A Tale of Two Spaghettis

While we had a wonderful marinara recipe last week, care of my good friend David,  can you really have too much spaghetti? I think not. Few things are as enjoyable to me as a great bowl of pasta, and cooking it can be just as wonderful. For instance, check out one of my favorite ‘food and film’ clips from ‘The Godfather’, with Clemenza making his spaghetti sauce:

Life doesn’t get much better, even for a Mafioso. And so, this week, I give you

‘A Tale of Two Spaghettis’

I grew up in a neighborhood that seems rare today. Everyone knew, well, everyone. While we weren’t so traditional as to have sidewalks, we had big wide streets on which to ride bikes and run. There were kids of all age groups so it seemed for each person there was almost always some else with whom to play. Part of the intimacy of our particular neighborhood stemmed from it being relatively small. It was also slightly isolated in a weird way. We were buttressed on one side by a 4-lane highway, on the other by a deep cement drainage ditch followed by a wide reservoir that led to one of the local refineries. From the perspective of today’s parents, both sides of the neighborhood must seem a terrible danger… and I guess they were. As a kid, though, both sides were a thrill.

Many families in our neighborhood left their doors unlocked. We certainly did. This meant you could run into a friend’s house on a hot day, even if no one was home, and get something from the fridge. Things certainly weren’t perfect… yes, that was us running down the street, laughing, arms held wide, behind the DDT trucks, happy to be getting sprayed to avoid the mosquitoes that are plentiful on The Gulf.  And there was a ‘Blue Velvet’ aspect to our neighborhood for sure. But, seriously, which neighborhood doesn’t? Whatever else was going on, much of this was good.

Looking back, I think part of what made the neighborhood special was that many of the grownups in the neighborhood were born and raised in our town and had grown up together. What a wonderful closeness you must have if you are in your 40’s and 50’s and live down the street from people you’ve known since Kindergarten. I’m very happy living in Los Angeles and have been blessed with an amazing group of friends here who are truly family, but what my parents had was something special, an incredible depth of relationship with the other adults in the neighborhood.

What does this have to do with spaghetti?

One such family down the street was The Doyle family. My dad and Mr. Doyle were law partners for many years and Mom and Mrs. Doyle were close friends, so we spent a lot of time together. I was often at the Doyle’s house, not only because we were all friends but because I was born addicted to good cooking and Barbara Doyle, of Italian heritage, was a wonderful cook. I looked for any excuse to eat down there.

Barbara Doyle

Among many other wonderful traits (did I mention she was a good cook?) Mrs. Doyle had a wondrously infectious laugh that made me laugh, and she laughed often.  Sitting in her kitchen was good times.  She had many specialties but most special of all was her Spaghetti and Meatballs, a huge plate of pasta topped by a beautiful red sauce with golf ball sized meatballs that cooked in the sauce. She made her Spaghetti and Meatballs with intimate care. I loved watching her. If asked for the specific recipe, she’d laugh and shake her head, telling me the recipe was a family tradition and had to be kept secret.

My mom also made spaghetti, but with meat sauce. Mom’s sauce was a kind of Cajun riff on Bolognese, sans the milk. (The first time I read people put milk in meat sauce, I thought it was crazy talk. Then I tried it. Wow, so good.) Mom’s Meat Sauce for Spaghetti is a thick, dense, meaty sauce that comes together pretty easily. It’s terrific. It also could not be more different than Mrs. Doyle’s.


My good friend Paddy Doyle and I used to argue over which version was the best, each defending our own mom’s spaghetti as supreme. I loved Mrs. Doyle’s spaghetti and meatballs, but it was so strange to we Cajuns. Her version is sweet… sugar in spaghetti sauce? While I later found out my mom put a little sugar in hers, it was a scant amount and you would never know. The tastes of these two spaghettis could not have been more different and as kids we wore with pride our own mom’s sauce as ‘The Best.’

I continued to make my mom’s sauce for years. As noted, it is easy to throw together, though the longer you let it cook, the better. It was a staple of mine in college, when I was still learning to cook and worked best with dishes where you did not have to be specific.

I always thought about Mrs. Doyle’s sauce, though. It stayed in my mind… the beautiful way it looked, the strange peppery sweetness, strange at least to my way of thinking. Even after many years of not having it, I could vividly remember exactly how it tasted. So about ten years ago, I wrote to Mrs. Doyle and begged her for the recipe. I was curious to see what I would think of it as an adult. She graciously capitulated and sent me the recipe.

Unlike Mom’s recipe, Mrs. Doyle’s is very specific. She informed me that her family honed the recipe over many years and if you want it to taste just right, you do not deviate from it. At All. Bouncing around the kitchen in excitement, I first made the recipe over the course of a Sunday afternoon and the minute I had the first bite, I knew who ultimately won the kid’s contest. Her spaghetti and meatballs is one of my favorite foods of all time. It is sweet, yes, which on a rare occasion throws a friend who tries it. But it has some black pepper as well and between the pepper and the meatballs that cook in the sauce, the sweetness is not sickly but a surprising, wonderful addition… surprising, at least, if you are not Sicilian. I’ve made this countless times since, for many people, and Mrs. Doyle’s Spaghetti and Meatballs always earns wild raves. I’ve had people stand over the pot, bread in hand, dipping into the sauce over and over, unable to stop tasting it. It’s that addictive. It’s that damn good.

I give you, then, both recipes to try. Mom’s you can make quickly and with a free hand. It is dense, rich and very good. For Mrs. Doyle’s, pick an afternoon and be specific. Your time will be rewarded. I’ve included a few notes in each recipe to help. And this week, I’ve posted the recipes as pages, so this post won’t be miles long. Have fun!

Barbara Doyle’s Spaghetti & Meatballs

Norma’s Meat Sauce for Spaghetti

Give us your thoughts! On your favorite pasta, or a dish that grew in your taste buds with time.

23 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Spaghettis

  1. My mom also made a pretty mean meat sauce that she fortified with grated carrots, bell pepper, and smoked provolone. I haven’t made this in may years, opting instead for turkey meatballs, and more recently, diced chicken breast. Reading this blog post has inspired me to make up a pot of Bolognese, complete with heavy cream and some fresh pasta to soak up every delicious drop of sauce. Please pass the garlic bread!

    1. yes! I even have some frozen from this batch I made for the picture. Let me get past the Cinema Language Seminar (feel free to come) and we can set it up!

  2. Awesome!! I shall have to have a bash at both sauces, I grew up consuming a great deal of Italian food. My parents loved Italy, and I spent a lot of summers in Italy when I was a child. In fact my business partner (who is also a great lover of Italy) and I have been having a lively discussion on the sort of pasta that makes the best meal. I still think that I am the winner… long spaghetti is just great, you don’t get the same suck ‘n’ splatter experience with penne. 😉

    1. Summers in Italy! Wow, sounds wonderful… where? And I agree on long spaghetti.. I mean, I do love Penne occasionally. But nothing beats the twirl and mess of the spag.

      1. All over the place. Although my parents loved the South. The two experiences I will remember forever, are our stay in Amalfi, where my parents took me everywhere. Pompeii, Herculaneum and the best of all, Paestum. There is something completely magical about Paestum. Even decades later I can close my eyes and picture that first experience. The other, Ischia. There is something very precious about the islands in the bay of Naples. I’ve stayed on Ischia, and Capri, the one I would love to spend time on is Procida, that’s the island of Lemons. Ischia is the biggest of the islands, has a rugged beauty all its own. Mum and I used to swim at dusk, Dad would come down to the water’s edge, sit bolt-upright on his partially unfolded newspaper and give us his usual mock-complaint… “Will you hurry up, I’m being eaten alive by mosquitos!”

          1. Ischia is still as awesome even now. There is something so deliciously random about Italy. Especially the bits down south. The person who described Italy as “an emotion” not just “a country” hit the nail on the head. Although I should also mention France, and my ‘Auntie’ Phil’s flat in Menton. Another magical childhood experience. Mum used to go out and paint, and Dad would entertain me, actually, he’d teach me to do things like wire a plug and change a fan belt, and the principles of how to change a flat tire; and he would also cook. He was a marvellous cook (well someone had to be), made the best chips (fries) I’ve ever eaten (before or since).

  3. Tom, I’ve eaten at your house many times, but you’ve never made spaghetti for me 🙁 We’ll have to plan a movie day/night and eat spaghetti. I can’t wait to try it.

  4. The one thing I remember that my father made really well was spaghetti and meat balls – wish I had the recipe, though I doubt one ever existed. Thanks for sharing Mrs Doyle’s. I’ll have to try it with some gluten free pasta. Irish people can make wicked good pasta! (by the way, I know a great old sailing song called Paddy Doyle. I’ll have to send you a recording 😉

    1. I think it would work great with Glute free! This is a pasta dish where you want to use a heavy hand with the sauce anyway 🙂 I would love to hear that song and send it to my buddy from High School!

      1. Yes, and Mrs. Doyle’s daughter is married to my cousin, Mark Durso! Small world, heh?

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