I’d enjoyed Sunday gravy and meatballs so many times, not least as a undergraduate living in the US with that brilliant melting pot of cultures (and meals) that my American student room mates brought with them. With my teenaged family and then my wife I’d loved Carmine’s House of Seafood, a much lamented Italian-American eaterie just off Manhattan’s South Street Seaport that spoke of immigrant hope and the search for a New World. And of course we’d enjoyed the European version in our own home neighbourhood, at the great Giovanni’s and at Positano, dearly missed and lamented.
Real Sunday Gravy has now resurfaced and firmly stayed in our own kitchen. One of the best gifts I had for Christmas was an autobiography of Frank Sinatra, complete with stories of Sunday Gravy with meatballs. We’re re-watching The Sopranos, that brilliant homage to food – to my mind the organised crime, psychiatry, and violence come second to the wonderful tables. But in case I stereotyped any more in a way that Dr Amalfi and her dinner-party would have frowned at, let me confess that Cosa Nostra and Ellis Island aside, it was the brilliant blog An Affordable Wardrobe that really got me thinking about this. In it, blogger Joe Ferraro, writing as Guiseppe Timore, cooks up his Nonna’s gravy on a snowy day. Joe, whose enthusiastic embrace of prep dress and WASP style is a joy to read, wrote a piece that’s a gem in the sparkling suite of experiential jewellery that is that great blog. And now “Making Gravy” has become a family tradition for us. Non-Italian, non-American, but lovers of family, of the rituals that bring us together, and of all that is good on the table.
What is Sunday Gravy? There are as many recipes as families. But essentially it’s an Americanised ragu sauce, from Sicily rather than Bologna, so full of garlic. Our version takes cheap pork ribs, several glugs of olive oil, finely chopped onions, a ton of garlic, salt and pepper, bay leaves, the smallest pinch of basic and oregano, and a good bottle of moderately decent Italian red. We add tomatoes alla Bambino by the gallon, of which more in a second. But the message is quite simple: as Tony Soprano would have sent Silvio to say, don’t fuck with the ingredients, folks. Buy good stuff, capisce? Don’t disrespect the Gravy. It matters.
Our three-gallon pot, big enough to marinate a missionary, smells wonderful with cheap pork ribs browned in olive oil filling the kitchen. In go garlic, onions, and sweat. And then the tradition that’s become ours. Italian-American nonne don’t trust chopped tomatoes: they are the second best.
We put 12 tins of plum tomatoes in a deep bowl, and a little chap mashes them up with his fingers. It’s apparently a tradition in many Italian-American households that the most loved smallest son plays this one cooking role. It produces pomodori alla Bambino, a lovely passata/mix that makes the perfect gravy. In it goes, with a bottle of wine. And there it stays for 8 eight hours simmering on low heat. It needs testing, of course.
The pork fat dissolves and mixes with the olive oil, and the house smells like a American Valhalla. The resulting sauce: deep, sticky, fragrant, coating everything from fusilli to the inside of arteries with the most gorgeous slick of flavour. It goes in batches to the freezer, to be pulled out and heated any time we need a pasta fix. Benne.
And the best part? Making Gravy is a job for the men in our family. We chop together, we argue about how to add ingredients to the accompaniment of Dean Martin – “live from the Bar!” – and we spend a wonderful hour making something that will stick us together – as well as our pasta – over a dozen evenings round the dinner table.