Weekend Cooking

Sunday Sauce

August  5, 2019
10 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

Like many Italian-American families, I grew up eating "macaroni and sauce" every Sunday afternoon as our big meal of the day. For us, it was always called macaroni. (In Italy this means a particular straight, tubular, square-ended pasta, and for many northerners it means elbows. But growing up in Niagara Falls in the '60s and '70s, spaghetti was spaghetti, noodles were noodles, and everything else was macaroni.) On the many other days of the week when we had "macaroni"-based meals, the Italian nomenclature would be tossed out by my father, the only Italian speaker among the six of us. Pasta piselli (pasta with peas), pasta lenticchie (pasta with lentils), and pasta e broccoli were all frequent weeknight dinners. "Macaroni," on the other hand, is what we had every Sunday because my father said he ate so much spaghetti growing up that he never wanted to see it again. From time to time I’d be asked to pick out the box of Ronzoni (it was always Ronzoni) from the pantry; I always picked rotelle, which is not wagon-wheel shaped as some other brands would have you think, but rather a slightly chunky corkscrew shape that stays chewy in the center when perfectly cooked.

Whichever shape you choose (spaghetti is classic, of course, for Sunday sauce), just be sure to account for about 1 pound of dried pasta for each 6 to 8 people, since this is the main course. Any leftover sauce can be frozen—that is the point, after all, of Sunday sauce. A gigantic pot of meaty red sauce can be cooked over the slow weekend, ready to be eaten throughout the busy workweek. —Gary Schiro

Watch This Recipe
Sunday Sauce
  • Prep time 45 minutes
  • Cook time 3 hours
  • Serves 12 (freezes well)
  • Meatballs
  • 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup milk (or cream or half-and-half)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • 2 pounds ground chuck (85/15) (I think a mix of meats is best. I use beef and turkey, sometimes beef and pork, all three if I feel extravagant)
  • Salt and pepper (A good amount of each—it's not a bad idea to fry off a tester before you cook the whole batch.)
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • Tomato sauce
  • 1 to 2 pounds sweet or hot Italian sausage links (I try to find a brand with the fewest and most recognizable ingredients, i.e. no preservatives.)
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
  • 3 (28-ounce) cans tomato puree (I often use crushed tomatoes here. If using whole tomatoes, dump them into a bowl in the sink and crush with your hands, carefully—they can sort of explode.)
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or left whole (if you want to fish them out later)
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 3 bay leaves, dried or fresh
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup basil leaves, sliced into a fine chiffonade
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 pinch sugar
  • Spaghetti, or whatever pasta shape you'd like with this sauce, for serving
In This Recipe
  1. Make the meatballs: Dampen the breadcrumbs with the milk and let them absorb for at least 5 to 10 minutes.
  2. Mix in 2 beaten eggs then add in the grated cheese and salt and pepper. (I sometimes also use a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard.) Once mixed together, mix in the ground meat. (If using turkey or a lighter meat, I start with that meat first, fully incorporate the breadcrumbs, and then add in the second meat: I find I get a better distribution.)
  3. Form the meatballs. I like them slightly bigger than a golf ball. You’ll have a less shaggy surface on the meatballs if your hands are damp, so I leave a little dribble of water running at the sink so I can rewet my hands and keep shaping the meatballs. Lay them out in a single layer on a tray or plate.
  4. To fry the meatballs, place an 8-quart saucepan (sometimes I prefer a nonstick or cast-iron skillet) on the stove and cover the bottom with a thin layer of olive oil. Set the heat to medium-high. Bring the oil up to temperature: It should sizzle a bit when you drop in a breadcrumb or drop of water. Fry the meatballs in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. Alternatively, you could bake them in a 375°F oven on a sheet pan, evenly spaced, for 25 to 30 minutes until they brown.
  5. Once the meatballs are done, in the same pan, lightly brown the sausages on all sides and set aside.
  6. Make the tomato sauce: Lower heat to medium and add the onions and garlic. Once the onions start to become translucent, add 1 cup of dry white wine to deglaze (Mom would use red). At this point, remove the garlic cloves or leave them in, minced, if no one objects.
  7. Nudge the onions and garlic to the side and add the tomato paste. Sauté it over medium-high heat for 2 minutes to caramelize it slightly until it deepens in color and flavor. Add the tomato puree (or crushed tomatoes). Stir to make certain nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the bay leaves, oregano, basil, pinch of sugar, and salt and pepper. Gently, add back in the cooked meatballs and sausages.
  8. Bring to a boil, stir gently to make sure no meat is sticking to the bottom, and set to the lowest possible simmer. Leave it bubbling, occasionally giving it a gentle stir, for 2 to 3 or even 4 hours (depending on how soon you want to eat and how it tastes). This is best tested with a fresh, crusty loaf of bread nearby that can be dipped into the sauce at several inspections to see how the flavor is developing and to reward the chef.
  9. Meanwhile, prepare the pasta: Add 2 large pinches of kosher salt to 6 quarts of boiling water per pound of pasta. Add the pasta. Give a good stir so nothing sticks, and a few times while cooking. You need to pull the pasta before it is fully cooked. It will continue cooking and will absorb the sauce later. (Before draining, I always grab a coffee mug and carefully dip it into the pasta water, and set it aside in case I need to loosen up the sauce. This is almost never the case with a big pot of sauce nearby, but it is a good practice to get into.) Drain the pasta. Put it back in the pot. Add two or three ladles of the cooked tomato sauce and gently stir. You want all of the pasta to be coated, but not swimming in sauce.
  10. Serve each portion with extra sauce (but not too much) on top with a meatball or two and sausage. Pass extra grated Parmesan or Romano cheese at the table.

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