This is the best Sunday Gravy / pasta sauce I've made, and it is the closest I've ever gotten it to taste like my wife's grandmother's sauce. It was my favorite meal she cooked, and she would sit all day in the kitchen watching the sauce, making meatballs, and frying chicken cutlets. While I still haven't gotten her chicken cutlets down, this sauce is the closest I've gotten to her recipe.
It is a slow simmered (takes 2+ hours) sauce that is velvety and smooth and tastes like home. Every family is very particular with their sauce or Sunday gravy and we are no different. We like a smooth sauce with beef and pork simmering away giving a rich savory warmth. Onion, but not too much. Dried herbs, but fresh basil. A secret ingredient that makes all the difference, but will differentiate it from your aunt's secret ingredient she swears by. Homemade Italian-American sauce is so personal and so unique to each family, and I hope you can taste the love in it with this one.
Big-Batch of Spaghetti Sauce Recipe
NOTE: This recipe makes 18 cups of sauce. It is a lot, but this is the good sauce and it takes a few hours. I usually double it and freeze in batches. If you want a quick and easy marinara good for one pound of pasta, check this Weeknight Marinara out.
Sunday Gravy vs. Sauce
Here's the thing, not everyone calls it gravy. Both tomato sauce and Sunday gravy are tomato-based red sauces, but there are people who will proudly argue that gravy is different. The best answer to explain the difference is the addition of meat in your sauce. Specifically, meat that has been stewing in the sauce for hours; it isn't that same as adding some chopped up sausage or ground beef to sauce. It's not a bolognese.
Growing up, we shared an alleyway with my best friend whose South Philly Italian mother first introduced me to the term. I grew up on cheap jarred sauce, and she was appalled when I mentioned it. Her mother, Maria, owned the biggest pot I ever saw in a home kitchen and the aroma filled the alley when she cooked it. Finally trying it, I saw the difference. Sunday gravy is an art form that differs greatly with each family recipe.
My wife's grandmother was the same way with her gravy.
The best meat for pasta sauce
As established, every family takes their Sunday Gravy seriously with their own specific cuts of meat. My childhood friend's mother would change the meat frequently, throwing in bone-on pork chops or different cuts of beef. My wife's grandmother was more methodical adding a 2 to 1 ratio of sweet to hot sausage and her homemade meatballs.
Italian sausage, meatballs, short ribs, frank steak, chuck roast, pork necks, pork shoulder, and country ribs are all common meats you'll see in the millions of varieties online. You'll see a lot of recipes using pork bone-on cuts for that velvety richness, but I have a work around if that's not your thing.
For this, I use something my wife's great grandmother preferred to use, according to her stories she used to tell me when I tried to memorize her recipe. She never measured and never wrote it down, so it took years of watching to even come close.
I simmer a stick of sweet soppressata salami in my sauce and always cook meatballs in the sauce. Soppressata is a type of salami made with fatty and lean cuts of pork, red wine, dried chilis, salt, and other seasonings. It's a flavor bomb in all the best ways. For even more depth of flavor, I add beef stock/broth to my sauce. You'll see some people use red wine and/or water, but the beef stock adds a subtle richness we love in my house.
Whole Canned Tomatoes Spaghetti Sauce
I use whole canned tomatoes for my sauce, specifically San Marzano tomatoes. Now, DOP San Marzano tomatoes (abbreviation for Protected Designation of Origin) are the real deal tomatoes according to the food celebrities I grew up watching on TV. These can be pricey (like $5+ a can), and they're not widely available. The two Italian women I grew up watching cook Sunday Gravy, however, used the Tuttorosso brand which was cheap. I settle for the middle ground and get the store brand DOP San Marzano tomatoes for $3-ish a can.
Whole tomatoes taste better than crushed or pureed tomatoes. I wish it wasn't true because it adds a step, but there is a difference. If working with whole tomatoes, you can crush or blend them depending on preference. If you like a chunky sauce, the tomatoes usually break down while stewing for 2+ hours. You can pre-crush the tomatoes with your hands. It's rustic and makes you feel like an Italian Nonna. We like a smooth sauce in my house, so I blend using an immersion blender.
If crushing tomatoes with your hands or spending money on a stick blender is not for you, just get crushed or pureed tomatoes. I do like blending my garlic and half of my onions in the sauce. If you forgo the blender, you're going to have to chop the garlic and the onions yourself (or just remove them after cooking).
Cooking meatballs in sauce
Meatballs add so much flavor to sauce. I firmly believe the added flavor makes the sauce better. When I make a batch of this sauce, I always make meatballs. It will be delicious without, but go big or go home. I make a double batch of this sauce and do 48 meatballs when stocking my freezer. It leaves me with about 2 gallons of sauce and meatballs I can thaw at any time.
If you are pan frying or baking your meatballs, you can still get all the benefits or the flavor. The brown bits on the bottom of the pan, the fond, adds a delicious meaty umami flavor to sauce. I pan fry my meatballs and then ladle a few cups of sauce to the pan to deglaze. Scrape with a wooden spoon to loosen the brown bits, and add back to the sauce. You could do the same with beef or chicken stock or even red wine. I think red wine is delicious with it, but it's not the sauce I know and love.
If you are cooking meatballs in sauce, make sure you consult the recipe for simmering. My meatballs (which are delicious and even better if you do half pork and half beef) take about an hour to fully cook on a simmer.
Making Sunday Gravy in the slow cooker
You can make Sunday Gravy in the slow cooker, but I wouldn't cook meatballs in it. Truthfully, I'm not speaking from a food safety reason. I just can't picture delicious meatballs in a slow cooker, and it weirds me out. If you have experience with it and you like it, go for it. The soppressata will totally be fine in it though.
Most slow cookers are 4-6 quarts. If you are making this, you will need a 6 quart slow cooker and, again, this does not include meatballs.
Storing homemade pasta sauce
Homemade tomato sauce or Sunday gravy can be stored for 3-4 days in the refrigerator in an airtight container or frozen 4-6 months. I store and freeze in these BPA free plastic containers. The 16 oz. containers are great because they are 2 cups, and I do 4 cups per pound of pasta (which is a generous saucy pasta). If you freeze in glass jars, make sure it is freezer safe--usually wide mouth jars only.
I have halved this recipe from how I usually cook it. This recipe will make 18 cups of sauce which is good for 4-6 pounds of pasta depending on if you are a 3-4 cup of sauce per pound of pasta family. You'll need a large pot, especially if you cook meatballs in there. You can split between two pots.
- 1/4 Cup Olive Oil
- 6 Cloves of Garlic
- 18 oz. Tomato Paste
- 2 Tablespoons Italian Seasoning
- 1/2 Tablespoon Dried Oregano
- 1 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes (optional)
- Four 28 oz cans of Canned Whole Tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
- 1 Large Onion, quartered
- 4 cups Beef Stock (or Broth)
- 4.5 oz Sopprassata
- Fresh Basil
- Kosher Salt
- Parmesan Cheese (optional)
- In a large pot, heat olive oil on medium heat. Remember, this makes 18 cups before meatballs so plan accordingly.
- Saute whole garlic cloves in oil for about 30 seconds before adding tomato paste, Italian seasoning, dried oregano, and red pepper flakes. Cook for one minute.
- Add whole tomatoes (and the juice they're in), onion, sopprassata, and beef stock. *I pour beef stock into can of tomatoes to get all tomatoes out.
- Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Stir occasionally. After 1 hour, remove sopprassata, half of the onions, and blend sauce with an immersion blender.
- Add sopprassata back in, taste, and add salt or more seasoning if preferred--this will depend greatly on quality of ingredients and preferences. If you prefer adding parmesan cheese directly to your sauce, do this before you add salt since the cheese is salty. If you are cooking my meatball recipe in the sauce, add the meatballs after blending and simmer for another hour.
- After the sauce has simmered for two hours, it is ready to serve. You can let this simmer for several more hours to concentrate the flavor, however the meatballs only need one hour.
- Cool before freezing any portions you plan on saving. Serve pasta with fresh basil (it makes a huge impact).
IF YOU ARE NOT BLENDING: You can either finely chop the garlic and dice the onion or strain it out. You can also used crushed tomato or tomato puree.
Regarding nutritional information: The soppressata is not included in the nutritional information. It is removed after 2 hours of cooking. It does affect the nutritional information, but there is no way to tell how much it does without lab equipment and a better understanding of science that I do not have. I simply tally the information through MyFitnessPal and even that is not an exact science. For what it is worth, a 1/2 cup is 72 calories without the soppressata and 92 calories assuming the whole thing was consumed evenly. Use that information however you'd like.
Serving Size:1/2 cup
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 78Total Fat: 2gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 482mgCarbohydrates: 14gNet Carbohydrates: 11gFiber: 3gSugar: 7gProtein: 3g