Weekend Cooking

Sunday Sauce

August  5, 2019
14 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
  • Prep time 45 minutes
  • Cook time 3 hours
  • Serves 12 (freezes well)
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.

For more stories, memories, and extended histories behind your most-loved, treasured family recipes from the column, check out our new podcast My Family Recipe.Gary Schiro

What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
Sunday Sauce
  • 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
  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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Sally Zehmisch
    Sally Zehmisch
  • Amanda
  • Bevi
  • Gary Schiro
    Gary Schiro
  • Belle

21 Reviews

Reid February 23, 2022
We love this recipe. I’ve made it many times, sometimes with red wine, sometimes white. I really Have only one tweak, in step 6 - I carmelize the tomato paste before adding the wine. Simmer this for 3 hours and you’ve got a meal you’d be proud to serve your grandma.
Terri October 18, 2021
This is a review of the Food 52 website. I like to print recipes. Unfortunately, the "author notes" take up almost an entire page of wasted paper & ink! Although I enjoy reading these notes, please allow users to print without the author's "story".
Bella95 March 6, 2020
Also wanted to add. I sometimes turn my meatballs into two meals. I increase the sauce proportion a bit, then when ready to eat, on night 1, l remove the meatballs with a slotted spoon and as much sauce as will cling to them, put them aside and enjoy the lovely meat flavoured sauce and pasta with a salad and crusty bread. A day or 2 later it's time for the meatballs. I add a good splash (or 2) of cream or milk, about a cup (or two) of frozen peas and, if liked, some finely chopped onion. Heat gently in a microwave and serve with boiled or mashed potatoes and/or a salad or whatever. Can be heated a Bain Marie over the potatoes if preferred too. I first started doing this due to budgetary constraints but it does turn one great meal into two great ones.
Bella95 March 6, 2020
Lovely story and griefball is a perfect name. There are several of my mothers dishes that l miss but, my grief is her shortbread.
Even though my mother's shortbread was outstanding it never occurred to me to find out how she made it.
As to your stuck griefballs, It's possible that the oil wasnt quite hot enough to seal the meatballs or that you attempted to turn them too soon but, I suspect your choice of beef was the culprit. I imagine free range, although great for the animal and wonderful on the plate, would be far too lean. That and how recent your loss was would have done it for sure.
Susan F. November 3, 2019
How many people would you expect this recipe to serve. Sorry if I missed that information somewhere.
Susan F. November 3, 2019
Never mind, I just found the information!
Jill R. October 6, 2019
This sauce was PERFECT. My only changes were to use red wine (our taste preference) and instead of simmering on the stovetop, I used a covered pot and placed it in the oven at 250 degrees for 5 hours. No stirring necessary!
Gary S. October 6, 2019
Great. I've also used the oven method as well, from time to time, when I have been not sure I'd be able to stir as frequently as I would like because I was tied up with other projects and the results were also very satisfying.
JakeB January 9, 2023
I made this last night and my family adored its rich and deep flavors. I'm glad the oven and/or crockpot is an option (I always forget their uses at times) as I would prefer to not stand around worrying about and stirring it. Great post.
Gary S. January 13, 2023
Thanks Jake. I'm glad your family enjoyed it!
Sally Z. September 29, 2019
Thanks for this lovely story and cherished recipe. I will try it soon for certain! My mother’s name was also Dorothy. Her friends called her Dot. She passed away at age 38, when I was 15. I cannot tell you the number of times I thought of something that I wanted to ask. Fortunately she had a sister with whom I developed a close bond. She lived until the age of 83. Peace and love to you. It would bring your mother and grandmother joy
patrick September 30, 2019
Wow Sally Z, I lost my dad, same as your mom, both ages all the same. me and you as well, best wishes, that was 48hrs ago, still have his love in my heart of course!
Belle September 30, 2019
Sally, I'm so sorry for your loss, and Dot's, as she missed out on being a part of your life too. How fortunate your aunt was able to fill in at some level. That said, I can imagine Dot has been watching over you and sharing what she is able. Bless you both.
Warm regards,
Amanda September 29, 2019
I love this story! I am making this recipe now. My mother was a hit or miss cook, we have few food traditions. Instead of feeling bad about this, I enjoy others stories of food traditions and make their recipes if shared. My children have enjoyed so many of these shared traditions, and we made some our own. Now that children are grown and gone, I still enjoy this tradition that came from non-tradition. This will be enjoyed by hubby and I and some frozen to share when family drops in. Thank you for sharing the story and recipe, both are wonderful.
Amanda October 1, 2019
And the review is : Awesome-sauce! Great flavor, I worried about that pinch of sugar, but it was needed. Thank you again, this is a keeper.
Gary S. October 2, 2019
Glad you enjoyed it!
JoAnne L. September 29, 2019
I can relate! My Momma was a wonderful cook, her turkey stuffing was legendary. Even after I started cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinner, Momma made her wonderful Conbread Stuffing for me to stuff the turkeys. She was also wise, the Thanksgiving and Christmas before she died, she insisted that it was time for me to learn to make it myself. She walked me through every step.
Momma left us the following August. That was 23 years ago and I miss her every day. When I cook her special recipes, it’s like she’s with me for a few sweet minutes.
Food is memories for me.
JoAnne L. September 29, 2019
Whoops, that was supposed to read Cornbread Stuffing, sorry!
Bevi August 6, 2019
Sounds delicious. Can the meatballs be baked?
Eric K. August 6, 2019
Yes, that's a great idea! Gary's actually noted this in Step 4:

"Alternatively, you could bake them in a 375°F oven on a sheet pan, evenly spaced, for 25 to 30 minutes until they brown."
Gary S. August 6, 2019
Yes, for sure. I’ve done it at 375 degrees for somewhere between 25 and 40 minutes, depending on size. If they are going into the sauce you don’t need to worry about internal temp since they’ll finish cooking in the sauce.