Nearly every Sunday of my early childhood my Mom made something most Italian-Americans (especially those from Naples) called Sunday Gravy. Simply put, Sunday Gravy is essentially a large batch of tomato sauce with various types of meat slow cooked into it. In Italian, the word salsa means sauce... a sauce is made from something other than meat. Like putting a fruit or cheese sauce over meat, chicken or fish. The Italian word sugo means gravy. A gravy is made from the liquids and fat that are rendered from various meats--like using turkey drippings to make a gravy. The all-day cooking of meat in tomato sauce gives off a heady scent, that would fill our apartment, and waft out into the hallway for the entire building to smell--"Ahh... the Finzis are making Gravy today!"
The secret of Sugo is in its slow cooking, or pippiare (literally, to bubble) technique. Sunday Gravy has it's origins from a beef stew popular in medieval XII-XIV century, way before tomatoes were introduced from the New World--a clay cooker slow cooked the stew of beef and vegetables for hours and hours. This beef stew turned into a ragù, at first created in northern Italy, with the southern Neapolitans evolving the dish further by the eighteenth century. It began as a a dish for nobility, using more expensive cuts of meat, such as beef and veal, but no tomato. (Tomatoes didn't gain popularity right away in Europe... they were thought to be poisonous). This dish was mainly prepared on Sundays, the sauce placed on top of the pasta, with larger cuts of meat served as a second course. One historian described a Sugo using tomatoes in 1857 that was being served in taverns in Naples.
You can think of Sunday Gravy is a hybrid of sorts... it starts out as a tomato sauce and becomes a gravy after meats have been added and have rendered their flavors during a long cooking period--the Sunday Gravy of my childhood.
My Mom started making Sunday Gravy sometimes on Saturday... or even in the middle of the week before. Being a working Mom and was frugal with her time. She would make a meat dish one night--maybe the meatballs. Then she'd give us a simple dinner with some of them, but hold most of them for adding to the Sunday Gravy pot. Maybe on Saturday after shopping, she'd make the brasciole and brown the pork ribs under the broiler. These would also go into the fridge, ready for the Sunday Gravy pot.
The Sunday papers and "Buns" from the bakery, were all part of the Sunday Gravy ritual. We'd carry the big white bags and boxes tied with string back home to our street, then stop at the candy store to pick up the Sunday papers, as heavy as the sauce Mom was going to make. We didn't have breakfast on Sundays. We had "buns" and comics. Mom and Dad would have coffee with theirs, and the five of us kids would dunk our "buns" in milk and read Dick Tracy, Mandrake, Little Orphan Annie and Blondie... But before I could finish reading the comics, the cooking would start and the smells would change from sweet cinnamon to Gravy...
It was about the famiglia... the heritage... the food... the tastes that even our memories had forgotten and unknowingly were our a link to our past.... Naples, Molfetta... and my maternal Grandmother, Mariantonia Delulia.
(Once I learned her real name I was compelled to say her full name over and over... like poetry off an Italian tongue... "Maree - ahn-TONE-eaa-ahh Day-LULE-eeah". )
This wonderful lady towered over me (as a small child) at 4' 10", with her greyed hair tucked into a bun in the daytime, but releasing nearly three feet of it down her back at night before bed. Grandma made her own version of Gravy... everyone does it slightly differently. She'd add large strips of peppers and larger chunks of onions, and put pignoli in her meatballs. A cut up pork shoulder (the affordable cut for poor immigrants, when they could afford it) was key to her recipe, along with hot sausage (way too spicy for my young tongue back then).
Next, Mom would let one of us open the cans--big cans of imported tomato puree. It was fun opening cans using the wall-hung can opener over by the dumb waiter door (nailed shut by Dad so us kids wouldn't try to go for a ride.) About four or five cans would go into the pot. Next came the spices. A handful of sugar to cut the acidity, half-handful each of dried basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder (or a 5-6 cloves of fresh when Mom had it), a good sprinkle of red pepper flakes, a tablespoon each of salt and pepper, then a quarter cup of olive oil. If Mom had any leftover rinds of cheese from a grating wedge, they'd go in too.
Then she'd take out the meat... lots of it. A rack of ribs cut up would be layered in like logs at the bottom of a red lake. Then would come the sausage browned and cut up into 2 inch pieces, then add the brasciole--all tied up like meaty little packages, and then the meatballs. Then the Sunday Gravy pot is put on the back burner--the smallest one--and starts to simmer and simmer, bubbling like a crater of lava from the old world. The aromas get more and more intense as the day goes on--you can taste the flavors turning the tomato sauce into something... luscious. My siblings' friends come and go with an open door policy, my mother always inviting them to have a "bun" or sit down for a meatball sandwich. There was more than enough... a few would never be missed.
This past Easter I made Sunday Gravy, as I described above. I didn't follow a recipe... I followed my memories. Perhaps this is why I didn't write this article as I would a normal recipe. I don't want people to simple follow the recipe in any strict way. This a recipe that needs to be felt. Vary it with love--the things you love, and share it with people you love. Make meals out of its components both before, during--and after--making it.
We've already had two meals from it. It all came together for Easter Sunday's late afternoon meal, as my family had done time and time again so many years ago. We'll probably freeze half of it for future meals. We made home made tagliatelle to have with it the first night and a risotto for another meal on another day. But we also had each other. We shared garlic bread and wine with it--Lucas had a little glass too. I'm teaching Lucas how to drink with a meal rather than drink to get drunk. He places a small forkful of meat in his mouth, chews a bit, sips some wine and discovers the flavors as they mingle and merge into something Godlike.
And thanks, Mom for all those tasteful Sundays.