Bill Handel

Bill Handel

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The Best Pasta Sauce From A Jar or Can? Fuhgeddaboudit!!

Photo: Michelle Kube

In honor of Handel and Neil doing the ridiculous topic about the best jarred or canned pasta sauce, I thought I would post my own family recipe, since you'll never likely see a jar or can of pasta sauce in my house (on a rare occasion you may find Rao's but it's used only for last minute English Muffin Pizzas for hubby) pantry is filled with cans of tomatoes because I make my own on a weekly bases.

In my family there's 'red sauce' and 'Sunday Gravy'... the difference? Red sauce is marinara, there's no meat in it. As soon as you add meat, it becomes 'gravy'...and more specifically 'Sunday Gravy,' since we used to really only eat this on Sundays in my family.

Also my family never called it 'pasta' we always called it 'macaroni.'

Yes, I am aware that there is no word in Italian for 'gravy.'

Yes, I am aware that the sauce / gravy debate is a never ending one that varies from region to region, city to city and Italian to Italian.

In my house, we call it gravy and if you don't like it, stuff it.

I grew up in Dix Hills, Long Island, New York, moved to California when I was 15. But growing up, every Sunday would see the family get together, usually at my parent's home or my grandparents home for Sunday dinner... always macaroni and Sunday Gravy.

My grandparents, Josephine & Pasquale were originally from Napes, Italy and settled in New York City, then later on Long Island. That's where the tradition of Sunday Dinner and Sunday Gravy started.

I'd spend the night at my grandparents home on Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings, about 5am, I remember hearing my grandmother shuffle around in the dark in her slippers and housecoat and make her way into the kitchen. Shortly after, the smell of onions frying wafted through the air, shortly after I'd smell the garlic...then eventually she'd add cans of crushed tomatoes and tomato paste to the pot...salt, pepper, sugar and basil were added and then it would just sit and simmer, while she made and then fried the meatballs, sausage and pork to add to it. I was amazed at how she did everything by memory, not measuring anything, she just 'knew' what to do.

All day long that 'gravy' would simmer, with regular interruptions by my grandmother, or myself, with a WOODEN spoon (must use a wooden spoon!)... to 'stir' so it didn't stick. Many times, I'd break off a piece of Italian bread from a huge loaf to dip into the gravy to 'taste' too many times and you'd get a quick smack with another nearby wooden spoon and told to leave it alone until dinner (but oh, was it worth it!)

Family would gather at the house around 12 or 1pm, and on the table were huge plates of salami, pepperoni, capicola, prosciutto, cut pieces of Parmesean and Romano cheese, marinated olives and marinated roasted red peppers....that was just to snack on until dinner was ready.

About 2 or 3pm we'd sit down to eat. Huge platters of macaroni & gravy were placed on the table, along with thick cut pieces of Italian bread (with REAL butter) and a platter of meatballs, sausage, pork ribs and depending on the week....brasciole.

And where was the salad, you ask? Oh it was there, but salad always came LAST...don't ask me why, it just did...and I tell you, it was delicious to have that crisp salad, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar come last, mixing with the leftover gravy on the plate. To this day I eat this way when making pasta at home...the salad comes last.

This is one of my most comforting memories of my childhood, and as I got older, I helped more. Mixing the meatball mixture, chopping onions, razor blading the garlic... yes... I said razor blading, and yes, it's almost exactly like the scene in Goodfellas when Paulie is in jail and they're cooking their meal and he's over at the table slicing garlic with a razor blade 'so thin it's like paper', because when you make it that thin, 'it liquifies in the pan' and won't burn. (It's true!)

When I saw that scene in the movie, I laughed so hard because it was when I was 8 or 9, long before that movie, my grandmother taught me that exact method to slice the garlic when making Sunday Gravy. It's something I'm sad to say I don't do enough of today, because I don't have the time or patience for it...but when I do remember to do it, it does make the gravy taste even better!

I remember her showing me to how make the gravy.... 'a little of this, a little of that, a pinch of this, a few cans of that...add a little bit of love! Love makes it taste better!'...but I had never made it alone...and it wasn't until she turned 83 and her health was failing a bit, I suddenly realized that NO ONE in the family had the actual recipes for Sunday Gravy and Meatballs and that when she passed on, no one would be able to make it exactly the same.

So I made it my mission to get the recipe down on paper, but this wasn't an easy task, I had to watch her like a hawk the entire time and when she'd grab an ingredient: a handful of bread crumbs, grated cheese or parsley for the meatball mixture or a handful of basil or pinch of salt or sugar for the Sunday gravy, I'd have to say 'stop!' and literally grab her hand so she could put it into a measuring spoon or cup, to figure out exactly how much it was.

Now, at this point in my life, I don't have to measure anything anymore, I do it all by memory and feel...but at least it's all down on paper so I can teach the next generation.

The result? Out of everyone in my family, my Sunday Gravy and meatballs are EXACTLY like my grandmas. No one else in the family comes close!

So I am happy to share with you my grandmother's recipes for 'Sunday Gravy' and Meatballs. I hope you enjoy them.

Mangia, Mangia!

NANA'S SUNDAY GRAVY....According to Nana, it's just 'red sauce' until you add the meat, when you add the meat, it's 'gravy!'


What you'll need:

  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced thin with a razor blade or minced (or buy the pre-chopped or minced, use 2 teaspoons if you do that)
  • 1/2 of a large onion, minced or chopped (depends on how you like it...and if you're like me, who likes onions a lot, I use a whole onion)
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cans (28 oz) crushed tomatoes (my favorite is Cento)
  • 2 cans of whole, peeled, San Marzano tomatoes **San Marzanos are sweet, so it makes it less acidic**
  • 1 can (6-8oz) tomato paste (again Cento)
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar (use just under a tablespoon) **The sugar is used to prevent the helps make it less acidic. Some people use a minced carrot for this purpose, I prefer the sugar**
  • Teaspoon of salt
  • Teaspoon of pepper
  • 2 tablespoons dried basil (you can also chop some fresh basil instead if you like, use a little more if you use fresh) I like a lot of basil

In a large, deep pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat and fry the onion until soft...add garlic, If you've sliced it paper thin, it will liquify in the pan....if you've minced it, let it fry until just brown (but don't let it burn otherwise it'll make it bitter!)

Add the cans of crushed tomatoes to the pot and stir, put some warm water in one of the cans and add to the pot.

Take the whole, peeled cans of San Marzano tomatoes and empty into a bowl. Wash your hands, then crush the whole tomatoes with your hands (my grandmother SWORE by this) Once they're all crushed, add to the pot, along with another can of water and stir.

Add one can of tomato paste and stir.

Add, basil, sugar and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer, let simmer on LOW for at least 3 should be barely bubbling because you don't want it to burn, so go back every 15 minutes or so to stir it...make sure it doesn't stick.....if it's too thick for your liking, add a little water to it.

Meanwhile, make the sausage and meatballs!

If you can't get fresh, sweet Italian sausage from an Italian store, get a package of Johnsonville Sweet Italian sausage (it's really good) and fry the links in a pan on medium heat until they're done...take them out of the pan, add a little bit of water to the bottom of the pan and scrape the pan of the bits....put it in the sauce (trust me...)

Cut the links in half and add them to the sauce (which is now 'gravy' since you just added meat!)

You can also get pork ribs to add in.... I just get about 8 baby back ribs, trim the tops to get rid of any tiny bone fragments and fry them in a pan with a little oil until they're brown on all sides, then add to the gravy......when you go to pull the meat out to put on a platter later, do not be surprised if you end up just pulling out rib bones...if you're doing it right, the meat will fall off the bone...


This recipe will make 24 meatballs. If that seems like too much, it's not, use what you want, then just freeze the rest... they they freeze really well so you can take just a few out at a time to defrost.

  • 2 lbs ground beef (15%-20% can use a leaner meat, but I prefer a fattier meat)
  • 1/2 lb ground pork (not pork sausage, just regular pork)
  • OPTIONAL- 1/4 pound ground filet mignon...most butchers will look at you like you're nuts and you don't 'need' it but it brings the level of the meatballs up from amazing, to super amazing
  • 2 cups bread crumbs, (Progresso Italian style is what I use, but any will do fine, I am not a huge fan of Panko bread crumbs for this purpose)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup milk (whole or 2%)
  • 1/4 cup parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated cheese (Parmesean/ Romano blend)
  • 2 garlic cloves chopped (or get the pre-chopped minced or chopped garlic, just 2 teaspoons of that)
  • 1/2 onion, minced or chopped finely
  • salt/ pepper to taste

Heat oven to 380 degrees. **When I have time, I will fry the meatballs, but it's more time consuming and I've found that my baking method works really well.**

In a large bowl, take the beef and pork and mix together well with your hands.

Add, bread crumbs, eggs, milk, parsley, olive oil, grated cheese, garlic and onion...mix well, really squeeze it through your hands (nana swore by this as well) Add a little salt and pepper (maybe 1/2 teaspoon of each) and mix well again.

Now this is going to sound silly, but it makes a difference... let the mixture SIT for a half hour (put a paper towel or towel over the bowl)

After that half hour, take a large cookie sheet with a rim of at least 1/4 inch, spray lightly with PAM. (If you're going to fry them, fill a fry pan with enough oil to cover half the meatball...and let the oil get hot...)

Get a small bowl and fill it with some water...(trust me)

The mixture should feel sticky... Shape the mixture into meatballs, if you feel they're too sticky, just dip your hand in the water and continue to shape. Try to make them each a little larger than golf ball size and you should get about 24 evenly shaped ones. Place them each in the pan as you go...

(Again, if you're frying them instead, when the oil gets hot, put the meatballs in, let them fry on one side, then turn...then fry on the 2nd side until they're done, then put them on a paper towel to drain the oil, then add to the sauce)

Once done with shaping all the meatballs, place pan in oven and let cook on 380 for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, turn your oven to BROIL...and let broil for about 5 minutes (keep an eye on them you don't want them to burn) so they get a nice crust (just like you'd get if you fried them)

Remove from oven, let sit for 10 minutes on the stove.... after that, add as many meatballs to the sauce as you need.

Let remaining ones cool, put in a freezer bag and freeze for use later...the good thing about this is that they're quick to defrost if you want a couple for something later in the week or add to another sauce sometime, etc.

Let gravy cook with meat for another few hours for maximum taste!

I usually take all the meat out of the gravy before serving and put it on a platter, separate from the macaroni....

If making ravioli, be sure to put a little 'gravy on the bottom of the platter before adding ravioli in a single later...add more gravy, add more ravioli and so on. Same for lasagna...and if you're making that I would highly suggest using Polly-O ricotta and Polly-O mozarella if you can find me, if you can get it, try it, it's better than ANY OTHER ricotta I have ever used, but it's not easy to find here in LA, your best bet is Italian markets, like Monte Carlo Deli in Burbank.

If you're making spaghetti or another kind of macaroni, make sure after it's cooked to drain it (don't rinse it) and put it back in the pot with two pats of butter...add a little 'gravy' to it and mix, the sauce will stick to the pasta... then transfer pasta to a platter and add more 'gravy'... put extra 'gravy' on the table for anyone who wants more.

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