Every Italian family has its own special ingredient or cooking method for gravy — some braise several different cuts of meat for added savoriness, some add toasted fennel seeds for flavor, and some even add sugar to sweeten the gravy. This is my family's version, which is made with Italian sweet sausage, red wine and San Marzano tomatoes, Italian plum tomatoes similar in taste to Roma tomatoes, but less acidic and more flavorful.
Makes 6 to 8 servings, with leftover meatballs and gravy
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 sweet Italian sausage links*
3 (28-ounce) cans San Marzano tomatoes
2 whole garlic cloves
1 large yellow onion, minced
3/4 cup red wine
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt, to taste
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound ground pork
1 cup freshly made breadcrumbs (dried, store-bought breadcrumbs may be substituted)
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1/8 cup olive oil
1/8 cup canola oil
1 pound of pasta
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
7-8 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
In a large, heavy pot over medium-low heat, warm 1 tablespoon olive oil and add whole sausages. Cook 4 to 5 minutes on each side, or until browned all over. Remove from heat and cut into 1/4-inch slices.
Pour the tomatoes into a large bowl, and crush them with your hands (or use a food mill if you prefer).
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in a deep, heavy pot over medium heat. Add garlic cloves and saute for about 2 minutes, or until golden brown and aromatic. Remove the garlic and discard. Add the onion and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until softened. Pour in the tomatoes (with their juice), red wine, crushed red pepper and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Place the meat in a large bowl. Add breadcrumbs, cheese and parsley. In a small bowl, beat the egg with some salt and pepper; add to the meat mixture. Mix the ingredients with your hands until the consistency is moist and the meat holds together well. If it's too dry, add a bit of water or another beaten egg. If it's too moist, add more breadcrumbs. Once the consistency is right, using your hands, roll the meatballs into 1 1/2-inch balls. It should make about 22 to 24 meatballs.
Mix the olive and canola oils in a large skillet over medium heat. Fit as many meatballs in the skillet as you can without overcrowding so you have room to turn them. Cook about 2 to 3 minutes until browned, then turn over and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, until all sides are evenly browned. Place on a paper towel-lined plate to absorb any excess oil. Repeat as necessary.
The meatballs can also be baked if you prefer not to fry them. To bake them, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place meatballs on a tinfoil-lined baking sheet (for easy clean up) and cook for 20 minutes, or until browned.
Add the cooked meatballs and sausage to the gravy after it has simmered for about an hour. Simmer for an additional 60 minutes (or up to 3 hours if you want it thicker and richer). If the sauce becomes too thick, then simply add small amounts of water or water mixed with a bit more red wine. Stir in the fresh basil just before adding gravy to the pasta.
In the meantime, cook pasta in salted water until al dente. Once cooked, add the gravy, top with meatballs and sliced sausages and sprinkle with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and more fresh basil.
*Sweet Italian sausage and San Marzano tomatoes can be found at Italian specialty markets, delis and most major supermarkets.