Italian Nonnas Share Their Secrets to Making the Best Pasta Sauce
Main takeaways: patience, mushrooms, and wine.
Photo by the author
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the best food is made by the hands of loving grandmothers. And while many of us can spend hours waxing poetic about our favorite plate of dumplings or pizza, few ever dive deep enough into the family recipe book to discover just what makes granny’s food so special.
Having spent the last three months traveling, I was thinking about my own granny a lot lately. I’d decided to judge a pasta sauce contest at the Great Italian Festival in Reno, Nevada, and the sight of so many families merrily stirring away made me more homesick than ever. I craved a home-cooked meal so badly I began to see the face of my short, militant grandmother in every passerby.
To satisfy my curiosity (and desire to borrow a grandma), I decided to poll every sweet ol’ Italian nonna at the festival for their pasta sauce secrets. Here are their findings in all of their tasty, savory glory.
1. Take your time.
The first booth I approached had not one, but two resident nonnas. It belonged to the Marini & Aimone family who represented the Genoa & Piedmont regions in Italy.
“You want to know our secrets, you ask us in Italian,” they began, grinning broadly.
I do not, in fact, know a lick of Italian. I fought the urge to make silly noises and continued.
“The secret is love,” said Nonna #1, beaming.
Nonna #2 chimed in. “Pancetta, sweet sausage, mushrooms, onions. You cook it for a long time: the slower it cooks, the more the flavors meld together. That’s why you want to cook it five, 10 hours sometimes.”
Five hours?? I have trouble waiting 30 minutes to make a stir-fry.
2. Let the garden guide you. Use whatever’s fresh and in season.
The Caranos hail from Genoa, Italy. Having opened up the Eldorado resort back in 1973, they’re as close to Italian royalty as you’ll find at this festival.
“You’ll want to start off by making the pasta by hand,” Bob, the resident nonno, began.
The house nonna, Laurie, continued, “You need quality ingredients, and everything they grow in the garden at home always has the best flavor, so you want to always try to use the best quality ingredients whenever possible. We were lucky—we had our own livestock, our own pigs and things.”
No good fresh tomatoes? Grab a can of San Marzanos.
3. Taste, taste, taste.
The Finazzo family was from Palermo. The nonna handed me a small cup of sauce to taste as she spoke.
“Don’t rush it. Let it simmer for at least an hour before you taste it and then make adjustments. We don’t use any measurements at home; we only go by taste.”
4. Balance is key.
The Capurros represented Ligura & Genoa, and were one of the original founders of the festival 37 years ago.
“We make pesto first then the red sauce,” began Suzanne. “People come up here and more often than not they want the pesto...then they try the red sauce. Basil, lots of garlic, a little parsley (7:1), parmesan, bam bam bam!” she finished.
“We use about 3 pounds of burger to 2 pounds sausage to 1 ½ pounds ground pork. We only use salt and pepper; we don’t use any other spices,” Suzanne's husband Bob chimed in.
“We also hand chop all our veggies! We don’t use a Cuisinart,” added Suzanne.
I ask if that makes a difference.
She throws up her hands and giggles. “I don’t know!”
5. Mushrooms are magic.
The Aramini family tipped me off to one of their favorite ingredients: mushrooms.
“We come from Northern Italy near Genoa in a small village called San Marco D’urri. My nonna’s red sauce recipe has Italian sausage and the secret ingredient is the porcini mushroom we put in it,” said John.
The Lopriore family from Bari echoed that sentiment. “We use mostly dried portobellos and sautee them with olive oil and onions for the base,” said their fantastic nonna, her bedazzled apron glittering in the sunlight.
6. Experiment with herbs and spices.
Basil, parsley, thyme and oregano are common, but they aren’t the only spices you can use in a pasta sauce. The Pieretti family from Tuscany had lots to say about this.
“We throw some uncommon spices in our sauce. We use traditional spices like thyme, oregano, sage and parsley, but we also throw in a couple Middle Eastern spices, too!”
“We sneak a little sugar in there sometimes as well” added their nonna, smiling. “It’s part of my father’s recipe. He came from Italy and was forever making spaghetti sauce.”
7. Wine is your friend.
The winning family, the Lazzarono family from Asti, were devout fans of vino.
“My nonna always said, ‘You need a cup of wine for the pot and two for the cook’,” said the girl behind the counter. “I also use red wine, a Cab. I also like a meaty sauce and use Italian sausage and pork to give it that extra flavor.”