This is an old family recipe from my Italian friend and jet pilot John Frissora. On a trip to Andros Island in the Caribbean, he shared his secret for “gravy” (as all true Italians refer to pasta sauce). After returning home, I pulled out the paper placemat on which he scribbled the perfect sauce recipe and stared in wonderment at what looked like a secret cold war spy document.
After some time contemplating his notes and attempting to decipher the cryptic code, I started reconstructing the recipe. In the end, the sauce was everything John claimed—simple yet complex, rustic yet extraordinarily smooth. And best of all, the gravy coated the meats and the pasta like a soft velvet blanket… just as he promised!
Preparation is simple, but the sauce has to simmer for a good 4 hours to really come together. John’s technique includes puréeing garlic, onion, and herbs with olive oil. The smooth paste is then sautéd until thick and fragrant. This step is key to the velvety texture of the finished sauce.
Pancetta is rendered to lend fat and flavor to the pasta sauce. (Recipes which include pancetta are called all’amatriciana, for the town of Amatrice.) Pork and chicken are then browned and simmered into the sauce, releasing the subtle nuances of their individual juices and flavors. The bones are always included in this step, as the marrow holds so much flavor.
This sauce is not your typical bright red marinara. It is a deep, brick-colored gravy that transcends the ordinary. John suggests pulling the meats out of the sauce at the end and serving them seperately, so that diners can choose their favorite pieces. But I like to leave everything all together and just go for it.
1 cup pancetta (about 6 slices or 4 ounces)
2 chicken breasts or thighs (left whole or cleaved in half, bone-in, skins removed)
some pork products (like hot Italian sausage, links or bulk, or neck bones)
3 cloves garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh sweet basil, minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
1/2 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste
2 15-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
In a large Dutch oven, render the pancetta over medium-high heat to release its fat. Remove pancetta and set aside. In the same pot, brown the chicken, pork pieces, and Italian sausage in the pancetta fat, adding olive oil if necessary. Work in batches, until a deep crust forms on the outside of the meats. Remove meat, and deglaze pot with a splash of wine. (You can’t cook Italian food without a glass of wine nearby!)
Using a blender, purée garlic, onion, olive oil, and herbs into a smooth paste. The texture of the mixture will be similar to pesto.
Sauté the puréed paste in the deglazed Dutch oven until the color intensifies and the mixture becomes noticeably fragrant, about 10 minutes or so, stirring constantly. Add the browned meat, crushed tomatoes, and 2 cans of water.
Simmer covered over low heat for about two hours, then remove the cover and simmer for another 2 hours. The excess moisture will begin to cook off, and the sauce will take on a thick, rich consistency that coats the meats. It is not necessary to stir the sauce while it simmers. In fact, stirring too often breaks up the meat. You will know when the sauce is done when it begins to cling to the meats.
If you choose, remove meats from the sauce and place in a serving bowl. Serve sauce piping hot over a thick twirling pasta like linguine or fettucine.
Leftovers, if there are any, freeze great or make a wonderful topping for a sausage or meatball sandwich.