The first aroma that would waft into my childhood bedroom on a Sunday morning was the smell of onions and garlic frying. That scent would wake me up. I would hear the sizzle as the onions hit the hot olive oil in the pan; the sputtering sound of the crushed canned tomatoes following suit occurred moments later. In my parents' home, Sunday was macaroni and gravy day (you might call it "pasta" with "sauce"), and holidays offered the hallowed lasagna.
Relatives would stop by after church with a warm loaf of bakery Italian bread to chat for a bit before returning home to their family's version of this classic. Inevitably, when my mother wasn't looking, we'd grab hunks of the warm loaf and dip it into the pot, blow on it, and devour.
On cue, my mother would complain that someone had left bread crumbs in the sauce. It was a kind of joke since my mother indulged as well. We couldn't help it. The richness of the sauce, the sweetness of the tomatoes and meat simmering – who could wait until dinner?
Lasagna was for special occasions. The ricotta always came in a can punched with holes to drain the excess water. The Parmesan or Romano was grated by hand, a task saved for the daughters who were to follow in this art. Even the parsley was fresh.
Today, for special occasions, I make an extra trip to a favorite Italian deli where I buy the ricotta made fresh in Connecticut and delivered twice daily. I buy the grating cheese there as well. My favorite is pepato Romano – Romano cheese dotted with peppercorns.
For many years it was difficult to find scamorza, a tangier, saltier version of mozzarella. To my delight, local supermarkets are carrying it again so I use that as a substitute for the mozzarella when it's available.
These days, busy schedules mean less time to cook but I would never sacrifice the flavor of a homemade meat gravy to a can or jar for convenience. I've tried. Even the best brands tend to have sweeteners, and just about every supermarket tomato sauce includes oregano. Oregano would never make it to the pot of gravy I grew up with.
In my stubborn mind, oregano belongs in pizza sauce.
No two Italians cook their gravy or lasagna alike. So this recipe makes no claim to authenticity. It's simply what I grew up with. When I do find the time or the excuse to make it, I find myself thinking back to a childhood ritual with the attending sensations that make this meal so special. Buon appetito!
Meatball Tomato Gravy and Lasagna
Meatball gravy (sauce)
2 medium garlic cloves
1 medium onion, sliced
6-ounce can tomato paste
6 ounces water
2 16-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed (or two 16-ounce cans crushed tomatoes and no paste)
2 basil leaves
Cover the bottom of the saucepan with olive oil. Brown the cloves of garlic in the hot oil and then remove. Add sliced onion and sauté until deep brown. Add tomato paste and stir in one tomato paste can's worth of water. Blend and let bubble for two minutes. Add the whole crushed tomatoes. (If using crushed tomatoes, simply add the purée to the pot without the paste.) Stir and simmer with basil leaves for at least an hour.
2 cups cubed day-old bread soaked in 1/2 cup of water
1/2 to 1 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (to taste – more for a saltier, stronger cheese flavor)
1 large garlic clove, crushed
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
3/4 pound ground pork
3/4 pound ground beef
1 egg, slightly beaten
Squeeze the bread to remove excess water. Add grated cheese, garlic, and parsley, and blend thoroughly so it is almost like a paste. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the meat and egg, blending thoroughly.
Wet hands with water and scoop a handful of the mixture and roll slightly smaller than a tennis ball. Make sure that there are no cracks on the surface of the meatball to keep them from breaking up in the gravy.
In a heavy frying pan, fry the meatballs all around over medium-high heat, searing the outside brown. They won't look like balls when you are done, but the browning is what gives the gravy its flavor. Let the meatballs stand for 10 minutes before dropping them into the tomato base. Deglaze the frying pan and add the drippings to the tomato mixture as well. Simmer for three hours, stirring occasionally. Meatballs can be crumbled into the layers of lasagna or served on the side.
1-1/2 to 2-1/2 cups grated Parmesan or Romano cheese (to taste)
1 pound lasagna noodles
3 pounds ricotta
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 pound mozzarella or scamorza, sliced in chunks
Blend ricotta, parsley, and 1 to 2 cups grated cheese together. (Reserve some grated cheese for the assembly.) If using regular noodles that require boiling, boil only until the noodles can bend slightly, five minutes at most. Drain.
In a lasagna pan, spoon some gravy on the bottom to keep the pasta from sticking to the dish. Add a layer of noodles and spread a small amount of gravy on top. Next, spoon a thin layer of the ricotta mixture to cover the noodles, do not worry about getting into every corner. Lay thin slices of mozzarella or scamorza on top of the ricotta and add more gravy to cover the cheese. Spoon grated Parmesan or Romano on the gravy, then add the next layer of noodles. Continue until the noodles and ricotta are used up. Finish with a layer of noodles, gravy, mozzarella, and grated cheese. Reserve some gravy for serving. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees F. for 40 minutes. Let sit 20 minutes before serving with meatballs (if you didn't crumble them into the sauce) and extra gravy. Serves 12.