I grew up in an Italian household. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, but I also had no choice in the matter. Everyone in the family was Italian. Even the pets. When I was very little, my grandmother had two parakeets that would fly from their open cage to perch on her fingers when she called them. Venga qui, she’d say, in her clipped Sicilian dialect. Then she’d follow with Dammi un bacio, and each would give her a quick peck on the face. Sometimes she’d go through the same routine, but entirely in English. Those birds, I was amazed to discover, were bilingual.
For the rest of us, it was how we talked about food that gave us our identity. For example, we never said pasta. I doubt I ever heard the word as a child. We had either spaghetti or linguini; everything else was macaroni, which were available in dozens of shapes. Our brand referred to each by name, but also by product numbers that were printed right on the box. For some reason, maybe to sound less Italian and more American, my mother used the numbers rather than the actual names.
“What are we having tonight?”
“Didn’t we have seventeen on Sunday?”
“No, that was thirty-nine.”
I never got the hang of the system, and so I had to wait until the meal was served before registering approval or disappointment. Different shapes had different textures, and then, as now, texture mattered.
Sunday mornings found my parents at the stove right after breakfast, frying garlic in a thin puddle of olive oil, then browning meatballs and sausage before adding them to an enormous pot of crushed tomatoes. Without fail, my father would brag that he was the better cook, and while his back was turned, my mother would roll her eyes and twirl a finger next to her temple. Meanwhile, the aroma of simmering gravy filled the house. Sometimes they’d give us a sample, which we’d eat from a small bowl, standing up in the kitchen. On Sundays we ate at three o’clock, but it was impossible to wait that long.
Gravy was what we called it, I think because it had meat. Sauce was meatless, and we usually had that for supper one night during the week. It was supper on week nights, but dinner on Sundays — another subtle distinction that I learned through repetition, rather than from any logical explanation. If there were leftovers, we’d give the cats a cold meatball and some spaghetti. They devoured it, as I looked on. I loved to watch the cats eat.
Today, supermarket shelves are filled with pasta sauces sold in jars. I shunned these products for many years, mostly because of my mother’s unfailing response to the very idea of our using them: “Your grandmother would turn over in her grave.” My mother had a way of painting unpleasant images with her words, but that one was by far the worst. And it did the trick. As an adult, I occasionally use sauce from a jar for a quick pizza, but rarely on pasta. Homemade sauce is too easy to make. And more important, it lets my grandmother rest in peace.
* * * * * *
This is the meatless version, enough for about four people:
28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes
one or two cloves of garlic
16 ounces of dry pasta
A slow cooker, such as a Crock-Pot, is my new favorite way to make sauce. Let it cook for several hours — the longer, the better — stirring every forty-five minutes or so. A regular pot is fine, too, and the sauce will be ready sooner. But there’s something about a long, low heat that transforms the mixture of ingredients into a single, beautiful food. Sauce, too, needs the right texture.
Pour some olive oil into the pot, enough to almost cover the bottom. Cut the garlic into tiny pieces (or use a garlic press) and add it to the oil. Use medium heat. If you’re making the sauce on the stove, cook the garlic for just a couple of minutes, and try not to let it turn brown. Then add the can of crushed tomatoes. Swirl a little water around in the almost empty can to grab the last of the tomatoes and pour that into the pot. Sprinkle in about a quarter-teaspoon each of salt, pepper, and oregano. After you stop sneezing, add a tablespoon of sugar and one or two leaves of fresh basil, if you have it. As with the slow cooker, the sauce on the stove will be better if you give it more time. The slow cooker should be on medium heat, but if you’re using a regular pot, wait about thirty minutes, then turn the heat down to low. Let it simmer, covered, for as long as you can wait. For a thicker sauce, remove the cover.
About thirty minutes before you want to eat, fill a large pot about three-quarters full of water. Add a little salt, if you want. When the water is boiling, slip the pasta into the pot. The cooking time is on the box, and will vary depending on the thickness and shape. If you’re making spaghetti, do not test it by throwing some at the wall to see if it sticks. This is an idiotic waste of food and makes a big mess. Taste a strand. It should be slightly chewy. Undercooked and overcooked are both sad outcomes, so stay in the kitchen and check it every minute or so.
Pour the pasta into a colander and shake it around until the water is gone. Then put the pasta back into the pot and stir in some sauce to prevent it from sticking together. Add a little more sauce and stir again. This is how they eat pasta in Italy, without pouring more sauce on top. I like a lot of sauce, so I always put more. There’s no wrong way. Sprinkle parmesan cheese and eat up.
To make garlic bread, slice a loaf of Italian bread or some Kaiser rolls in half. Cover the inside surfaces with olive oil (use a knife or spoon to spread the oil), then sprinkle generously with garlic powder (make sure it’s garlic powder, not garlic salt). Put on a pan and into the oven for 5-10 minutes at 375 degrees, then broil for another minute or two. Keep an eye on it — dark is delicious, but charcoal isn’t.
A small garden salad and a glass of red wine and you’re there. Be sure to save some for the cat.