The Red Sauce Trail
Growing up in New Jersey back in the bad old days of American gastronomy, “Italian” food inevitably meant the same thing, wherever you found it: deep fried, breaded and pounded veal cutlets, swimming in red sauce with a raft of gluey semi-melted cheese on top, overcooked spaghetti, usually pre-prepared in large batches, rinsed of its starches in cold water, reheated and then indifferently topped with a ladle of the same red sauce as above. Enormous, bready meatballs, fragrant with dried oregano, baked ziti the consistency of caulking compound..
Fine dining Italian didn’t depart too far from this, adding the occasional Crespella or zuppa but making sure to keep the classic moneymakers (see spaghetti and meatballs) around. I’m not saying I hated that stuff either. I love big, bready meatballs and generic red sauce—especially on a hero roll around 2 O’ clock in the morning. Baked ziti? I admit to experiencing a frisson of desire every time Tony Soprano would reach into his fridge for some cold leftover. I secretly looked forward to deaths in the family of high school friends—because their houses would suddenly and magically fill up with short women in black dresses, all of them cooking mysterious and delicious red things in foil containers.
I grew up eating generic, droopy, utility quality pizza—the kind you let sit on the board for a while so the cheese could congeal—before eating while walking, wide-stanced, to avoid the grease, down the street. I admit to a deep love for red sauce, the kind we all joked, was pumped through a central “Sauce Main” from one Italian restaurant and one pizzeria to another throughout New York and Northern New Jersey.
Problem was, none of that stuff was really “Italian”. Or so it suddenly seemed. Somewhere in the late 70’s or 80’s, red sauce was no longer cool. It was no longer authentic. Tuscan was “in”. Italian “regional”—code word for anything but the South—was the order of the day. And to a great extent, still is. You could eat in Italian restaurants in New York for ten years and never even see red sauce.
We were almost made to feel bad about any secret appetites we might retain for spaghetti and meatballs—now that we knew they were actually called polpetti, should be made much, much smaller, and were never ever ever to be served in the sauce with the pasta.
Guys like Pino Luongo and Mario Batali introduced us to a nearly red sauce-free world of infinite Italian variety and deliciousness and our first love, who, we were vaguely aware, had harkened (we had been told anyway) from Naples—was cruelly forgotten.
Not too many years ago, I married an Italian, and started spending a lot of time in Italy. And in all my travels, I didn’t see anything resembling the “Italian” food I’d grown up with there either. I started to wonder: This “Italian” food of Italian American New York and New Jersey that I’d grown up with…this cuisine , supposedly from the enchanted land called Naples…Did it even exist? Had it ever existed?
My imaginings of the place were based, I realized, entirely on the ubiquitous idealized murals of Naples Bay on the wall of every restaurant and pizzeria from my childhood—and from the frankly, disparaging remarks of my friends from the Italian North—most of whom referred to Naples as somewhere slightly above Hell in the desirable places to go list—and as vaguely “not Italian”.
So, I thought, let’s go.
Let’s find out. Let’s follow the red sauce trail right from the presumed “end” in New York’s Little Italy, all the way back to the “old country”. Let’s see what we find. Let’s see where this whole “Sunday Gravy” came from—if it even did come from anywhere but Fort Lee or the Lower East Side.
What I found, was surprising.
I will be shooting episodes of 24 Hour Layover during the airing of Monday’s premier. (No Reservations episodes will resume shooting in September). I will, therefore, be unable to watch the show in real time, much less live tweet while doing so.
Thankfully—or regrettably (I’m not sure which yet), my wife, @Ottaviabourdain WILL be drunktweeting during the episode. She promises to knock back a bottle of lambrusco and do her best to embarrass me with behind the scenes notes and general observations. Though I dread the whole thing, I imagine it will be entertaining.
This (both the sauce hunt and Ottavia’s drunktweeting) should be spectacular.