Project Wonderful

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Clemenza Sauce

42 years ago, a relatively obscure Italian director made a little movie.

“Come over here kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys some day.”

A lot has been said about this scene from "The Godfather" and Peter Clemenza's spaghetti sauce. A kitschy gimmick from a superb film,  gastronauts have scrutinized the scene for decades. Tons of foodie blogs have posted their versions of this thing. Everybody seems to have their own unique way to do it. Mario Batali has his own version of it. One guy wrote a book about it (and for $2.99 you can have it on your Kindle.) One blog tried to fancy it up by using rapeseed oil and adding carrots, celery, bay leaves and sprigs of thyme. Seriously: Rapeseed oil and sprigs of thyme. You won't find a more effective example of how to tear the living soul out of a cultural icon's body than that.

Apparently the scene appears in Mario Puzo's original novel, but the recipe is only in the film. Director Francis Ford Coppola explains:
"I wanted to get an entire recipe in so people could learn how to make tomato sauce. First you put in some olive oil and some garlic and you brown some sausage. When the script came back to me, Mario had crossed out 'brown some sausage,' and changed it to 'Then you fry some sausage.' He wrote, 'Gangsters don't brown, gangsters fry." 
 - "The Godfather Legacy" by Harlan Lebo

The main problem with this scene  - performed beautifully by Richard Castellano -  is that while it's a great piece of cinema, it's actually terrible when it comes to cooking instructions. They left something out. A crucial step to getting the most flavorful, richest sauce possible. Most people completely overlook it, but it improves the sauce one notch better. You wanna know the secret? OK, but I'm only telling you because we're friends:

In the scene, Clemenza is seen dumping the meatballs and sausage into the pot already cooked. This implies that the sausage was fried up in a separate frying pan and then added to the stock pot. Now, do you really think they would dirty up a separate pan for this? Of course not. This is one pot cooking here! Clemenza fried the meat in the pot, then took it out and used the grease from the sausage and a little oil to help fry up the garlic and start the sauce.

And this is a classic cooking technique. Those browned bits (or fried bits if you're a gangster) that get stuck to the bottom of the pan are pure flavor. When you pour in a liquid like broth or wine and stir with a wooden spoon, it lifts those stuck bits off the pan and dissolves them into the liquid. In French cooking, they call this a "fond", which means "foundation" and that's exactly what this is providing for this recipe: a starting point for a great sauce.

Clemenza knew this. Coppola knows this. Now you do too. Welcome to the family.

Here's another little trick:
Whenever you make a sauce for a main course, use a wine in the sauce that's similar to the wine you'll be drinking with the meal. This is known as a flavor bridge and it's a common trick used in wine pairing.

And now that you're armed with the secrets, go forth and make this fantastic sauce.

2 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes - Get good stuff. San Marzanos are great.
2 cans of tomato paste
1 28 ounce tomato can of filtered water
3 garlic cloves, chopped
4 sweet Italian pork sausage
1 lb of meatballs (from my classic meatball recipe)
1 bottle of good (drinkable) dry red wine. (Chianti works great)
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp onion powder
1/4 cup sugar

"You see, you start out with a little bit of oil..."
In a large sauce pot, add a little olive oil and grill the sausage links. Don't cook it completely at this step: you're just browning it on all sides.

Slice the sausages into 3/4 slices. At this point you can leave them on a plate, ready to go back in with the sauce, or you could go one step further and brown the cut sides in the pan as well. Turn them over after a minute or so and THEN pull them out onto a plate 

"Then you fry some garlic..." 

Toss the garlic into the pan and sweat it till it's aromatic and just starting to turn translucent. Don't over-brown it or it'll turn bitter. 

Add "a glug" of the wine to the bottom of the pot. You want to hear it sizzle. 

With a wooden spoon, scrape/ rub off those cooked bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. This is known as "deglazing" and its a great way to add flavor to the sauce. 

"Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; ya make sure it doesn't stick."

Add the tomatoes tomato paste and one can of filtered water to the pot and increase heat to high.

"You get it to a boil; you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs; heh?"

add the sliced sausage, meatballs, the dried oregano and basil.

"...And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick." 

Add another "glug" or two of wine to the pot
Add the sugar and let everything come to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer and stir frequently for the next 3 hours. Yes, THREE HOURS. The longer it slowly simmers, the more the flavor of the sausage and meatballs are going to mix with the wine, sugar garlic and tomatoes. Everything compliments each other in a little tarantella of awesome.

There's a couple of ways to serve this. My mom always just dumped the cooked spaghetti into the sauce and stirred it around. Some people like to put the un-sauced pasta in a bowl and let people pick and choose.

But for me personally, I like to add just a little sauce to the pasta to get it all coated and keep it from drying out or getting sticky.

To plate, I put a serving of pasta in a warmed dish, add three meatballs and a few sausage slices and then a big spoonful of sauce over everything. Finish off with some freshly shaved parmigiano reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese and one or two whole leaves of basil for garnish.  Serve with some nice crusty bread and a bottle of wine and you're done. 


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