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Search for Sunday Gravy: Great-grandmother’s slow-simmered tomato sauce revealed

09/08/2013 4:51 PM

09/08/2013 5:06 PM

Falcone “International” Airport in Palermo, Sicily, is a rather small international airport compared to most I have seen in my travels.

I look at my nephew Jasper and laugh as our plane hits the runway. All the passengers applaud and make the sign of the cross. This is typical of most landings in Palermo.

We have arrived just 40 kilometers from our families hometown of Gibellina.

We walk off the plane and our cousin Gaspare Mirabile is waiting for us on the tarmac. No need for Homeland Security here, we have our cousin, who we call Reno, watching over us this trip.

We are here for one reason and one reason only: We are looking for our great grandmothers’ recipe for “Sunday Gravy.”

Yes, seriously. Sunday Gravy.

I’m talking about that “slow simmered-tomato sauce” laden with wonderful Sicilian herbs and spices.

We only have one cousin on the Mirabile side of the family who would know the recipe. We are on a mission.

We pick up our luggage and speed away from the airport in Reno’s Alfa Romeo. At times, the speed hits 125 kph. Jasper III is holding on for his life.

I am laughing and talking to my cousin who is looking at me most the time and not looking at the road. He is just so happy to see us. He knows why we are here.

We arrive at Casa Mirabile and unpack our things as we are going to be here for about a week on our search. The house is still intact. It looks the same as it did two years before when I came to visit.

There is still a memorial to my aunt and my cousin who passed away many years ago. The candle by the St. Joseph statue is lit. It is Sunday and as I look at the clock. I know dinner is just an hour away. My cousin eats promptly at 1 p.m.

I have to tell you that the minute the door opened to my cousin’s home I could smell the sweetness of Sicilian sausage and Sunday Gravy cooking. I was excited.

As a chef, you get excited when you smell something and it brings back wonderful memories of your childhood. This is the same wonderful smell that I was raised on each and every Sunday. The same wonderful smell in my grandmother’s house and the same in my mother’s house.

My cousin reaches under the counter and pulls out a bucket of olives for us. These light green Sicilian olives are from the family farm and were harvested last year. He places them in a small bowl on the table. He goes to the back room and gets a loaf of bread that he picked up from the local bakery that morning. It is coated with sesame seeds.

We’re talking Sicilian Semolina bread.

The table is set for the three of us. The water is boiling on the stove. Our cousin breaks open a box of Barilla pasta and drops it into the boiling water on the stove. He stirs the sauce and tastes it with a wooden spoon. He pinches his cheek, looks at me and winks.

In our family that means the sauce is perfect.

The pasta cooks for exactly 6 minutes. He throws a few strands of pasta against the wall. It sticks. He laughs. He screams, “Ah, al’dente!”

He strains the pasta water and places the pasta in a dish. He ladles the sauce on top. He then places the sausage, brachiole and meatballs on a separate platter and places the food before us as we say prayers.

He opens a bottle of local Sicilian vino and rips the bread apart. We pass the meat and begin our feast. Our celebration has begun.

My nephew takes the first bite. I look at him and he has the biggest smile on his face. There’s been a lot of smiling that day.

My cousin is speaking in ancient Sicilian, and, sorry to say, we don’t understand much. My nephew looks over at me and says, “Uncle Jay, the sauce tastes exactly like it does at home.”

I look at him and explain, “Jay, this is where it all began, here in this town, in this home. This is where the recipe for ‘Sunday Gravy’ was created.”

I remind myself that the original town of Gibellina, Sicily, was destroyed in an earthquake in 1968. Many people died and the town was not rebuilt until the late 80’s when it was moved down to the base of the mountain about 15 kilometers away and is now known as Nuova (New) Gibellina as opposed to Vecchia (Old) Gibellina.

Our grandparents did not live in this home, but I still think of it as “our casa.”

I speak a little broken Sicilian so I ask my cousin about the sauce. I wanted him to describe to me in detail how it was prepared.

He tells me, first of all you need homemade Sicilian sausage. That is no problem for us, because we have my grandfathers’ recipe and we make it every day at our restaurant.

He explains to me that “you need pureed tomatoes, olive oil, onions and garlic.”

“That’s very basic,” I reply.

He then goes on to say that our family is known for putting fresh basil and red pepper in the sauce as it cooks. We also add a little sugar and salt. I look at him and agree. Yes, yes, I know. This is just the way we make it at home.

But something is different. He looks at me and laughs. He blinks at me again. He begins to whisper to me, “J.J., the recipe is the same all around Sicily, but our family recipe is different.”

“Il Nostro Modo. Our way!”

Reno looks at me and winks again. He winks a lot.

“Just listen,” he says. He goes on for the next hour and explains to me the long process of making the “Sunday Gravy.”

He goes into much more detail. He explains that tomorrow we will make a pot of sauce together.

We finish our dinner as we look at each other. It’s after 2 p.m. and that means one thing in Sicily, it’s time to take a nap.

Yes sir, it’s “siesta” time. I can really get used to this lifestyle. I mean seriously, who couldn’t?

We awake from our nap and we all meet back in the kitchen. It is now past 7 p.m. We overslept. It must have been the plane, right?

For some odd reason, I am hungry. I think my nephew is also.

My cousin looks at us and he can see in our faces that we want something. He goes over to the stove and turns on the fire.

He places a frying pan on the stove and adds some leftover meatballs. He also adds some sausages and starts to slice them in half. He adds some of the leftover pasta that had been sitting on the counter and a little sauce.

Oh my God, he is making fried pasta. I cannot believe this. This is the same thing we do in our home — exactly.

This is my daughter’s favorite late night meal after our Sunday dinner. I grew up on this on Sunday night. This time, he sneaks a little Romano cheese on the pasta. He is actually frying pasta and letting it get just a little crisp.

If my father were here, he would not allow this. No cheese was ever allowed on our family dinner table. But then that’s another story, for another time.

We again set the dinner table and my cousin puts out a few glasses and a bottle of Coca-Cola. He is very proud of serving his American cousins “the Coca-Cola.”

I would be much happier if we had some ice. That is something that you very rarely see in Sicily. No matter, we are not here to talk about soda. We are here to discuss Sunday Gravy.

My cousin begins to explain to me that they did not have tomatoes in ancient Sicily. They didn’t have meatballs either.

It wasn’t until Columbus discovered America and brought back tomatoes, that they started growing them in the region around Naples, Italy.

Reno explains that the original sauce they would eat on pasta was just made of fresh garlic, fresh onion and fresh fennel.

There was never much meat around because they were very poor. Only on special holidays would they enjoy some local goat or lamb.

They did have cheese, but never added to the sauce. Wow, no tomatoes. How did our ancestors survive?

He also explains that they did not use whole tomatoes. They used tomato paste. The paste was made by smashing the tomatoes on a wooden plank and letting them dry out in the sun. This was real concentrate. They would add water to it when they made their sauce. That was the old-timers way of making “Sunday Gravy.”

Over the years they eventually started using puree and Reno told me only the wealthy Italians actually use whole tomatoes. I ask him about oregano. He looks at me and shakes his head.

He says, “No, No, No!” He bangs his hand on the table and says “Never!”

We never put oregano in our sauce. I look at my nephew and I shake my head in agreement.

We later adjourned to the Mirabile Coffee and Granita Shop across the street and enjoy some fresh, home-made granita.

We began to discuss the process of making the “Sunday Gravy.” He goes over the recipe again and the list of ingredients. I tell him we are tired and we need to sleep. The night is over. Tomorrow we will talk “Sunday Gravy” again.

The next morning we awaken early. We go downstairs and there is fresh pastry awaiting us. I told you I love this country. How many other places around the world are fresh pastry delivered to your front door every day?

My cousin opens the door and starts talking. He is holding 2 cups of espresso with a little milk in it. He tells me that today is a big day in Sicily. Today is the big soccer game. Sicily will be playing Roma. No one is working.

I start to laugh. He looks at me like I’m patsu (crazy). I stopped laughing.

He then goes into another room and brings out the grocery sack. He starts taking the groceries out of the bag and places them on the counter. He keeps going to the back room and bringing more and more stuff out.

I just shake my head. This is serious business. Reno is not playing games. We came to learn the secrets of making “Sunday Gravy” and we will learn how to make it.

Reno peels the onion first. He only uses a white onion. A yellow onion is not sweet enough. It also turns the sauce a different color. We do not want that.

He begins to chop it very fine. It is almost to the state of puree. I look at him and he explained to me that he wants the onions to almost absorb the sauce when he sautés them in olive oil. He wants them to start to caramelize and give the sauce a lot of flavor.

When the onions start to caramelize, the natural sugar comes out of the onion. He then begins to clean the garlic. He peals each piece, cuts the little tip off each end. He explains that the top is very bitter. He also chops the garlic up, but not as fine. He says you should taste the garlic, but it should not be overwhelming.

He explains that no ingredient should stick out in the sauce. Funny thing, my father told me this exact same thing when I was 8 years old and I was watching him cook in the kitchen.

Reno also tells me that you must cook everything slow. You need to layer the ingredients and let the flavors evolve. He explains that if you want a quick sauce he could make that also.

But we are not here for that recipe. We are here for “Sunday Gravy.”

The cooking process has now begun. What I do at home in less than 15 minutes we are now more than 45 minutes into it. I am beginning to understand. It is all coming to me. This makes a lot of sense.

For some odd reason, I interrupt my cousin. I ask him for a pen and some paper. He asks me why? I tell him I need to take some notes. My father always told me to take notes. If you know me, you know I’m constantly taking notes.

He looks at me and says no. Just watch. I have no choice. I will watch. Note to self, no notes while in Gibellina.

Reno then adds the tomato to the pot. He begins to start a sauce. He adds a little salt and a little red chili flakes. I ask him when will he add the water. He tells me in time. Just wait. Be patient.

After about 15 minutes he slowly adds some water. I ask him what his measurement is and he explains it is the can. He’s using the tomato can as his measurement for water.

He then adds raw sausage. He does not brown the sausage. He adds it raw. I ask him when he adds the sugar. He explains me that we don’t add sugar until the end. If you add sugar too early, your sauce becomes brown.

The tomatoes have enough sugar in them as they cook down, they also start to turn a different color. The sugar is only added to lightly sweeten the sauce.

We are now over an hour and a half into the sauce. At this time he looks at me and he goes to his cabinet. He pulls out a little jar and sprinkles about a teaspoon or more into the palm of his hand. He put it up to his nose and then he crushes a little with his hand. I’m sitting at the table and I cannot see exactly what he has. He looks at me and he whispers, “Fennel seed J.J.”

I told you we have a secret. That was it. I knew it. I knew there was something different about the sauce. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I just knew it was something sweet and it was not sugar.

At home, we put fennel sausage in our sauce and we get a similar flavor, but not the same as putting whole fennel seed in the sauce.

Reno continues to cook the sauce and adds the basil about 20 minutes before taking the pot off the stove. He also adds some fried meatballs. He tells me he likes to add ribs or pork chops, or even chicken breasts that he sautés. He says any meat will give the sauce more flavor.

The sauce is cooking down and the water is evaporating. The sauce is getting thicker before our eyes. He turns the stove off and puts a lid on the sauce.

He looks at my nephew and he says it’s time to go. We walk across the street and he opens the coffee shop. He pulls down the big screen TV, it’s time for soccer. He puts out about 25 chairs and a lot of the locals begin to show up. He makes a few espressos, opens a few bottles of soda and dips up a lot of Italian ice. The game begins and my nephew and I decide we want to take a walk around the city.

What I really have on my mind is that Sunday Gravy across the street.

We return to the coffee shot after our afternoon walk and my cousin tells me the game is almost over. He has more plans that afternoon. We walk across the street after the soccer game and sit in the kitchen.

I ask him if the sauce is ready. He says yes, it has sat long enough. We taste it with wooden spoons and we all agree. A fine sauce indeed.

Reno again returns the lid to the pot and tells us to follow him. He puts the sauce on the floor in the front seat of his car. We all get in and we travel to one of his friends home. He brings the sauce in and sets it on the table.

The people are very old and he is giving them some sauce for their dinner. Talk about generous. To tell you the truth I thought the sauce was for us. We return to the car and we go off to dinner.

For some odd reason, the conversation turns to “Sunday Gravy.” We start talking about the sauce that we prepared today. We discussed the onions at length, we talk about tomatoes. I ask him if he ever adds red wine to the sauce. He shakes his head. I guess that’s a no!

On the third day, we again meet at the family table in the kitchen. My cousin begins the whole process all over again. We are going to make “Sunday Gravy” — Day Three.

I try to explain to him that I think I have it down. Little did he know, when we went to bed, I made some notes on my computer.

Nothing changes in the process or order of the recipe. I don’t question Reno. I explain to my nephew that he wants to make sure that we have the process down. I am grateful. In the back of my mind, I am thinking and wishing that this is our dinner. Even though it’s Tuesday, “Sunday Gravy” is okay with this chef.

I really don’t need to tell you how the next three days went. After five batches of Sunday gravy, you can only imagine.

The final day of our time at Casa Mirabile arrives. We bring our luggage downstairs and enjoy some pastry and espresso again. Our journey to the airport is upon us.

Each and every time I leave Sicily, I am very sad. I sometimes think this may be the last time I see my cousin. I wish I wouldn’t think like this. We arrive at the airport. No one is talking. No one is smiling. We are sad. We don’t want to leave and my cousin does not want us to leave.

We say our goodbyes and we turn around. We don’t like to say goodbye, but this time we did. We hug and kiss our cousin and thank him for a wonderful week at his home. We thank him for his knowledge, for sharing his recipe and his time with us.

It was the passing of a torch.

We walk away and we are sad. All of a sudden, Reno calls out our names. We both turn around, as we both have the same name. He hands us an envelope and tells us to read it later on.

We walk into the airport and check our baggage. We are both very quiet. We walk to the gate and await our plane. My nephew asks me to open the envelope.

For some reason, I don’t want to. I did not know why, but I really didn’t want to.

My nephew takes the envelope and opens it. He starts to smile. I see a tear coming down the side of his face. I look at him and ask him what the letter says.

It is a handwritten recipe of our families “Sunday Gravy.” All the measurements, all the ingredients, all written out in perfect penmanship. I begin to laugh.

For Reno to write the recipe down, that really meant something. He told me earlier in the week that we did not need to write it down. We are honored.

We return home to Kansas City 18 hours later. To be honest with you, “Sunday Gravy” is not on our minds. We are very tired and anxious to see our families.

We would discuss the “Sunday Gravy” when we return to work the following day. We also know that will be making our “Family Sunday Gravy” for many years to come.

Of course, this time it will be a lot easier. We have the recipe, the written recipe.

Life is good!

Note to readers: As I sit here and finish this story, I can smell the aroma of our family Sunday Gravy simmering on the stove.

I can smell the basil, the sweet sausage and of course the fennel seed. It is very distinct. I begin to think of my cousin, the recipe and of course our excursion to Sicily.

We succeeded, we not only learned how to make Sunday Gravy but we also learned a lot about family.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. Like my father said to me, a little pasta, our family sitting together at the table and our health.

What more do you need!

Sunday Gravy 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 2 medium onions, chopped 1 whole head garlic cloves, pureed 1 28-ounce can tomato purée 4 cups water 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes 2 tablespoons fennel seeds 2 tablespoons sugar 10 to 12 fresh basil leaves

Directions: Heat the olive oil in a 4-quart pot over medium heat. Add the onions, and sauté until translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and remove the pan from the stove. Add the tomato purée and slowly add water, and mix thoroughly. Stir in the salt, red pepper flakes, and fennel seeds and cook on low heat for about 2 hours, adding the sugar and basil after 1½ hours. At that time you can also add sautéed sausage, meatballs or braciole.


If you do not like canned purée, you can substitute whole tomatoes, omit the water and purée the tomatoes in a food processor or by hand. Make sure you continuously stir the sauce, and do not let the sugar burn or you will scorch the sauce.

Source: Jasper’s Kitchen Cookbook, Andrews McMeel/Universal Press Publishing

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