Most Italians know what I’m talking about when I mention the Sunday Gravy. It is a big pot of tomato sauce usually with meatballs, Italian sausage, and possibly other types of meat. Until today, I continue this tradition passed down from my mother and grandmothers. I believe I passed it on to my daughter Deb. Her pots of gravy show up on Facebook and always make my mouth water.
The gravy I make today is a much healthier one than what I grew up with and also made myself for many years. Today instead of Italian pork sausage, I use sweet Italian-style chicken sausage. Here in Santa Fe the only one I can find is in Sprouts Farmer’s Market. There are some package ones available but they're not as good as Sprouts which I purchase at their butcher counter where someone serves you. It’s a meaty version with very little fat and no grizzle. I’ve also used turkey sausage. If you like a spicier gravy you can put hot Italian sausage. At Sprouts, they have a hot Italian chicken sausage, too. I remember buying delicious Italian pork sausage at Salerno’s butcher market in Corona, New York. They made it on the premises. It was lean pork with nice fennel flavoring.
For meatballs, I try to use a very lean chopped beef 90/10, 80/20, or 85/15. When those are not available, I’ll go with ground turkey but I prefer the low-fat beef. It has more flavor. Lean meatballs require a little extra breadcrumb and usually two eggs for a moister meatball. My mixture also contains chopped parsley and garlic, sometimes chopped mushrooms, and salt and pepper.
As for other meats, you can put in a pork chop or two, some spare ribs, a piece of beef steak, and maybe, braciola. Braciola is usually a flank steak or a thin round steak flattened, seasoned with salt and pepper, covered with parsley, grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese, and chopped garlic. That’s how my mother always made it. My aunt from Naples used to make hers with hard-boiled eggs. Whichever one you make, it is rolled up and tied with butcher string or secured with toothpicks. I’m not a fan of hard-boiled eggs but those Braciole always looked delicious.
The meats are usually fried first. In my version, I put all the meat on a baking sheet and cook them in the oven at about 400-degrees, turning them a few times until they are nicely browned. I still like frying them but don’t in favor of a less fatty, healthier gravy.
While all that is in the oven, I start on my gravy. Chopped onions and garlic are sauteed until they start to brown. If you like thicker gravy, you can saute some ground beef along with your onions and garlic. Then in go the canned tomatoes. You can also add a little red or white wine. Season with salt and pepper and I also add a little sugar to offset the tartness of the tomatoes. I also like to add basil (fresh if you have it), oregano, a little rosemary, and a bay leaf or two. Once it comes to a boil I’ll throw in the browned meat.
You might remember in the Godfather Clemenza (Richard Castellano) lectures Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) on what I just described for making the gravy. Also in Goodfellas Paul Cicero (Paul Sorvino) teaches Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) how to slice the garlic razor-thin while he prepares the gravy in their prison cell.
When I was growing up, I usually woke up on a Sunday morning to the aroma of gravy cooking on the kitchen stove. Coming home from Sunday mass, I could usually con my mother into giving me one or two meatballs covered in the semi-cooked gravy along with a piece of crispy Italian bread for dipping. Anita and I still do that. What a delicious start to the day. When I got older and went out drinking the night before, I skipped church because of my hangover, and those meatballs, gravy, and bread were a good cure for my achy head.
There are many variations of gravy that you make. Pick up any Italian cookbook and you will see how other Italian cooks make their sauce. Fresh tomatoes can be used. Tomato paste and tomato puree are other alternatives. Whatever works for you and your family is acceptable.
When it’s time for dinner, you must decide on the pasta. That’s a matter of taste, time of the year, and whether it is a holiday or not. I had friends in Corona who gathered the whole family for Sunday dinner. They all lived on the same street, many in the same house. They called pasta “macs” short for macaroni. Some people call rigatoni “rigis.” The type of meat sauce I have described usually favors a macaroni rather than spaghetti but spaghetti is good too. My father didn’t like macaroni and my mom would always make him vermicelli, while we ate some type of macaroni. The gravy isn’t limited to macaroni and spaghetti it could also be used for ravioli, manicotti, and lasagna. These dishes require a lot of preparation and are reserved for special occasions or holidays. You always want to sprinkle a good Parmesan or Pecorino cheese over your pasta.
You might have noticed that I didn’t recommend ingredient amounts or how long to cook things. When these recipes were passed down, moms and grandmas never told you how much of anything to add or how long to cook it. That’s because they didn’t measure. They just knew instinctively how much to add or how long to cook it. Grandma would always say, “If you likea lot of garlic, put a lot. If you likea basil put as much as you like.”
When I make gravy, I’m reminded of all those great cooks my mother, my grandmothers, and my aunts. I don’t know if mine is as good as theirs, but I enjoy it and my dinner guest always comment on my delicious sauce.
I would love to hear about your Sunday gravy, stories, and recipes.