The Palumbo Sunday Red Sauce
I plied Carla Palumbo with champagne, hoping she would share her family’s secret red sauce recipe with me, on a sunny Ft. Lauderdale beach in February. On our last glass, we we clinked our glasses together and she said yes.
This recipe had never been written down, only passed from one Nonna to the next, requiring Carla to spend a long day in her kitchen getting the portions, ingredients, and step-by-step recipe just right.
6 Quarts of tomato puree (I prefer puree from Italy sold in glass jars. If using canned, look for Italian brands such as Tuttorossi, Cento or Cirio.)
Fresh basil (fresh is preferred)
1 Tablespoon or so of olive oil
1 Small onion, sliced
1/2 Cup red wine
Baking soda (secret ingredient!)
A variety of meat:
For this size sauce use 2-3 rib pork or pork neck bones (some people use pig feet or hocks, plain, not smoked)
3-4 Links Italian sausage
Bracciole (rolled stuffed meat or 2 beef short ribs with bones)
About 12 meatballs
4-6 slices of top round of beef
Salt and pepper
Grated romano cheese
Optional: raisins or hard-boiled egg
Place the slices on a wooden cutting board or work area. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and grated cheese. Add 1/2 slice of bacon to each slice, one clove of garlic, and some parsley. Roll and secure with toothpicks.
1 pound ground beef — can use 90% lean, but 95% is too dry
Seasoned Italian breadcrumbs (I like Progresso)
Grated romano cheese
5-6 saltine crackers crushed and moistened with water
Place meat in a large mixing bowl, add egg, salt, cheese, and breadcrumbs, then crush the crackers in your hand and moisten under the faucet. They should be mushy. Add to the mixture. You want the mixture to be stiff enough to roll into meatballs but not too dry. If too dry, and another egg or a little water, if too wet, add more breadcrumbs.
Roll into balls about an inch or so in diameter. (Giant meatballs only sell in restaurants, you want normal size meatballs.) Brown the meatballs in a frying pan with a small amount of oil. They don’t need to be cooked through, in fact should not (except for the one you have to share with your dog because it smells so good). Set aside and add to the sauce after the sauce has cooked an hour.
Using a large pot, add about 2 T of olive oil and onion, salt to taste. Sauté the onion until brown and remove from the oil. In that oil, brown all of the meat except the meatballs. Brown on all sides, including the bracciole. Once browned, add 1/2 cup or so of red wine and reduce a bit. Remove the bracciole (they are more delicate and could break apart. I take them out and add them later along with the meatballs.)
At this point with the rest of the meat in the pot, add the tomato puree. Depending on what kind you use, you might need to add water. You want a smooth liquid base (not watery) because remember it’s going to cook about 2 hours or so. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer.
After the sauce has cooked about an hour, add the meatballs and bracciole and bring again to a boil. Once it is boiling, add a 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda. It will fizz and bubble, stir it around and let the sauce keep cooking. (Baking soda removes the acidic taste — it is the family secret — you do not put sugar or carrots or anything else to make the sauce sweet, just the baking soda.) After about two hours of cooking, taste the sauce with some bread — if it’s still acidic, add a little more baking soda and let it come back to a boil and cook some more.
The sauce is usually done in 2 1/2 hours, it should be thick and taste cooked. I can tell because usually the oil from the meat comes to the top. I always skim that oil out and do not use.
Add the fresh basil and it’s time to gather the family!
From Carla Palumbo: “Sunday Sauce” comes from the Italian tradition of making a meat-based long-cooking sauce that was the staple of every Italian-American household’s Sunday dinner. This is different from a “quick sauce” such as a marinara, that cooks in less time and is meatless. The ingredients can vary based on family taste or tradition and include a mixture of pork and beef. Some families use only pork for an even more “special” sauce. I prefer a combination of pork, beef, and of course, meatballs. The only spice I use is basil, fresh is better, never ever oregano or garlic: they are used in marinara sauces. Onions are sautéed to start, but do not stay in the sauce. The flavor is all about the tomato and meat.