Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sunday Gravy (Tortora family tomato sauce)

Confession time. I rarely make my own tomato sauce – or 'gravy' as us East Coast Italians call it – because it takes time to develop the deep, rich flavor that is its signature.

When I was a kid, my grandmothers made gravy nearly every Sunday, to go with the 'macaroni' we were having at that week's family gathering. When Amy asked for the Tortora tomato sauce recipe, I finally put it down on paper. In the process, I discovered many family variations: My brother adds grated carrot for sweetness. My Dad pours in some red wine. My mom tosses in a pinch of thyme and maybe a dash of sugar. My Grammy Marie always spiced it up with lots of red pepper.

The one component no one ever changes is what makes this gravy special. The tomato sauce simmers for hours with browned Italian sausage links and homemade meatballs. For special occasions such as Christmas, browned beef short ribs and brachiole (thin slices of beef rolled with parmesan cheese, parsley and basil, and tied with kitchen twine) are added.

Prefer chicken? Do what my Grandma Lucy sometimes did: Brown some chicken breasts and thighs and add them to the sauce instead of meatballs and sausage.

Vegetarian? Simply skip the meat.

If you happen to overdue it on one of the spices, as I may or may not have done recently with the red pepper flakes, fear not! Just toss in another can of tomatoes (crushed, diced or sauce) to dilute the strong flavor. You will be rewarded with extra gravy to use for making lasagna or another meal.

Finally, a warning: This recipe makes A LOT of tomato sauce. I use a 22 quart pot. This ensures plenty of room for the meatballs and sausage. If you don't have a pot this large, cut the recipe in half.

My recommendation? Buy or borrow a giant pot, invite your friends and family to dinner and make room in your freezer.

Mangia! Mangia!

Sunday Gravy

1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil to cover the bottom of a large pot
About 2 cups diced yellow or white onion
3 to 5 minced garlic gloves
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 to 2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 (6 ounce) cans of tomato paste
3 (28 ounce) cans of crushed tomatoes
2 (14.5 ounce) cans of diced tomatoes
1 (14.5 ounce) can of unseasoned tomato sauce
1 (8 ounce) can of unseasoned tomato sauce
1 cup dry red wine, optional
12 or more large cooked meatballs, optional
1 or 2 pounds of browned or baked Italian sausage links, optional

Warm oil in bottom of pot. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is translucent. Add in spices and salt and pepper and cook until golden, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and stir, cooking until mixture is caramelized. Taking the time to brown the aromatics gives the gravy a richer flavor.

Stir in all cans of tomatoes and tomato sauce. (Note: You can vary the types of tomatoes you use. For example, if you like a chunkier sauce, substitute diced tomatoes for the canned tomato sauce.) Add red wine, if using.

Bring gravy to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower heat and let simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring a few times. Add meatballs, sausage, etc., and continue to simmer on lowest setting for at least 1 hour but preferably more (you can simmer it all day,) stirring occasionally to prevent sauce from burning in the bottom of the pot.

I recommend tasting the gravy here and there. It's OK to add in more spices as the sauce simmers to achieve the flavor you prefer.

Serve hot with your favorite pasta.


  1. This is perfect Andrea! And I already know how delicious it is. Some variations- sometimes I prefer to slice the garlic cloves, I like to see them floating in the gravy. If you do this it is good to let the onions sautee first in the oil for a few minutes before adding sliced garlic so they both cook evenly. The sliced garlic can burn easily, hence the added sugar, it negates that taste! I also like to use whole canned tomatoes and then cut them into chunks for a "rustic" look. Ocassionally, when we grew a garden and harvested a lot of tomatoes, I would freeze some whole in a ziploc bag and use them in the Christmas gravy. Or you can buy some beauties from a local farm stand. Just blanche in boiling water, cool , peel and cut up into chunks and add to sauce. It adds some summer sunshine to a hearty winter sauce!

  2. Replies
    1. Let us know what you think when you make it yourself!