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