Anthony DeMaio was a man larger than life. I entered his family in the twilight of his life and was honored to know him. He would regale me with stories of driving Patton around in a tank during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, lifting a car off of his son single-handedly when a jack collapsed and, of course, how he loved to make meatballs and Sunday gravy.
Now, despite my last name, I am not Italian. The first time I went the DeMaio house it was for a Sunday lunch. The first course was pasta with this famous Sunday gravy. At first I was confused because it looked like pasta sauce, not gravy, but the terminology was quickly explained to me. Everyone was putting some white stuff I thought was called “rigota” on the side. I tried some. It was delicious. I later discovered that this was ricotta cheese. The pasta was served with an assortment of meats including: sausages, meatballs, a piece of beef that looked like pot roast and some pork. I wondered how many days they had cooked for to make this meal. Did they just have pot roast the night before? It was a lot of food. The next course was chicken (seriously, when did they sleep??) and then finally salad. Italians have salad last, not first, like North Americans.
This meal was served to me many times and every time I couldn’t believe the huge assortment of meats on the table. If this was “Sunday” gravy did they always make “Saturday” pot roast and sausages? My father-in-law tried to explain to me how to make the “gravy”, but I misunderstood some of the directions and ended up with a sweet, oily mess. You see, I never understood that the meats were cooked in the sauce. His daughter, Margie, clarified that for me years later. Yes, that’s the secret. While he did get up at 5am to make the sauce in time for lunch, he was not actually making 4 separate dishes.
This meat infused pasta sauce is well worth the time it takes to make. It’s not hard, but it needs to simmer for a good portion of the day to develop it’s flavor.
First, make some meatballs. You can do this the day before. Make sure you use 85% lean ground beef rather than anything leaner. Otherwise, the meatballs will turn out dry. Mix all the meatball ingredients together with clean hands and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Using wet hands roll the meat mixture into 2 inch balls. Keep rolling until the outside of the ball is nice and smooth. Re-wet your hands as necessary. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until done in the center. If your meatballs are placed in the sauce without being thoroughly cooked first, they might fall apart.
When you’re ready to make the sauce find a big soup pot and heat about 2 tbsp. of olive oil in it. Brown the beef, pork and sausages.
Remove the meat from the pot and set aside. Cook the onions in the remaining oil (add more if needed) until translucent and then add the minced garlic and cook until fragrant. Take care not to burn the bottom of the pot. Add the paste and brown for approximately 2 minutes. Precooking the paste will reduce its acidity. Then add the crushed tomatoes, meatballs, browned meats and herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Add approximately 1 1/2 cups of water. You may add more water later on if the sauce becomes to thick. Bring the sauce to a boil. Cover and reduce to a simmer for a minimum of 4 hours to allow the flavors to infuse.
Serve with your favorite pasta, some ricotta cheese and shredded parmesan. Enjoy!
A big thanks to Anthony DeMaio and his daughter Margie for sharing this recipe.
- 2 1/2 lbs 85% lean ground beef
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 4 large eggs
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 cup grated romano cheese
- 4 tbsp Italian flat leaf parsley chopped fine
- 1-2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 1 lb chuck steak
- 1 lb pork loin
- 6 links Italian sweet sausage
- 1 onion chopped
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes san marzano is best
- 1 6 oz can tomato paste
- 1 1/2 tbsp oregano
- 3 tbsp fresh basil chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
The meatballs must be cooked in advance. You can either do this in the morning or the day before.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix all meatball ingredients together.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Using wet hands roll the meat mixture into 2 inch balls. Roll between your hands until the outside of the balls is smooth. Re-wet your hands as necessary.
Bake for 20 minutes or until cooked all the way through.
In a large soup pot heat some olive oil and brown the meats.
Remove the meats from the pot and set aside.
Cook the onion in the pot until translucent. Add more oil as necessary.
Add the minced garlic to the pot and cook until fragrant.
Add the paste to the pot and cook for 1-2 minutes. You want the paste to start to turn brown - this reduces the acidity.
Add the remaining ingredients and the meats back to the pot.
Add the meatballs to the pot.
Add 1 1/2 cups water to the pot and bring to a boil.
Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for a minimum of four hours to allow the flavors to infuse.
If sauce becomes to thick add some water. Alternatively, if the sauce is too thin, remove the lid and allow to reduce until desired consistency.