Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Day 9 - Cooking With Rita

Spaghetti Sauce With Italian Meatballs

I must have still been thinking about The Bolognese (see May 29, 2010 Post) when I invited my friend, Rita Bruno Walker (A real Italian from New York!), over to teach me how to make her authentic Spaghetti Sauce with Italian Meatballs.  Rita is a foodie friend with a long list of credentials.  In her Pre-Kids day, she worked for Food and Wine magazine and attended The Food and Wine Festival in Aspen where she also attended tastings and cooking demonstrations by famous chefs like Bobby Flay and Mario Batali. She was also a guest in the Gourmet magazine kitchen where she made Sunflower Pizza with Sara Moulton!

Despite her foodie pedigree, Rita claims her best recipes actually came from her depression era Italian family members.  Some of them are still alive!  Her ancestors ate real home-cooked foods such as this spaghetti sauce, ravioli, Italian bread, and lots of vegetables such as Brocolli Rabe and dandelion greens.

Of particular inspiration to Rita is her 97 year old aunt, Dora Albanese Pignanelli.  Aunt Dora grew most of her vegetables in the garden.  She never ate packaged food, choosing instead to cook classic recipes like these.  She and her six siblings have all lived long and productive lives and are currently part of a University health study on longevity.  Aunt Dora and her siblings grew up in downtown Manhatten on Cherry Street and she still lives there.  During The Great Depression there were seven - count them - seven children living in a two bedroom apartment.  There was a cot in the kitchen, a cot in the living room and no heat.  They wore their coats to bed and in the morning, they awoke to ice crystals on the walls.  Maybe it was her frugal lifestyle that granted her so many years!  Later in life, in her 80's, she preferred to walk 20 blocks for cheaper broccoli than have to pay the $1.50 bus fare.  When needed, she had no problem walking 3 miles to the dentist!  Her eldest sister, Mae, just passed away at age 100.  Mae liked to go out dancing.  One Friday night she went out dancing, stayed out late and the following Tuesday she passed away of old age, in the comfort of her own home, surrounded by her three children.  What a blessed life.

With inspiration like this, I set out to learn to cook this finely crafted, generational meal.  Rita learned to cook from aunt Dora and others, and therefore, measures nothing!  In an attempt to pass on this recipe to others, we teamed up - she cooked everything, and I held out the measuring cups!

The Italian Meatballs

Begin by finely chopping garlic and parlsey.

Put in a large mixing bowl and add the meat.  We used ground turkey, sausage and pork, but Rita will normally use only pork and beef with a 1:2 ration (Pork:Beef).

Add two eggs, 2 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, salt and pepper.  If you use Parmigiano Reggiano instead, you will need more cheese since it's not as salty.

Like a real Italian, stick your bare hands in there and mix it up.

Cook a couple of tiny meatballs to test for seasoning. Adjust if necessary.

When the sample meatballs come out right, cook the rest in olive oil ( about golf ball sized.)

Continue rotating the meatballs until they are cooked on all sides, about 12 minutes.

Our batch made about 40 meatballs.  (After the ones we ate!)  Aunt Dora says that if you are in a hurry, you can brown the meatballs in the frying pan and finish cooking them in the sauce.  Just don't eat them before they make it into the pot!

The Italian Sauce

After you have finished the meatballs, the pan is now ready for your sauce.  Use the drippings to saute` about 1 1/2 cups sweet onions and another clove of garlic.  Next, deglaze the pan with 3/4 cup of red wine.  Scrape the bottom of the pan until you get all the little bits up.  If you are making the sauce a different day, like Rita sometimes does, deglaze the pan and put the drippings in the freezer.  They are that important to the sauce!  

Rita uses the San Marzano Tomatoes from Costco, which was perfect, since I happened to still have two giant cans in my pantry!  Since you don't want a sauce with whole tomatoes in it, get ready to get messy.  Open the tomato can and use your hands to squish the juice out of the tomatoes into the sauce pan and tear the flesh apart.  This can be done right over the pot. This is a great job for kids, especially if you don't mind your stove looking like....


Next, fry up your Sweet Italian Sausage.  Rita normally buys hers in the casing, but since I accidently bought bulk sausage, she formed it into patties.  Add the sausage and 1/2 the meatballs to the sauce.  If the sauce needs more salt, deglaze the sausage frying pan with a cup of sauce and then add it back into the sauce.  Simmer the sauce for one to two hours, stirring every 15 minutes to prevent the sauce from sticking to the bottom.  

Rita says she never adds sugar to her sauce, but allows that a tablespoon of sugar could be added, depending on the sweetness of your tomatoes.  I, of course, am always in favor of this!

The Review:

Samuel made yummy noises and declared, "These meatballs are soooo Gooooood!!"
Ella ate the meatballs and said, "It takes like chicken!"  (The highest form of compliment for a 5-year old!)
Perry agreed that the sauce was delicious, especially with all that meat!

Aunt Dora says that Spaghetti Sauce with Italian Meatballs takes a lot of practice, and that it probably can't be mastered until at least the kids have been born.  Each batch is slightly different, but with practice, it can be made just right.

Here are the recipes as we made them today:

Italian Meatballs 

4 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 lb of ground turkey, lean
1.3 lbs of ground beef
the higher fat content is good to mix in.
1 lb ground pork
(Rita's normal mix is 2/3 ground beef, 1/3 ground pork)
2 eggs
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 tsp Kosher salt
1 tsp ground pepper
2 cups Pecorino Romano grated cheese
(If you used Parmesan, you would need more because it's not as salty)

Cook a few mini meatballs to taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
Form the rest into golf ball sized meatballs.
Cook the meatballs in olive oil until cooked through, about 12 minutes, turning throughout.

Makes 40 meatballs

Rita usually cooks the meatballs one day and the sauce another in order to make the project more manageable.
Aunt Dora says to figure 1/4 lb. of meat per person.

1 1/2 cups chopped onions 1/2 large onion
1 clove chopped garlic
3/4 cup red wine
1 Costco can (106 oz.) of San Marzano stewed tomatoes
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage
I bought bulk, but Rita normally uses sausage in the casing

Add the chopped onions to the pan drippings and saute.  Add garlic.  Deglaze pan with red wine and scrape drippings off bottom of the pan.  Open the tomato can and use your hands to squish the juice out of the tomatoes into the sauce pan and tear the flesh apart.  A great job for kids!

Fry the sausage in a pan.  For my bulk sausage, Rita made it into patties.

Add half the meatballs to the sauce and put the other half into the freezer.

Simmer the sauce for at least an hour, stirring every 15 or 20 minutes so it doesn't stick to the bottom.

To make this even more budget friendly, Rita would omit the wine and stick with the cheapest meat, probably the ground beef.



  1. These sound great — I'll have to try it out.

  2. Yes, they're a little bit of work up front, but you'll have plenty for the freezer!