set up kitchens in the New World. A good Italian red sauce trattoria will serve up bold and unapologetic oregano and garlic-heavy tomato sauces that slick olive oil across the plate and across the ubiquitous red-checked tablecloth. Think wax encrusted chianti bottle candle-holders, straw sleeves for the wine, bread baskets and haphazard family photos on the wall along with the ubiquitous Frank (the chairman of the board) who is seen as an honorary cousin. All the stereotypes and, to a certain extent, the cliches…but yet……
Red sauce joints used to be seen as inferior and the name became a derogatory term for Italian food that bore only a passing resemblance to anything served up by mama in the motherland. But recently American food writers have been championing its merits, seeing it for what it is- a cuisine redolent with nostalgia for times and territory long gone and possessed of its own identity and history. It amplifies and fetishises the scents of the Italian maccia; oregano, rosemary, thyme and myrtle trampled underfoot as ancestors walked the hills and scrub lands.They tended their crops and enjoyed the fruits of their labour: the clean metallic salinity of cold-pressed olive oil rubbed over unsalted bread; the brute unrefined force of the jug-wine pressed from backyard grapes as it quenched their parched throats and the peppery home-cured salame speckled with dice of fat. Nothing was wasted and ingredients challenged attempts to attach value to them- the bones of the animal were as valued for the flavour they imparted as the finest Chianina steak. Yes, the idea of cucina povera still exists- the cuisine of the poor- but the meals created are not valued any the less.
Imagined like this, red sauce cooking is a greatest hits, an anthology, an abridged version of a nations food that defies any attempt to find a single definition or etymology. When you remember that Italy’s unification was only completed in 1870 when Rome moved from a decade of rule by the Papacy and joined the union which first started during the Risorgimento on March 17, 1861, it is hardly surprising that many Italians identify primarily with their region of birth and their nationality second. Strong regional ties remain with traditional conflicts being (semi affectionately) rehashed in debates as to whose food is better, whose method of preparation is superiore, what is autentico and what is not.
Now some Italian Americans confuse things even more by using the word “gravy” for a tomato sauce. This appears to be a regional term confined to New York City and parts of New England, especially Boston with its very large Italian-American population. Others argue that ‘gravy’ cannot be perfectly translated into Italian and therefore the name mistakenly became appropriated as recent immigrants themselves appropriated American terms for various cooked down sauces (gravy being one of them). An American friend of ours maintains that the older Sicilians who arrived in New York on Ellis Island and who have remained in the old neighborhoods still refer to it as gravy. Hanging out with the guys from Brooklyn or Queens led to them inviting her over for Sunday Famiglia Dinner where nonna made the gravy that she had started to prepare the day before. Or they would go eat ‘out the back’ of Italian- American general stores such as Manganaro’s in Hell’s Kitchen where the paper plates of lasagne and spaghetti with meatballs make the sauce the main event rather than the modest napping of the plate, seen in a lot of old country pasta dishes. Standing at a counter which runs the length of this narrow and deep store, you will be served by the great-great-granddaughter of the original owners.
Other Italians will argue (fiercely) that a sugo is a tomato-based sauce that is smooth and consists in the main of tomato and nothing else whilst purists decry the term ragu because it is derived from the French ragout. However the word sugo is derived from succo (juices) and refers to the pan drippings from various cuts of cooked meat. Italians will add these drippings along with either pan-seared meats such as sausage or garlic-y meatballs, braciole, and pork and/or simply ground beef to the tomato based sauce, cook them down until they have an unctuous and deeply savoury sauce (gravy) eaten either alone or as accompaniment or flavouring to all manner of meals.
A ragout in Italian is a spezzatino but we rarely see that being used here. Either ways, we have the gravy/red sauce conundrum, both pertaining to a certain style of Italian trattoria eating that is becoming recognised as special in its own right. Not an accident of evolution, nor a compromise, but a deliberate and proud tradition and part of the immigrant story. Consider that in its 2008 survey of Italian restaurants outside Italy, Italy’s Accademia Italiana della Cucina sniffily concluded that six out of ten dishes were prepared incorrectly and by chefs, and only a few years later 450 chefs staged an international protest at what they considered to be our abuse of the classic Bolognese sauce, which according to them, should only be made according to the recipe deposited with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 1982. Unless the meat is flank of beef and the pancetta unsmoked, be devoid of garlic and accompanied by tagliatelle, it should not be called Bolognese. It is perfectly understandable to us though, that once away from the motherland, retaining absolute authenticity is too much of a tall order when so many local ingredients never make it out of their regions either, leaving cooks and chefs having to improvise and substitute. And that other influence upon cooking, our financial situation, is woefully under-estimated too. If we cannot afford good pancetta, we may decide to use basic streaky and should the sauce turn out well despite this, then who is to say we should go back?
Anyway, Basta! Here is the sin-qua-non of red sauces (in my opinion), and one which takes four hours although a lot of this time involves relatively hands-off cooking. Adaptable, freezable and loved by kids and adults, this is a recipe that makes a LOT (about 4 quarts) because who has the time to wait four hours for just one meal? Make it and decant the sauce into meal-sized portions then freeze them. I have used it as a base for all manner of Italian (and not) meals, even going as far as to adapt it for a moussaka (with deepest apologies to my Greek friends who are probably arranging for my image to be places in Greek airports, as a warning to the authorities to deny me entry). It can have strips of rendered bacon slung in, aubergines and courgettes- pretty much anything really. But do master the original recipe first.
Four hour red sauce
125 ml olive oil (not extra virgin) / 4oz minced garlic / 3lbs minced onion / 3 large carrots minced / 3 large celery stalks minced / 5x 28 oz cans tomatoes / 4x 6oz cans or equivalent in the tube of tomato paste / 1 large handful torn basil leaves / 2 tbsp dried oregano / sugar/ salt / 3 litres water (and you can replace some of this with 1/2 bottle red wine if you wish) / 5lbs beef bones (keep the marrow in some of them / 5lbs meaty pork bones / 1/2lb rind from Parmesan or Pecorino Romano
Place olive oil in large stockpot or heavy based casserole and put on medium to high heat. You really do need a heavy-bottomed pot for this sauce otherwise you are going to be scraping and stirring the whole time to prevent it catching. Add the garlic, onions and sauté for seven mins, stirring to avoid catching. Add the carrots and celery and stir for another five minutes. This is your basic soffrito, that heavenly mixture of finely chopped vegetables which provides the bass flavour notes.
Pour the tomatoes plus juices and a pinch of salt into the stockpot then add the tomato paste, basil, oregano. Taste for sweetness and adjust by adding a little sugar if it tastes too tart- I find a tablespoon maximum is usually enough. Add more salt too if it needs it. Add the water (and wine if using) and bring swiftly to the boil then turn down to slow simmer.
Heat a fry pan with some olive oil on the hob for the next stage.
Add the beef and pork bones to the fry pan (in batches) and quickly brown them then add to the stock pot tomato mixture- add in the pan juices too. Don’t cook too many at once or you will lower the temperature of the frying pan and the bones will steam rather than simmer. Chuck in the cheese rind too. (This adds umami depth of flavour.) Stir well.
Keep this concoction at an active simmer, partially covered with a lid for three and a half to four hours, stirring occasionally and checking to see that it does not catch. The sauce is cooked when it is medium thick with a slight run and when the flavour pleases you. If it seems too runny, raise the heat under the pan and cook it a little longer to reduce the liquid. If it has thickened too much, add some more water, tomato juice or wine and cook briefly.
When it is done, take off the heat and let the pan cool. Then skim off most of the dark-red oil that will gather on the top and discard this. Pour the sauce into a large roasting dish or tray to allow you to remove all of the bones.
Use the sauce in the next two days or freeze it.
Tip- go to a local butcher for the bones and tell him what you need them for. The butcher will ensure the bones are freshly sawn to fit your pot and possessed of plenty of meaty bits still attached. Beef short ribs are amazing in this. And I have also made it with a piece of oxtail too which obviously turns the sauce even richer and thicker with all that added gelatine and marrow.