Mrs. Tolaro's Spaghetti and Meatballs

As you undoubtedly know, I am passionate about authentic Italian food. I truly love the deep and age-old traditions, and tend not to mess with the classics.

Italian-American cuisine is steeped in different traditions, giving rise to differences from the food we dine on when in Italy.

Growing up on the East Coast in the 1950s and 1960s, Italian food (to non-Italians) meant spaghetti and meatballs. In Italy, one never sees spaghetti with meatballs; there is spaghetti, which is a first course, or primo, and then there are meatballs - or polpette - which are a second course, or secondo.

There is a wonderful scene at the beginning of the movie Big Night where Secondo, an immigrant right off the boat from Italy (played by Stanley Tucci), is trying to to explain to an American woman in his restaurant why there are no meatballs with her spaghetti. "Sometimes, the spaghetti just want to be alone."

In my boyhood summers, while visiting Aunt Rae and Uncle Joe in Vermont, I would always look forward to spending time with Uncle Joe's Sicilian family - the large, loving, loud, cheek-pinching Tolaros.

I remember walking down the driveway along the side of the house to enter Mrs. Tolaro's kitchen. In New England, if you are family, you enter through the kitchen - the heart of the house. There I would sit while Mrs. Tolaro and her daughters cooked a meal for the masses. I remember most her spaghetti and meatballs.

I was very young, and my memories are vague, but I assume that all the men were in the living room discussing sports, smoking and having cocktails. I sat in the kitchen, had my cheeks pinched, and soaked in the savory aromas that wash over me with warmth and love to this day.

This past week, the five year anniversary of Aunt Rae's passing, I was feeling the need to be connected to those memories - a craving for comfort. The kind of comfort only a family recipe can offer.

My cousin, Michael Tolaro, visited us in Tucson several years ago and, while here, taught me how to make Mrs. Tolaro's spaghetti and meatballs. That was just what I needed to make this Sunday perfect.

Panic set in. Nowhere could I find the recipe. It was Saturday at 6:30pm (9:30pm in Vermont, where Michael lives) and I hesitated to call him so late. But it was, after all, an emergency, right?

Luckily, he was still awake and gladly shared the recipe with me. Sunday supper was saved.

Who can say why one thing or another tastes like home, but these meatballs in red sauce on spaghetti are just that. And home is where my heart is this week.

~ David

Mrs. Tolaro's Spaghetti and Meatballs
Michael says that Mrs. Tolaro always made a huge batch for the family. I made a half recipe and it is plenty for 6 people. Here is that half recipe:

For the Meatballs1 1/4 pound ground beef (I used lean, grass fed beef)
1 small onion (or half a large), diced
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
a large handful of breadcrumbs
A large handful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 large egg
olive oil

For the Sauce2 28-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
fresh oregano leaves, from 3 sprigs
fresh basil leaves, about 12
salt and freshly ground pepper

For Serving
1 pound spaghetti
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Romano (or a combination)

Mix the meat, onion, bell pepper, breadcrumbs, cheese, and egg in a large bowl; knead the mixture until all ingredients are evenly distributed. Don't worry if some of the onion or green pepper falls out - it will get used!

Divide the mixture into 10-12 meatballs, about 2 inches in diameter.

Heat a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed soup pot on the stove. When very hot, add a little oil and tilt the pan to distribute the oil over the bottom. Fry the meatballs on all sides till nice and brown. When you add the meatballs, add any onion or pepper that was in the bowl.

While the meatballs are browning, run the San Marzano tomatoes and all their juices through the medium disk of a food mill (or you could use two 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes - but Mrs. Tolaro used whole tomatoes and the food mill).

When the meatballs are nicely browned, add the puréed tomatoes and the tomato paste to the pot covering the meatballs. Fill the tomato paste can with water and add it to the pot. Stir gently to combine, being careful not to break up the meatballs. Add the fresh oregano and basil, season with salt and pepper, and let simmer on low heat for 1-2 hours, stirring from time to time. The longer the better.

Cook the pasta in well-salted water (remember, pasta is one of the starches that gets its flavor from being cooking with the salt in the water). Drain the pasta and mix with a little of the red sauce. Divide among 6 pasta plates, and top with some more sauce and a couple of meatballs per serving. Sprinkle with cheese and serve.

Serves 6 (with 2 meatballs apiece. Note: we were piggy and had three each!)

Maria (Mary) Tolaro with her husband and six children.

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