Sicilian Sunday Sauce With 4 Add-Ins
What I learned growing up around Sicilian American immigrant families
I grew up in a neighborhood of converted summer cottages on the shores of Lake Ontario; my neighborhood was eclectic because it offered cheap rentals with suburban schools and a big private beach, attracting young families, hippies, bikers, and immigrants. The immigrants were largely Sicilian American, with family names like DiStefano, Cometa, Tommaselli — all the names of my childhood friends.
For a skinny WASP kid used to white-bread PBJs and overcooked chicken, learning what these friends ate was a revelation. Most of their parents were first-generation immigrants, often still speaking Italian at home. Their mothers fed me, perhaps trying to fatten me up a bit, just as everyone’s parents tended to feed each other’s kids. Though I sometimes balked at unfamiliar things, overall the food was simple and amazing. Peasant food, really, but also very sophisticated in its simplicity. These childhood experiences started an early fascination with cooking.
The smell of Sunday afternoons
It was traditional for the moms to make sauce on Sunday that bubbled away on the back of the stove, simmering into a cooking medium for a variety of proteins for Sunday dinner, always with pasta. This sauce would continue its usefulness in the week to come, going into traditional things like eggplant casseroles and stuffed pasta dishes.
Years went by and I missed that childhood smell of simmering sauce that permeated those households, a sauce that I couldn’t seem to emulate no matter how much I tried. But later in life, I became close friends with an Italian American woman who had grown up in a similar Sicilian American home (with second-generation parents). I asked her if she would make Sunday sauce for me and she agreed. And I found out what I had been doing wrong: I had attempted to complicate the basic sauce: I was a little too fussy with it, trying to adjust the flavors with herbs and unneeded extras.
The reality was that Sunday sauce has four ingredients that give it that taste of my childhood that I craved.
Recipe: Sicilian-American Sunday Sauce
- 2–3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 3–4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small can tomato paste (about ½ cup)
- 2 28-ounce cans San Marzano’s whole tomatoes
- Warm the oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven and add the tomato paste. Fry the paste in the oil, stirring until it starts to caramelize and turn darker. This step changes the flavor and texture of the paste so it doesn’t make your sauce taste gummy or metallic.
- Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not browned or burned.
- Add all the tomatoes and their juice and roughly break up the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Alternatively, put the tomatoes in a bowl and break them up with your hands before adding them to the pot. Be gentle or you’ll end up with tomato juice all over you and the kitchen. You could blend them, but that changes the final product. I prefer them crushed roughly for the texture it gives.
- Bring to a simmer and cook on very low for at least an hour. Adjust seasonings but don’t add salt if you are planning to add sausages, which have a lot of salt. If the sauce tastes too acidic, you can add a teaspoon of sugar, though my friend recoils at the thought. Again, the proteins you cook with the sauce later will mellow this out.
- If the father was making this, he’d probably throw in a glug of cheap red wine.
- This sauce is a basic medium for other flavors, though it is delicious by itself with long pasta and Parmigiano Reggiano. Remember, never add parm when the sauce is on the heat. It should go on top of the pasta.
Turning the sauce into a meal
This is where things get beautiful. You can braise almost any protein in this sauce. It would not be unusual for a family to have a selection of poultry, meat, sausage, even eggs cooked into sauce, imbuing it with layers of complexity and umami.
Italian sausage, hot or mild
There are two ways to incorporate sausage into the sauce. You either put links directly into the simmering sauce or brown them lightly before adding. Either way, they will need 15 to 20 minutes to be cooked through. You can leave them in longer but they will gradually give up much of their flavor over time.
Cut up chicken pieces, preferably dark meat on the bone, are browned in another pan with the skins removed, then added to the sauce. Cooking time is about an hour, but using dark meat gives you much more leeway as it is fattier and more flavorful and holds up to longer cooking. White meat, if used, should only go in 45 minutes before eating.
Prepared, but not cooked, meatballs are a classic addition. They should be rested in the fridge to marry flavors and firm them up, then browned and added to the sauce. Keep the temperature low or they may break up. Give yourself about 30 to 40 minutes with these.
Cooking eggs in the sauce was new to me until, wanting a quick weeknight dinner, my friend heated some leftover sauce and broke whole eggs into the sauce to poach. After about 15 minutes, when the whites are firm, lift them out with a slotted spoon and serve with sauce and grated parmesan or Romano cheese.
All at once
The real Sunday dinner comes when you add all of these or any combo. Cook pasta (long pasta is traditional, but any hearty variety will work) in heavily salted water until barely al dente. It should be slightly hard in the center when tasted. Save a cup of pasta water after cooking, drain the pasta (never, ever rinse pasta, nor should you put oil on it, as the sauce will not stick).
Put the hot pasta back in the dry pan on low heat and add several ladles of sauce. Simmer to complete cooking and flavor the pasta with the sauce. If it gets too thick, add reserved pasta water to keep the combination loose. Taste and serve family-style on a big platter with meat, poultry, sausages, and eggs around it and a hefty dose of sauce on top. The final touch is a shower of grated cheese. Pass red pepper flakes, extra sauce, and cheese at the table.
Great for entertaining a group
All this needs is good bread and a green salad to make a feast that few can resist. Serve family-style and the simplicity of it all will loosen up any gathering, especially with a hearty red wine like a Barbera or a super Tuscan. There are also great Sicilian reds that are made to eat with this dish.
Some call this sauce gravy, but it is really not something you’d see on a table in Italy. It was created because of limited cash and availability of fresh ingredients, and the requirement to stretch a Sunday of cooking into meals for the rest of the week. And it just gets better the next day.