It’s all about the sauce.
If you’re from an Italian-American family, and there’s pasta on the table, the meal will be evaluated on the basis of the tomato sauce.
Going to a wedding? The post-wedding analysis will be dominated not by the appeal of the bride’s dress or the best man’s toast, but by the quality of the sauce.
It’s always about the sauce.
“Absolutely,” said Clarice Squillace, 62, of Shelby Township, Mich. She used a mix of one-fourth ground pork and three-fourths ground beef to flavor her entry in a recent tomato sauce taste-test contest at the Italian American Cultural Society in Clinton Township, Mich.
Her Italian immigrant father and his relatives always critiqued pasta dishes at banquets and parties, said Squillace, a member of the UAW International Advisory Board for Retired Workers. When her father, Giorgio, died in 1986, she addressed the people at the meal following the service by asking: “What do you think George would have thought of that sauce?”
Tomato sauce is fundamental to the identity of Italian Americans, even as Italian dishes are common staples of the U.S. diet. In the past 12 months, food sales tracker Symphony IRI reports $360 million worth of tomato sauce was sold in the U.S., according to SupermarketGuru.com editor Phil Lempert.
“Italians,” Squillace said, “always will go to restaurants expecting to taste their own sauce.”
So, it took courage for Squillace and 13 other women and men to present their homemade tomato sauces for public scrutiny and judging. At stake were family traditions and convictions — meat vs. non-meat; long-simmered vs. freshly sautéed; secret ingredients vs. tried-and-true garlic and olive oil.
The contest was sponsored by the Federazione Abruzzese del Michigan. It’s a club whose members have ties to central Italy’s Abruzzo region, which stretches from east of Rome across the highest point of the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic coast.
There is no store-bought sauce in Dawn Bartolomeo’s home in Washington Township, Mich. — nor in Teresa D’Aristotile’s kitchen in Sterling Heights, Mich., or Mary Bucciarelli’s house in Shelby Township. All three watched as the contest judges sniffed and sipped their sauces.
Bartolomeo, 41, a mother of four, uses homemade sauce three times a week from home-canned tomatoes. Her sauce is a combination of tomatoes, basil, garlic, sirloin, pork and spices, simmered all day long.
“We blow through it,” said her son, Dario, 10, who accompanied her to the contest. “We don’t have to do fast food when we have sauce,” his mother explained.
D’Aristotile, 55, eschews long-cooked sauces in favor of crushed tomatoes, basil, garlic, salt and pepper sautéed for about 20 to 30 minutes. “So fresh. So good. So light,” said her husband, Lelio D’Aristotile.
Bucciarelli, 71, makes a big batch of sauce once a month and freezes portions to make “spaghetti sauce dishes twice a week — Sunday and Thursday.” She was born in Michigan, to immigrant parents, but “my household is still very much Italian.”
She uses the basic recipe she learned from her mother, and adds her own twist. When she braises the meats she uses to flavor the sauce, she adds red wine.
She cooks for a grown son and daughter.
“My kids expect it from me. It’s important for me to continue to impress them,” Bucciarelli said. “They seem happier when I make Italian dishes.”
Her son, 47-year-old Elio, the Abruzzese club’s vice president, was a contest judge along with members Elio Ripari and Carlo Di Virgilio. The contest was a blind taste test. The cooks brought their entries into the club’s kitchen, where staff assigned numbers to each entry, kept them warm and presented them in serving bowls for testing.
Before the judging, club president Enzo Paglia announced the scoring system. Each sauce would be scored in five categories: a roma, eye appeal, taste, aftertaste and texture. Each element would be rated on a scale of 1 to 5 — for a maximum of 25 points — and according to the following code.
1. I don’t even want to taste it.
2. Can’t recommend it.
3. It’s good enough for non-Italians.
4. I can recommend this.
5. Tastes just like mamma’s.
The judges’ noses sniffed each sauce bowl for defining scents. They dunked bread into the competing sauces for a taste. Or they sipped sauce poured into a plastic cup to evaluate each offering.
Elio Bucciarelli figures he eats tomato sauce dishes two to four times a week. If he’s not eating at his mother’s, he’s eating at an Italian restaurant. He judges a pasta dish by the toothiness of the pasta — what the Italians call “a l dente” — and, of course, by the sauce.
“The sauce should not move,” Bucciarelli explained. “The sauce should stick to the food.”
In his taste-testing, he’d swirl the sauce around in a cup to see if there was a watery or oily separation. He said his taste buds encountered some unusual twists.
“Olives? On a pizza, yes. In a sauce, no,” Bucciarelli said. “A couple, I burped on, and knew those weren’t too digestible.”
Elio Ripari drew a ladle up from one bowl of sauce.
“Look at this! It’s like soup, like water,” Ripari declared, noting a dearth of body or texture. “I don’t even want to try it.”
The judges added up their scores. Audience members murmured that the judges’ comments suggested they favored thicker-textured sauces over those with more fluid qualities.
The winner was Amalia Morga, 74, of Sterling Heights. She emigrated from the Abruzzo town Opi in 1955, and worked as a cook for several years at a banquet hall in Eastpointe.
Her winning recipe contained sirloin sautéed with onion and garlic. She adds plum tomatoes she’s either canned herself or bought. She adds an Italian sausage link to the sauce for flavoring — but only after she boils it and bakes it to remove the fat. She takes out the sausage and adds a bay leaf near the end of a 2- to 3- hour simmer. She seasons with a little parsley, salt and pepper. If the tomato sauce tastes sour, a pinch of baking soda removes the acid tones. She brought her homemade lasagna to Thanksgiving dinner at her daughter’s home.
“Are you sure you like my sauce? It’s so plain,” a humbled Morga said at the contest. Club president Enzo Paglia, her brother, presented her award — an Italian pasta bowl.
She asked him if he had anything to do with the award.
Nothing, he vowed.
Another brother, Sergio Paglia, 64, a Warren, Mich., retiree, entered his tomato sauce that night, too. He’s been ribbing Morga for 40 years that his sauce is better, contending that his added twists of red pepper flakes and tomato puré e up the flavor.
“Now,” Sergio Paglia said, “she kind of proved she was right.”
“He always said his is better than mine,” Morga said. “So now I said: Too bad. Mine is better.”
DAUGHTER BUILDS ON MOTHER’S CLASSIC
My mom’s sauce — we called it “sugo” when it was served atop spaghetti or butterfly pasta every Sunday and Thursday — wasn’t in the lineup of 14 homemade tomato sauces assembled for a taste-testing contest this month at the Italian American Cultural Society in Clinton Township, Mich.
But I caught hints of the garlic she sautéed, the whole carrot she placed in the pot to sweeten the tomatoes and the bay leaf she added for a little zing in the lovingly simmered sauces presented for judging.
It’s hard not to think of my late mom — Nanda Vacca Montemurri — whenever I smell the sizzle of garlic and onion sautéeing in olive oil. I never made my own tomato sauce until my late 30s. Why bother, I figured, because the master — my mom — lived less than 2 miles away. But as my parents aged, and without any written instructions from my mom, I established my own version of her sauce.
She’d sauté garlic in olive oil. Home-canned tomatoes were retrieved from the basement, where they were stacked in jars we had prepared in late summer using tomatoes grown in our yard or plucked from a U-Pick farm. She’d toss in a whole onion for flavor, a carrot to sweeten and brighten the sauce and a celery stalk to salt it — all removed before serving to her daughters’ picky palates. When I first made my own version, it was from sight and memory. There was no recipe then. There is no recipe now, let alone precise measurements.
I chop some onion and some carrot to sauté with the garlic in olive oil. I add either canned tomatoes or plum tomatoes I grow in my garden. I add a bay leaf near the end as it cooks down. I season to taste with salt and pepper. Sometimes instead of simmering it on the stovetop, I let it roast in the oven to concentrate and caramelize the flavors. After it cools, I add fresh parsley and basil, and use an immersion blender to combine it into a thick slurry.
My parents complimented it and me. My mother said she shouldn’t have been throwing away the carrot and the onion all those years.
My husband still talks about the time Marisa Olivieri of Royal Oak, Mich., considered one of the best cooks from my family’s Abruzzo mountain village of Gagliano Aterno, came for dinner. She sincerely complimented my sauce. And I believed her. Her late husband, Frank, had three helpings of my pasta. And as they were leaving the house and getting into their car, Frank yelled from the curb: “Good sauce!”
CHEF KEEPS IT FRESH
Luciano Del Signore is the acclaimed chef-owner behind popular eateries Bacco Ristorante in Southfield and Pizzeria Biga in Southfield and Royal Oak, Mich. Del Signore’s family hails from the Abruzzo region in Italy, and he spent time there learning its culinary secrets while working in restaurants.
Del Signore jars his own Michigan-grown tomatoes for home use, but he uses canned organic California tomatoes for his restaurants. He crushes his tomatoes by hand. He uses a short simmer because “I like my sauce fresh-tasting.” He uses basil only when it’s a sauce for pasta.
Here’s his recipe for a simple marinara sauce.
¼ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 small onion, peeled, chopped
1 quart canned or jarred tomatoes of your choice.
Salt and pepper to taste
2 sprigs fresh basil, torn
In a medium saucepan, place the olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes. Heat slowly to toast the garlic as slowly as possible until it’s golden brown. Add the onion and increase the heat slightly and cook until the onion is translucent. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Add fresh basil just before tossing with pasta.