This is quite a long post but I promise it will be worth the read. Stay with me, it's worth it.
I grew up on Long Island where every other person was at least half Italian if not all Italian. In high school I dated guys with last names like Castiletti, Mazzei and Alleva and my friends were Carolla's, Ferraros, Faloticos and Caldarallis. I am a German from the Engels family. I knew how to make lasagna long before I knew how to make Sauerbraten and knew the taste of espresso and Sambuca long before I had my first beer.
The Italian-American community and their foods had permeated even my German grandfather's cooking who made his own version of slow-cooked Sunday gravy. I remember the big production that was made. The sharpening of the chef knife, the trip to the butcher for the best sweet Italian sausage, the smell of garlic sautéing in olive oil, the all day simmering of the sauce, the making of the gargantuan meatballs and FINALLY, after what seemed like days, everyone gathering to the table. It is one of my favorite memories of my grandfather. I found a fascinating website called "Almost Italian: Recipes and Stories from the ‘Little Italy’ Communities Across America: An Online Book-in-Progress" and have copied and pasted their page pertaining to Sunday Gravy after the recipe for those that might also be fascinated.
This trip back to when I was 5 on up through high school and a few years beyond all started because I saw an article and recipe in Cook's Illustrated for Sunday Gravy. I know crazy, right? One recipe and all of that comes flooding back. Food is indeed a powerful thing. How I had not already learned how to make real Sunday Gravy is beyond me. Better late than never? I guess I can live with that. Especially since the end result of my labor yielded what is probably the best version of spaghetti and meatballs I've ever eaten and that is saying something. You will almost never see me write an all out atta-girl, high-five, pat-myself-on-the back rave about my own recipes (primarily because I am too critical of myself and my cooking) but there is not one single thing I would do to change this recipe. It ended up being a combination of Uncle Junior's Sunday Gravy from the Sopranos Cook Book, the original Cook's Illustrated recipe and some red wine thrown in for good measure. If you have the time and inclination to spend a Sunday making dinner for those you love I can't think of a better recipe to make than this one.
Recipe: Sunday Gravy With Meatballs and Italian Sausage
Easily Serves 8
For the Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound meaty pork neck bones or spareribs
1 pound veal stew meat or 2 veal shoulder chops
(I used 1 to 1 1/2lbs. veal bones and 1 lb. pork spare ribs)
1 pound ground sweet Italian sausage
1 lg. onion, chopped
1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
4 garlic cloves
1\4 cup tomato paste
1 cup beef broth
1 cup red wine
Three 28- to 35-ounce cans Italian peeled tomatoes, crushed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
For the Meatballs
1 pound ground beef or a combination of beef, pork and veal
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs, preferably homemade
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons very finely minced garlic
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 oz. prosciutto, finely chopped
1/4 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
6 Italian Sausage Links, Sweet or Hot
1 to 1-1/2 pounds shells or rigatoni, cooked and still hot Freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano(That's Uncle Juniors way) or an equal amout of linguini or fettuccini (C.I. and I concur on this). Use whatever your family likes.
Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Pat the pork/veal dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook (will likely need to do in 2 batches), turning occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer the pork/veal to a plate.
Place the ground Italian sausage in the pot and brown. Remove with a slotted plate to the pork/veal plate.
Add the onion and oregano and cook for about 5 minutes or until golden brown. Add garlic, cook 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until fairly dark but not burned.
Add beef broth and red wine and stir to get up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Add crushed tomatoes, stir. Return the meats to the pot. Stir, bring to a simmer, cover and transfer to oven. Cook until spare ribs are tender, about 2 hours.
Combine all the ingredients except the oil in a large bowl. Mix together thoroughly. Rinse your hands with cool water and lightly shape the mixture into 12 individual meatballs. Keep in the refrigerator until ready.
Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet. Add the meatballs and brown them well on all sides. (They will finish cooking later.)
Transfer the meatballs to a plate. Put Italian Sausages into the pan and brown on all sides. (These will also finish cooking later).
After two hours, add the meatballs, sausages to the sauce.
Return to the oven and cook for 30 more minutes or until the sauce is thick and the meats very tender.
Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta and salt and cook until al dente, reserving 1/2 cups pasta water. Drain pasta and return back to pan.
Remove the bones, discard. Remove the meatballs and sausages to a platter, cutting the sausages in half.
Stir basil into sauce. Toss the pasta with about 1 cup of sauce and the pasta water so that the sauce lightly coats the pasta. Serve pasta, passing remaining sauce and the platter of meat separately.