When my grandparents lived in New York’s Little Italy, my grandfather told my grandmother that he had a job “driving a limo.” She soon discovered that meant he was “back in the life” (Soprano’s style), something she thought he left behind in Sicily. My grandmother, like most Italian matriarchs, quietly ruled the roost. Family legend has it that when she discovered the truth she said, “I was so mad I didn’t speak to him when I gave him his bath.” Though the silent treatment may seem like a passive-aggressive tactic, it worked: In a matter of months my grandfather purchased a gas station attached to an old bar and restaurant in Rhode Island, and they left New York, and “the life,” behind.
At the restaurant, he was famous for his unbelievably moist and tender meatballs. Though many meatball recipes rely on milk-soaked bread to keep them moist, my grandfather substituted ricotta cheese. He used a mix of ground veal, beef, and pork, but I don’t eat veal so I use just beef and pork. I’ve also made them with ground turkey and chicken — use a mix of white and dark meat so they’re not dry (you can find ground dark turkey or chicken at better markets like Bryan’s and Andronico’s).
Grandpa Lorenzo served his meatballs with a quick-and-easy marinara sauce, using fresh tomatoes when in season and canned San Marzano tomatoes when not. Non-Italians often think a red sauce must cook for hours, but that’s only true with Sunday gravy (look for my grandfather’s Sunday gravy recipe in a future issue). If you can spend a lazy, rainy afternoon cooking, Sunday gravy is a wonderful thing to make, but with the kids going back to school and the holidays coming, you can’t go wrong with Grandpa Lorenzo’s Easy Marinara Sauce for a quick weeknight meal.
GRANDPA LORENZO’S FAMOUS RICOTTA MEATBALLS
1 pound lean ground beef
(or ground dark-meat turkey)
1 pound ground pork
(or ground white-meat turkey)
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 large eggs
½ cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
¼ cup fresh Italian (flat leaf
parsley leaves, chopped
2 teaspoons dried Italian oregano
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, preferably Sicilian
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
½ teaspoon ground fennel
2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put ground meats, ricotta, eggs, breadcrumbs, parsley, oregano, salt, red pepper flakes, and fennel in a large bowl. Drizzle olive oil into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and use your hands to evenly coat entire surface. Leave olive oil on your hands, and gently mix together the meatball mixture until fully incorporated. Roll into balls, about 1½ to 2 inches in diameter; the meatballs should be firmly packed, but don’t overwork the mixture or they will become tough. Place meatballs in oiled baking dish so they are tucked close to one another. Bake until golden brown and just cooked through, about 20 minutes. (Insert an instant-read thermometer into the center of several meatballs; it should read 165 degrees.) Remove meatballs from oven and place on wire racks or paper towels to drain excess oil.
GRANDPA LORENZO’S EASY MARINARA SAUCE
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup onion, minced
2 large carrots, finely chopped
2 large whole garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1 28-ounce can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
1 28-ounce can San Marzano tomato purée
¼ teaspoon dried Italian oregano
2 dried bay leaves
¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
2 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Heat olive oil in large Dutch oven or heavy stockpot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the carrots and sauté until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic cloves, cook one minute to release oils, remove and discard. Add the tomatoes and purée, oregano, bay leaves, and salt. Simmer over medium-low heat stirring occasionally until sauce thickens, about 30 minutes. If sauce looks too thick, add a little water. Turn off heat, remove bay leaves, and stir in basil.
After sauce cools, transfer to freezer-safe containers (sauce will keep in freezer for a month). To use immediately, transfer as many servings as you need (about 1 cup per person) to a large sauté pan and toss with cooked pasta and warm meatballs over low heat until well incorporated, adding a little of the pasta water to loosen sauce. Transfer to pasta bowls and garnish with parsley. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and freshly cracked black pepper.