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Author Notes: I cry when I make this. Happy tears, associated with warm memories of my mom and grandma and growing up and being loved. It's just not Sunday without a pot of tomato gravy bubbling away on the stove, and the heady scents of garlic, hot oil, and braising meat wafting through the kitchen. Although a little time consuming, it's a simple meal, easily adaptable based on what you have in your pantry and fridge on any given Sunday. Definitely meant to feed a crowd (or to take leftovers to work/school! Nothing brightens up a dreary Monday like leftover Sunday gravy). This is the very definition of nourishment - food for thought, soul food, and yeah, tummy-filling, too.
This is the type of recipe where every family has their own version. I did my best to approximate my family's version for you here. It's also the type of recipe that doesn't have exact quantities - a little of this, a pinch of that, till it looks right. You'll know. I tried to give my best approximation, but you may want to play around with some things until you get it exactly how you like it. That's the fun part! —Danielle
For the meatballs
- 2 pounds ground meat blend (beef, pork, veal, or any combination thereof)
- 2 eggs
- 4-6 pieces day old bread, torn into very small pieces, or run through the food processor until the size of very coarse crumbs
- 1/3 cup grated hard cheese (Pecorino Romano preferred)
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed
- 2 tablespoons light olive oil
For the gravy
- 2 28-oz cans peeled whole tomatoes in sauce (preferably San Marzano)
- 1 6-oz can tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons Light olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or more or less to taste)
- 3 or 5 leaves fresh basil (must be an odd number. Why? Because Nonna says so, that's why!)
- 4-6 pork neck bones (ask the butcher - they are usually sold for cheap)
- 1 pound big shape macaroni such as Rigatoni
- For the meatballs: In a large bowl, combine the ground meat, the eggs, the bread, the grated cheese, the parsley and the garlic. Gently mix (do not overwork) until all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated into the meat. Season with salt and black pepper. Because there is raw egg, you may not want to do as my grandma did and taste the raw mixture for seasonings (eww, Grandma!). So you can take a pinch of the mix, flatten into a small patty, and sautee in some olive oil in a fry pan. Taste and adjust as necessary. When you are happy with the seasoning mixture, gently roll into balls (should be bigger than a golf ball, but smaller than a tennis ball). You can either fry them in about 1/8 inch of light olive oil in a large fry pan, turning until browned on all sides (authentic but messy and difficult), or you can put them into a roasting pan in a single layer and bake at 425 F until brown (30-45 minutes). The oven method is a lot easier and less messy, but you can't put them into the sauce too early or you risk overcooking them. Your choice.
- For the gravy: In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the light olive oil over medium high until shimmering (do not use extra virgin for this, as it is too delicate). Brown the neck bones in the oil until brown and crispy on all sides, then remove and set aside. Do not clean out the pot! Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Cook for 30 seconds to a minute, until golden and fragrant. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add the tomato paste and cook, continuing to stir constantly, for another minute or so, until the paste darkens and becomes fragrant. Add the cans of tomatoes and sauce, crushing the tomatoes with your hands as you add them to the pot. Take one of the empty 28-oz tomato cans and fill 3/4 of the way with water. Swish it around to get some of the sauce off the sides of the can and add it to the pot. Give everything a good stir, and then bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer uncovered for about an hour. Season with salt and pepper, and perhaps a scant teaspoon of sugar if you detect any bitterness from the tomatoes. At this point, add the browned meatballs and neck bones back in along with the basil leaves, stir, and simmer for another hour.
- While the gravy is simmering for the last 20 minutes or so, set a large pot of water on high heat to boil. Once boiling, add a large pinch of salt, then add the macaroni. Give them a stir to avoid sticking, and cook 8-12 minutes or until desired doneness. Save a ladle or two of the pasta water in a bowl and set aside, then drain the macaroni and return to the pot. Drizzle with olive oil and stir. Add 2-3 ladles of tomato gravy to the macaroni, stir, and add a little pasta water to thin the gravy to the desired consistency.
- When the gravy is done, get a pie plate or casserole dish and remove the neck bones and meatballs. Add a ladle of gravy to the dish. Serve the macaroni in a big bowl with the dish of meat on the side for everyone to grab. Have extra grated cheese and gravy boats filled with extra tomato gravy on hand at the table, too. Best served with a nice bottle of wine. Mangia!