I never knew that Italian-Americans had their own language until I started dating one. They use word “macaroni” when referring to any and all non-long-noodle-shaped pasta; they insist upon calling mozzarella just “mozz”—pronounced “mutz.” Somehow, their Mediterranean linguistic witchcraft transforms “capocollo” into “gabagool.” Many—but not all—of them also have the strange habit of dubbing tomato sauce (specifically, tomato sauce spiked with meatballs and sausage) “gravy,” though from this outsider’s perspective, there seems to be no rhyme or reason regarding who calls it what. But hey, I grew up believing that “slippy” was a real word—so who am I to talk?
In any case: the “gravy v sauce” debate is apparently very heated, very emotional, and very much ongoing. Perhaps it’s better, then, to avoid the entire issue by making a sauce that nobody would confuse with gravy, because it’s already got a few other monikers: ragu, bolognese, or, according to my grandmother, spaghetti meat sauce.
Despite her vaguely Continental grandma name, Nonnie was of course not Italian; her kosher upbringing is probably the reason that her slow-cooked meat sauce doesn’t include any milk, even though that’s a standard ingredient in most authentic recipes. (Nonnie’s sauce does, however, call for six strips of bacon, because, well, the lady liked her bacon.) By my count, the sauce isn’t hurt by that omission; as long as you leave it alone on the stove for a nice, long while, you’re bound to end up with something delicious. And you know what today is? Why, it’s a day when you probably have a lazy afternoon to devote to sauce-making.
So gather round, children—and let a Jewish lady who’s learned to speak Italian-American as a second language tell you how it’s done.
Spaghetti Meat Sauce
1/3 cup oil [Nonnie specifies “olive” later in the recipe—not “salad oil” this time!]
2 lbs lean ground beef
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 strips raw bacon, chopped
2 large (1 lb. 12 oz.) cans whole tomatoes, drained [In case you couldn’t tell from the volume of these ingredients: this makes an ass-ton of sauce. Be ready]
1 15 oz. can tomato puree [I couldn’t find a can of tomato puree this size at my janky local Key Food, so I bought a can of “sauce” instead, figuring that this recipe would have enough flavor that it would cancel out the taste of canned sauce; I was right]
2 6 oz cans tomato paste
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
6 tablespoons parsley, chopped [If you’re going to skip any ingredient in this recipe, skip this; I will never understand why parsley is apparently the only herb my grandmother had ever heard of]
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon dry red pepper, crushed [This is like, nothing, considering how much sauce this recipe makes; I’d add it to taste next time]
4 oz red wine
Heat olive oil, add onion, and sauté until soft. Add meat, garlic, and bacon. Sauté until meat is brown, scraping and stirring while browning. Add parsley, salt and peppers. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes.
Add wine; cover and steam for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes (and break into pieces with wooden spatula), tomato puree, and tomato paste, and sugar. Mix and stir well. Bring to a boil. Add carrots and celery. [This weird direction would be why you can see raw-looking pieces of carrot bobbing to the surface in the photo above. You should absolutely ignore Nonnie here and instead add the carrots and celery way at the beginning of the recipe, so they can soften along with the onions instead of essentially boiling in the sauce.]
Cover and simmer over low heat for at least one hour. Scrape and stir the sauce occasionally.
The verdict: Yes, the sauce tasted pretty good after an hour—hearty, meaty, comforting. But I took Nonnie’s “at least one hour” at face value, and ended up keeping my sauce bubbling away for nearly three. The result? A concentrated flavor-bomb that had reduced itself to perfection, something that tasted even better when I scraped up all the browned, caramelized bits from the bottom of the pot. If the carrots and celery had been added at the beginning of cooking, I think it might have been just about perfect.
I mean, look at the way it coats those noodles (not macaroni!).
And finally: It sucks to spend an entire day making a meal that’s designed to be devoured in about 20 minutes flat. That’s why you may be pleased to know that though this recipe is pretty time-consuming (at least, if you do it right), it also has a heroic yield—enough to cover at least three one-pound boxes of pasta, depending on how saucy you like your spaghetti. You can even pack away the leftovers in mason jars, if you feel like going really old school (or nouveau-Brooklyn, whichever floats your boat). Gravy? Sauce? Bolognese? Ragu? Whatever you call it, I think that translates to “success.”