Italian-American cooking

Part One: Red Gravy Like Mama Used to Make

My kids won't eat my wild game Bolognese, but they love Grandma's red gravy.

By Robb Walsh February 3, 2014

After travelling in Italy, I became enamored of pasta in Bolognese sauce. Back in Texas, I consulted a bunch of different cookbooks and came up with a version that tasted very close to the sauce I ate in Bologna. I was especially proud of the variation I made with ground venison.

Then I had kids. They like my mom's spaghetti sauce much better than my wild game Bolognese—and they really loved Grandma's lasagna. And so I swallowed my pride and asked my mom for the recipes. (I'll share the recipe for meatballs and lasagna in the next installments of this series.)

My mom got the formulas for red sauce, meatballs, and lasagna from Mrs. Marianelli, the matriarch of the Italian-American family that lived next door us in Pittsburgh when I was in the first grade–over 50 years ago. This is the red sauce I grew up on; the flavor is Neapolitan, and not as sweet as the Sicilian sugo that's traditional in Houston and New Orleans.

The recipes were originally recorded on file cards, but my mom has made these dishes so many times she has memorized them by now. Although, she had to actually make a batch and write down the steps in order to give me the recipe.

When I first followed her red sauce recipe, I realized that it was really very close to my Bolognese—except that the ratio of tomato to meat was much higher and it included American ingredients like V-8 juice. I think my kids like this sauce so much because they prefer their spaghetti with lots of tomato sauce and not too much meat.

Add grated parmesan or romano at the table—don't be tempted to add it to the sauce. I have made that mistake before. The cheese sticks to the bottom of the pot and quickly begins to burn.

Mrs. Marianelli told my mom that the carrots were the secret ingredient—they provide just a touch of sweetness—but the sauce has to simmer for a long time until the carrots are completely dissolved.

Mom's Red Gravy

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound ground sirloin
  • 1 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 4 cups chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup grated carrot
  • 3 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 cup white wine
  • One 64-ounce can V-8 or tomato juice
  • Two 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
  • Two 6-ounce cans tomato paste
  • Two 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
  • 1 cup chopped parsley
  • Half cup coarsely chopped celery leaves
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons dried basil leaves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium high heat. Brown the beef and sausage in batches, transferring the browned meat to a bowl with a slotted spoon. When the meat is all browned, reduce the heat to medium and add the onion, celery, and carrots. Use the vegetables to deglaze the pan, scraping up the browned meat the stuck to the bottom. Cook for three minutes until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and stir to mix well. Cook another two minutes until the onions are translucent. Add the white wine and turn the heat to high stirring constantly for three or four minutes or until the white wine is reduced by half. Add the tomato juice, crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste, mix well, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the remaining ingredients and the browned meat, stirring to combine. Simmer for two hours, stirring every 15 minutes.

Combine with spaghetti or other pasta of choice and serve with grated cheese and crushed peppers, or use in other recipes that call for red sauce.

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