Today is my Uncle Richard’s 89th Birthday. To honor him, I’m posting my most prized possession, my video of him showing me how to make meatballs and sauce. (It’s at the end of this post.) It was the highlight of my year!
Most people’s bucket lists are filled with things like: Stay in a Scottish castle, or dance in the sand in Greece. But at the top of my list has always been: Cook with Uncle Richard and learn the secret to his meatballs and sauce. The opportunity has eluded me for years, but every time I’d visit Pennsylvania, I went in hope it would happen.
To understand why, you have to know this man. He is spry, sweet and sarcastic, with a wacky streak I love!
The way he rolls his eyes when I walk in the door and says, “Oh God, look what the damned cat dragged in,” is his way of saying, “I’m happy to see you.” Then he wraps me in a tight hug and we end up sitting at his dining room table drinking wine and eating home made Sopressata with chunks of sharp cheese while he tells me stories. Aunt Blanche used to hover in the kitchen, constantly putting food on the table, and never sitting. Now, sometimes she sits with us, but because her eyesight’s bad and she’s very deaf, she interrupts a lot without realizing it. She’s adorable though. And because Uncle Richard is her hairdresser now, her hair was an interesting shade of purple when I saw her last. God bless them both.
I love hearing my uncle’s stories about growing up in Italy during World War II. He tells the remarkable story of how he blew two fingers and part of his thumb off playing with a bomb someone found and kept after the war. (You’ll see it hasn’t stopped him at all!) He has dozens of stories and remembers details like it was yesterday.
He is a wonder, with more energy at 89 than people half his age. And he is still a fabulous cook, but when I’m home I’m always so busy visiting people, I’m never able to make the time to cook with him and learn his secrets. You have to cook alongside him to learn, because he says he doesn’t use a recipe. And, if you’ve spent any time with Italians, you know, none of them measure. I don’t even measure, but I force myself to for this blog!
Every time I’d ask how he makes his sauce or his meatballs, he’d emphatically reply, “I DON’T HAVE A RECIPE, I JUST MAKE IT!”
But I got lucky over Labor Day weekend. I knew he was making pasta for a party my brother was throwing. I couldn’t wait, I called him within an hour of my arrival, to ask if I could finally be his sauce apprentice. He said he’d be cooking on Sunday and he’d call me when it was time to come over.
Finally circumstances came together perfectly and I was going to get the chance I’d waited for, for decades! The Holy Grail of sauce was near.
I didn’t hear from him Sunday morning, so I called at 10 a.m., hoping he hadn’t started. When he said he wanted to begin soon, I said, “I’m not showering, I’m coming right over!”
“I don’t want you stinking up my kitchen!’ he said, “Go take a shower, I have to take one too.”
When I arrived, we started in his garden with beautiful, fresh tomatoes that were red and gigantic. He said his neighbors were eyeing them, but he told them he was saving them for me.
We picked tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh parsley, and fresh rosemary. We put the tomatoes in a pot of boiling water to loosen their skins and make the sauce. Then we rinsed the herbs, dried them, and added them to some chopped garlic in a food processor. Then he handed me two slices of Italian bread that he wet with water, then squeezed.
It was only then I realized he was letting me in on the meatball recipe too, I could hardly contain myself. (I know, I need to get a life.)
Once the herbs, garlic and bread were processed together, I scraped them into a bowl with about two pounds of beef, two pounds of pork and a few Italian sausages he said he’d had in the freezer for 17 years. (Let’s hope he was kidding.) He mixed them together, added a dash Worchestershire sauce, a dash of hot sauce, two eggs, some breadcrumbs, a sprinkling of cheese, some salt and pepper.
How much of any of this? Well, I’m going to approximate, but if you can eyeball it from the video or photos, better than my guess, more power to you. I tried to get it all on videotape, but my battery kept running out. I think I deleted 10 apps just to get as much as I did.
Then came his sauce, which is so good, and so simple. (It helps if you have beautiful fresh herbs and tomatoes growing in your yard and recently canned about 8 million jars of them.) He canned all the tomatoes you see here himself.
The video only gets most of the meatball action, I didn’t get to show our meatball taste test, or how he rolls the meatballs in wine, then flour, then fries them. And while I was rolling the meatballs in wine and flour, he started on the sauce, so I couldn’t tape it all, but I did my best. If you’re wondering who the woman in the video is, she’s my cousin, Nancy.
When it comes to special people in my life, Uncle Richard, or Zio Riziero is one of my absolute favorites. The My Sauce is Better Than Yours apron is really perfect for him, but was inspired by my mom and the six simple words that can end your life story .
His sauce is simple, creamy (because the meatballs rolled in flour are cooked in it) and just wonderful. I can’t believe I actually got to cook with him and he’s finally sharing his elusive recipes. I am a firm believer that moments like this are to be treasured. I hope you enjoy him as much as I do. Here is the video:
Happy Birthday Uncle Richard. I wish you many more years filled with the good health you enjoy today. Cent’anni!
Uncle Richard’s Meatballs (WOO HOO, I can’t believe I’m writing this!)
4 cloves of garlic
1/3 cup fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1 sprig of fresh rosemary finely chopped
2 slices of white bread (soaked in water or milk then squeezed.
1 tsp Worchestershire Sauce
1 Tsp. Hot sauce
1 Tsp. of pepper
1 Tbsp. salt
3/4 cup of Italian style bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated cheese
2 lbs. ground beef
2 lbs of ground pork
2 sausage links (remove casing)
1 glass of red wine (cabernet or merlot is fine)
1 cup flour
2 to 3 cups of canola oil
2 to 3 large pork neck bones or pork ribs
Mix together the basil, parsley, garlic, and rosemary in a food processor. Then add the soaked, drained bread and process until combined. Next, mix together the three meats and add the bread mixture. Then add the hot sauce, the Worchestershire sauce, the bread crumbs, the salt, pepper, cheese and eggs. Mix thoroughly. Then take a small piece and fry it in some oil in a pan, so you can taste it and see what it needs.
If they’re good, start rolling them. Then roll the meatballs in the red wine, then in the flour. Set them aside until you’re ready to fry them (I think he used canola oil, for the frying, but I’m not sure. (I’ll get back to you on that.) Then add them to the pasta sauce and cook them about an hour and a half over low to medium heat, making sure the sauce doesn’t burn on the bottom. (I always use a trivet.)
Uncle Richard’s Pasta Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 4 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh basil finely chopped
1Tbsp. fresh parsley finely chopped
2 large fresh tomatoes peeled and crushed
2 large bottles of homemade canned tomato sauce
OR: 3 to 4 large cans Cento Pomodori Pelati with the seeds removed (or not)
Or 3 to 4 cans Cento tomato puree
If you don’t have homemade, Cento Pomodori Pelati (peeled tomatoes) are pretty good, but you have to process them in a blender before adding them (I remove the seeds, but it’s not necessary) . If you can find Cento tomato puree, that works too.
Pour the olive oil in a large, deep pan and saute the garlic and herbs for a minute, then add the whole tomatoes, pulverizing them with a masher. Add the herbs and let the mixture cook down until some of the water boils off. Then add the canned sauce and stir to combine. Then fry the meatballs and add them. Then fry the pork and add it. Let it all cook together for about an hour and a half.