The restaurant down the street from where I grew up consistently won “Best Pizza on Long Island,” quite the formidable title if you consider the quantity of pizza joints in that part of the world. And while it turns out they make their own mozzarella, it’s truly their tomato sauce that wins them prizes (and sometimes makes me plan spontaneous weekend trips to visit my parents. Ahem). Their sauce ““ marinara, if you want to be specific ““ is out of this world. It puts most other Italian restaurants to shame, and jarred sauce? Fuhgeddaboutit! (I am part Italian, I felt obligated to say that at some point.) So for me, spaghetti and meatballs is all about the sauce. Good sauce, in my book, tastes like the kind you get at this restaurant, and it’s way better than any you can get in a restaurant in DC. Also – and this is one of only two recipes I have from her – the meatball recipe is my grandmother’s, and these are legitimately the only meatballs I’ll eat. They are that good.
To begin, put 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of butter in a very big pot, and let them melt over medium heat. Dice a large onion pretty finely, and toss it into the pot. Dice up three cloves of garlic ““ but be careful! I got some farmer’s market garlic the other week that was the most intense garlic ever, and it completely overpowered the dish I was making. If you have Hulk-strong garlic, two small cloves will more than do you, otherwise, three large cloves of non-super-human garlic will work. Add them to your onions, and cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent, but don’t let the garlic burn. If your kitchen doesn’t smell gorgeous right now, you have done something wrong.
Open up two 32 oz cans of crushed tomatoes (if you can get San Marzano tomatoes, that’s awesome, but if not, no worries) and add them to the pot. Throw in a few bay leaves, and whichever fresh herbs you may have around ““ fresh basil and oregano are key, but dried work as well, though we’ll adjust the spices later. Two teaspoons of salt and a teaspoon of black pepper go in now as well.
Now, let the tomatoes chill out and cook and break down. Keep the heat around medium ““ the sauce should almost be boiling, but not quite. Put a lid on your sauce and turn your attention to your meatballs. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees, and cover a baking sheet with tinfoil. Dice 2 more cloves of garlic, and add those to a bowl with a pound of chopmeat (I usually use beef, but if chicken or turkey are more your scene, go for it) an egg, 1 and ½ tablespoons parmesan cheese, and a tablespoon of basil. Take a hunk of stale bread (about the size of your fist? I don’t know what stale bread you have, check your freezer.) Crumble the bread into tiny bits and add it to your bowl. Go check on your sauce for a moment, and give it a good stir, making sure nothing is sticking to the bottom. Wash your hands, make sure all the soap is gone, take off your rings, and go to town, mixing all that together until it forms a cohesive mush.
The next step is optional, in that it is most definitely traditionally Italian, but something I dislike. If you want, get some raisins and pignolis out, to go in the center of your meatballs. Pignolis are pine nuts, something I did not learn until late in my teens – I thought they were two different types of nuts. But anyway. If you’re going this route, make a tiny patty, put 3 pignolis and 3 raisins in the center, and then smush your meat into a ball. Otherwise, just pull off a bit of meat mixture and roll it until it’s vaguely round. I like small meatballs, just larger than golf balls, but that is just me ““ make huge ones if you want! They’re just going to have to cook longer. Golf-ball-sized meatballs take about 20 minutes at 350 ““ they’re going to go in the sauce once they’re done, but I always make sure they’re cooked through before I toss them in there. About halfway through the cooking process, rotate the meatballs 180 degrees, so that the half that was once the northern hemisphere becomes the southern.
While the meatballs are cooking, check back in on your sauce, bringing it to a simmer. Are your tomatoes breaking down yet? If you’re impatient, or accidentally bought whole tomatoes rather than crushed, feel free to get out your potato masher and go to town on them, perhaps working out the aggressions of the day as well. If things are starting to look nice and saucy, give it a taste, and then add in pretty much whatever your heart desires. More salt, pepper, basil and oregano, definitely, but also, if you feel like it: red pepper flakes, parmesan cheese, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce (trust me), up to a cup of red wine or a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, a quarter cup of cooking sherry, possibly a few squirts of sriracha if this won’t make your relatives rotate in their graves, etc. A lot of recipes suggest you add sugar or honey at this point, but frankly, I can’t support that. My main problem with most jarred sauces is that they are just so sweet. It’s tomato sauce, not ketchup. There ought to be a major difference in flavor. After each addition here, taste your sauce and see what you think it needs ““ more herbs, more of a kick, etc. Your tomatoes should be almost completely broken down by now, into a chunky-yet-even consistency. You know, when it looks like tomato sauce.
Note: Tomato sauce, if it gets too hot, spits. A lot. Use the longest spoon you have, keep an eye on the heat, and be careful!
Once the meatballs are done (cut one in half to check!) put them directly into the sauce and let them chill out in there. If you want to be awesome, dump the pan drippings from the cookie sheet you baked them on directly into the sauce as well.
Put another large pot of salted water on the stove, and once it’s boiling, make some spaghetti. I am a fan of the “just check it constantly until it tastes done” method of pasta-making, but that’s just me. Also, I still use boxed pasta. When I learn how to make fresh pasta, I’ll let you know.
Taste your sauce one last time, and pull out the bay leaves and any other large fresh herbs that have turned into mush and given all they have to give. I always add a bunch of garlic salt at this point, but I kind of have a salt addiction, and you may not.
How you want to plate this is entirely up to you ““ individual servings, either with the spaghetti and meatballs in the same bowl, or family style; but make sure that the spaghetti gets a quick toss of tomato sauce before it’s sitting anywhere for too long, and coat your bowl with tomato sauce before you add the spaghetti. Sprinkle everything liberally with parmesan cheese, and you’re good to go!