Wednesday January 29, 2014 | 08:10 AM

After  enduring a recent spate of mediocre versions of red sauce at various Italian-American restaurants around town, I decided to investigate who amongst local home cooks of similar heritage were making this classic Old World sauce well.

Regional differences can dictate whether this preparation is called a gravy or sauce.  Traditionally amongst Italian Americans in the northeast it’s known as Sunday gravy.  This implies that it’s made with some sort of meat (usually pork or beef or both) that’s cooked very slowly in a tomato-based sauce.  The meat can be served separately and the sauce served over pasta.  Without the meat it’s known as sauce.

I conferred with three friends in Portland who are good cooks and are first- or second-generation Italian Americans where this sauce was a staple in their homes. These sauces will appear in the next three postings on Wednesdays.

The first sauce is from Christopher Papagni, who recently moved to Portland from New York where he was the executive vice president of the International Culinary Institute.  He knows a thing or two about food.  But I was interested in his Italian heritage as it related to red sauce. 

He explained, “My father, Leo, who hailed from Puglia and who owned a pizzeria in Brooklyn, made the sauce in the family.  He got it from his mother who got it from her mother. “

Papagni’s sauce is a classic one made simply with whole canned tomatoes, canned tomato puree and tomato paste. Spices include sautéed garlic and a commercial spice mixture sold in stores called Italian Seasoning.

The sauce is cooked with browned sweet Italian sausage  for about three hours, with a simple version of meatballs added during the last several hours of slow simmering.

Papagni also related, “As one of 9 children, we all use to hover around the pot as the sauce cooked, dipping our forks into the pot to snack on those delicious meatballs.’

And, he added, “The other thing we’d love was to spread the leftover sauce on plain Wonder Bread (gasp).”

Here are a few pointers to ensure that the sauce turns out well.  Use the best canned tomatoes you can find.  Those labeled San Marzano, which are available at Whole Foods, are good.  I used the crushed tomatoes, which in retrospect was a mistake.  It made the sauce start out too thick, and I had to add some water.  It’s best to use whole tomatoes, which you can either squeeze through your hands or puree roughly in a food processor using all the juice and pulp. 

After about 2 hours of slowly simmering the sauce until it is rich and thick; but give it another hour to get really concentrated

For Italian sausage those made at Pat’s Meat Market are excellent as is their freshly ground chuck for the meatballs.

The other ingredient that I initially had some qualms about was the Italian Seasoning.  Papagni said it was used a lot in his family’s kitchen.  The commercial brand I used contained oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, basil and sage—every flavor you could possibly need.  I’m glad to have discovered it.

Next week: Marie Quattrucci’s Sauce 

Papagni Family Sunday gravy with meatballs

Servings: 4


About 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound sweet Italian Sausage, cut into 1 inch pieces

1 28-ounce can San Marzano whole plum tomatoes

1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomato puree

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon Italian Seasoning

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 pound spaghetti

Parmesan cheese, grated

Over medium high heat in a large Dutch oven sauté garlic and sausage pieces in the olive oil until the garlic is lightly browned (do not burn) and the sausage is lightly browned and cooked, stirring frequently.

Either squeeze the whole plum tomatoes through your hands or roughly chop in a food processor, using pulp and juice.  Add to sausage along with the remaining ingredients, stirring well to combine.  Bring to a lively simmer (be careful because the sauce will splatter) and then cook at a very low simmer, partially covered, for 3 hours, watching the pot and stirring the sauce often.  Add water, by the 1/4 cup, if necessary if the sauce gets too thick. Meanwhile make the meatballs and add to sauce during the last 2 to 2 1/2 hours of cooking.


Servings: About 12 meatballs

1 pound ground chuck

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

1 egg, beaten

1 small clove garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil 

Mix the chuck with the bread crumbs and mix in the beaten egg.  Add the seasonings, mixing well with your hands until well combined.  Form into 2-inch balls

In a large fry pan heat the olive and brown the meatballs on all sides.  Remove to a plate lined with paper towel and allow to rest for 15 to 30 minutes to drain any excess fat.  Add to sauce by gently stirring in.  Partially covered, continue to cook the sauce and meatballs, stirring frequently.

Ten minutes before ready to serve, cook the spaghetti according package directions.  Drain well.  Return to pot and mix in a small amount of the sauce.  Serve pasta in bowls, top with sauce and meatballs and sprinkle on Parmesan cheese.  Serve with a salad and crusty bread.

Served with a salad and crusty bread, the Sunday sauce with meatballs over pasta is the perfect Sunday supper







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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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