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Growing up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn is an unforgettable experience. Everyone around me was to some degree, Italian, that is to say that the guys I hung out with were descended from Italian parents, grandparents or great grandparents, which by some definitions classified them as first, second or third generation Italian-Americans. I laid claim to being first generation since both my parents emigrated from Sicily.
Many of us retained some of our favorite Italian words at least until our memories dwindled toward obscurity.
The words which mostly remained in circulation were those having to do with food. Words like salumi, polpette, salsicce, braciole and pizzaiole. And of course, the various dishes like pizza, spaghetti, lasagne, fettuccini and the countless number of pasta dishes stretching into infinitude. But the words which remain most prominent for me in the Italian culinary lexicon are salsa di pomodoro.
Every kid on the block probably believed his mother was the world’s greatest cook but, as a matter of respect, no one argued the point. Superiority in terms of culinary skills was almost never brought up, although each harbored private thoughts that his own mother was truly the world’s best cook. None was really better than the other: they were just different, because our forefathers came from different parts of Italy. Therefore, the styles of cuisine were as varied as Italy’s many regions. My parents came from Sicily, so the food prepared in our kitchen tended to be a bit spicy.
To appreciate southern Italian cuisine, one must understand the concept of good tomato sauce. Pasta without the perfect salsa is just pasta. My mother’s spaghetti sauce was to live for: it was only one of the many culinary miracles she performed daily in the kitchen. I remember the many times after playing with my friends outside, I’d come in and head straight for the kitchen, break off the pointy end of the Italian bread and dip it in the pot of tomato sauce simmering on the stove. For some reason, I loved the pointed end of the bread as did my four brothers so I had to get to it first.
I often watched my mother cook and I would ask many questions and in this manner I picked up cooking tips to last a lifetime. As I matured, I enjoyed cooking for myself as well as for my dinner guests, but I was certain that cooking for a living would not be a happy experience.
To illustrate, several years ago, I happened to attend a Sons of Italy meeting in which plans were being made for an upcoming pasta dinner. They were expecting approximately 250 people and everything was in readiness except for the fact that the person who normally made the sauce was ill and, consequently, was not able to perform his regular duties.
The discussion went back and forth regarding the salsa maker’s replacement. And while I listened to the discussion, a voice somewhere in the back of my mind was telling me, “keep your mouth shut and stay out of it,” but I didn’t listen. Instead, I raised my hand and said, “I could make the sauce if you like.”
They all turned and looked at me as though my head had just exploded and after some silence, proceeded to ask some polite questions like, “What do you know about making pasta sauce?” and “Have you ever made pasta sauce before?”
I was not about to argue the point because, frankly, I didn’t care if they turned me down. I responded with short quick answers. After all, losing the argument meant losing the job and losing the job meant I wouldn’t have to work so hard. So I simply said, “I’ve been cooking since I was eight years old,” and said nothing more.
I guess they couldn’t get anyone else to make sauce, so the honor went to me. Of course with the honor came an avalanche of suggestions regarding what to do and what not to do. So in response, I said, “yes” to everything they suggested and proceeded to make the salsa my mother’s way. For anyone who is interested in making a meat sauce which is likely to be remembered for generations to come, I will provide a brief rundown of sauce making.
I’ll begin by saying that making good pasta sauce does not require a degree in nuclear physics. Start out by coating the bottom of your sauce pot with virgin olive oil and add thinly sliced garlic cloves and cook over a low flame until the garlic turns a golden brown. Then, if you’re not making it from fresh tomatoes, pour in your commercial tomato sauce.
Depending upon your taste, add salt, pepper and oregano and while the sauce is simmering, begin cooking seven-percent-or-less ground beef in a large skillet, stirring continuously until it is completely cooked. Then add the meat and its juices into the tomato sauce and allow it to simmer for a couple of hours. Personally, I like to add a couple of glasses of red wine, one for me and one for the pot.
By the way, the pasta dinner went well: I received positive comments and I owed it all to my mother. I often picture her in the kitchen holding a stirring spoon like a magic wand. The dinners she cooked were indeed magical: prepared with the style and grace of an Italian mother going about her business with no-nonsense compassion. She was perfect for the part she played in life and, although not an actress, she performed like a professional right out of Central Casting.