Any person curious about the culinary impact of Italian immigration in America need only go to an ordinary supermarket and walk the aisles. Past the little “ethnic” sections featuring a few yards of Mexican and Pan-Asian ingredients, one will arrive at a long stretch of dried pastas, canned tomatoes, olive oils and wine vinegars. The closer one gets to New York or Philadelphia, the longer this aisle becomes, and the more the average grocery seems like an Italian market—ground veal in the butcher shop, sfogliatelles in the bakery, half a dozen brands of ricotta cheese in the dairy case. It was a kind of cooking that came to Americans in their hour of need, the postwar years of canned and processed food, a kind of cooking meant for big families and even bigger parties.
The flagship of this culinary wave was Sunday gravy, a weekly gathering centered around a big bowl of pasta with ragù. In the US, these sauces are celebrations of abundance, with red wine, ripe tomatoes, sausage, meatballs, herbs, and no shortage of secret ingredients as passed down through the generations. My mother’s sister married an Italian American, and sometime before the wedding her soon-to-be mother-in-law brought her into the kitchen to teach her the requisite tomato sauce recipe, a grand two-day affair with dozens of ingredients that produced enough to share among the extended family. The original Neapolitan ragù, however, was a poor man’s dish of tomatoes flavored with garlic and scraps of meat. I prefer this classic approach, improvised at a moment’s notice and left on the stove until the aroma is too much.
2 lbs of meat scraps, such as pork ribs, Italian sausage, brisket, flank steak, etc.
2 tbsp olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 28-oz. cans of tomatoes
1 lb dried pasta
1 bunch fresh basil, chiffonade
In a large dutch oven, brown the meat over medium heat in batches, so as not to overcrowd the pan. Remove the meat and set it aside. Add the oil to the pot and quickly fry the garlic, just until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, breaking them up a bit with a wooden spoon. Add the meat, turn the heat down to medium-low, and simmer uncovered for a couple hours, until the meat is flaky and tender.
Twenty minutes before serving, bring a pot of salted water to boil and cook your choice of pasta according to package instructions. Remove the large chunks of meat from the sauce into a separate serving bowl. Drain the pasta and add the remaining tomato sauce—you may not need all of it, just add enough sauce to coat the pasta as you like. Garnish with basil and serve, with the meat on the side.
Jeffrey Ozawa is a writer and cook living in Chicago. His blog, Gorumando, explores life’s pleasures through food.
(Photo: Jaimie Lewis of Machins Choses)