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Bringing back a Sunday dinner favorite: grandma’s pasta sauce

A sauce and meatballs recipe that was long dormant gets revived by two families.

Growing up, one of my favorite family traditions was Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house in St. Petersburg. My grandmother would cook all day long, making a delicious, unique sauce from scratch that we’d eat with short pasta, meatballs and Italian sausage.

My grandmother died in 2000 and I ended up with her handwritten recipe for the sauce and meatballs. But I could never really re-create it, or maybe I just never really tried. But this summer, my mom, Linda Guggino Humphers, was inspired to make the sauce and meatballs. Here’s her account of how it happened.

Mrs. Guggino’s Sunday Sauce

Before I tell you how a Sunday dinner recipe can bring old friends together and fill in decades of lost memories, bear in mind that my parents were married for seven years before I was born and it wasn’t until I was 9 years old — 16 years into their 57-year marriage — that my father finally told my mother she’d been mispronouncing our last name.

“It’s Goooo-JEEEEN-oh,” he said, “not Ghuh-Gheen-uh.”

Nine-year-old me sat stunned and thrilled by this new information. But I got it. My mother wasn’t one to believe there was only one way to do things, especially pronunciation and cooking.

While my mother thought variation was normal, Sunday dinners in the ’50s and ’60s on my father’s side of the family had a routine. Dinner always took place at my Sicilian grandmother’s house in Tampa, always with a pile of relatives and friends, always starting with a chicken (from the yard) or a chicken soup (from the chicken from the yard) and followed by the main course, which was short, fat ditalini with sauce.

Linda Guggino Humphers and Louise Guggino, in front of their house in St. Petersburg in 1962. [ Courtesy of Linda Guggino Humphers ]

Not spaghetti, mind you, not that long stuff (though we used the word spaghetti loosely to describe all pasta), and a mild sauce, not gravy as New York Italians call it, but sauce — succo — that was always topped with meatballs, a hunk of creamy ricotta cheese (homemade) and freshly grated Romano cheese, not Parmesan. And we always ate our pasta with a spoon. As the food was coming out, one of my cousins always stood up on her chair and yelled, “No succo, no succo!” I guess because she didn’t like tomato sauce. Silly girl.

On those Sundays when we didn’t make the trek from St. Petersburg to my grandmother’s house, my mother often made her own version of Sunday sauce, which simmered for two or three hours, filling our tiny kitchen with the best aroma in the world. Mama’s roots were Cajun so her sauce included nutmeg, bay leaves, oregano, cinnamon and, yes, a pork chop.

That’s really the sauce I remember. Simple and exquisite, light and bright, not heavy or angry. Her meatballs were another treasure of tender, juicy perfection. Whenever I invited my childhood friends to come over, sauce and meatballs is what we ate, usually with elbow macaroni because we couldn’t find ditalini on our side of the bay in those days.

Mrs. Guggino's Sunday Sauce over shells with meatballs, hard-boiled egg and Italian sausage, topped with grated Romano and ricotta cheeses. [ Courtesy of Linda Guggino Humphers ]

As the years went by, though, the Sunday gatherings in Tampa grew smaller as the first generation died and cousins and siblings splintered into their own family rituals. At some point in the 1980s, my mother began buying jars of Classico Tomato and Basil Pasta Sauce instead of making her own, and eventually, our Sunday “spaghetti” dinners just stopped. I mostly forgot all about them except for the occasional letter or mention from someone who remembered my mother’s sauce and meatballs.

And then, in the middle of July in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, I got a text from one of those childhood friends telling me what her niece was cooking that night.

“The famous Mrs. Guggino’s pasta sauce,” Jodi texted. “I should run over there and just breathe in the wonderful aroma.”

I texted back that she had put a huge smile on my face, and then I pitifully added, “Can I get the recipe?”

“Really? You don’t have it?”

“I don’t know where I’d look for it ... how embarrassing, right?”

Mrs. Guggino's Sunday Sauce bubbles on the stove top while pasta boils in the pot. On the left is a pork chop that's cooked in the sauce for flavor, [ Courtesy of Linda Guggino Humphers ]

Jodi said her niece had the recipe and she’d get it from her when she could. I was pretty sure my daughter Maggie could come up with my mother’s actual recipe, but she was on vacation in Key West. So Jodi and I began reconstructing it from memory. We did pretty well, but a few things were still fuzzy: I couldn’t remember the amount of water to add, or the amount of tomato puree or tomato sauce, and was there any tomato paste involved? I was happily obsessed with re-creating Mama’s sauce and already had a Sunday family dinner planned.

A couple of days later, Jodi located the recipe for “Mrs. Guggino’s Spaghetti Sauce.” It seemed to have far less herbs than I remembered and it didn’t include the bay leaves. But at least I had the water proportions and the correct tomato ingredients. I was still picturing Mom’s original handwritten recipe.

When Maggie finally found it, I laughed out loud. It was a stained, disjointed list of ingredients. Some things were crossed off and others added, just a checklist, no instructions.

Jodi said her family got a kick out of the fact that she and she alone had the most authentic recipe. I say that Jodi, a retired librarian, deserves all the credit for preserving an heirloom recipe of such extreme importance. Aren’t I lucky to have such a friend?

Jodi's neatly written recipe for Mrs. Guggino's Sunday Sauce. [ Courtesy of Linda Guggino Humphers ]
Louise Guggino's handwritten recipe for her Sunday sauce and meatballs. [ Courtesy of Linda Guggino Humphers ]

And so, being my mother’s daughter, I don’t believe there’s only one way to do things. In my new version of the sauce, I added a lot more basil and oregano, left out the garlic powder, left out the salt because canned sauce has plenty, stopped myself from throwing in my favorite seasonings (rosemary and red pepper), and yes, I added the pork chop, which my husband and I scarfed down the next day with a fennel and avocado salad.

Despite the few changes, Mama’s sauce turned out exactly as Maggie and I remembered it: a sauce that makes you sit up and smile.

I was most surprised that the two teaspoons of sugar in the recipe really mattered. I intended to leave it out altogether, but nope, upon tasting the sauce after an hour and again an hour later, she was right about that proportion for toning down the acidity without taking it away altogether.

The meatballs were luscious and delicate. They are baked, then added to the sauce during the last half-hour of simmering, along with a few hard-boiled eggs and some broiled Italian sausage links.

As delicious as that magnificent, fragrant sauce is, having the recipe back in my life also filled my heart with memories of those easy Sunday afternoons with family and friends. And best of all, I love knowing that my mother’s sauce lives on, not just in my family, but also in my lifelong friend Jodi’s big, wonderful clan.

Sunday Sauce and Meatballs

For the sauce:

¼ cup olive oil

1 large onion, minced

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 large (28-ounce) can tomato puree

1 large (28-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 ½ cans of water (or 3 cups)

Salt, to taste

Dash of black pepper

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon basil

1 tablespoon oregano

2 bay leaves

Dash of nutmeg

Dash of cinnamon

Zest of 1 lemon

1 pork chop

For the meatballs:

1 pound ground chuck

2 beaten eggs

2 handfuls regular bread crumbs

1 teaspoon basil

½ teaspoon oregano

½ teaspoon salt

Dash of pepper

2 or 3 tablespoons of your sauce

1 tablespoon Romano cheese, plus more for serving

Ricotta cheese, optional

Make the sauce: In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat oil and add onions, cooking them about 10 minutes at medium heat until softened. Toss in the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the puree and sauce. Stir. When it starts to bubble, add the water, salt, pepper, sugar, basil, oregano, bay leaves, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon zest and pork chop. Simmer the sauce for at least 2 hours, stirring very occasionally.

While the sauce is simmering, make the meatballs: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients in a bowl, then form smallish balls ― be careful not to over-handle or they will be tough. Place meatballs on a broiler pan. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, then turn each one, or not. After a total of 20 or 25 minutes, they should be done, about 150 degrees internal temperature. Let the meatballs cool a little, then transfer them to a dish so they’re not completely greasy when you add them to the sauce. You will want a little grease though, for flavor.

A half-hour before serving the sauce, remove the pork chop and add the meatballs. You can also add Italian sausage or hard-boiled eggs that you’ve cooked earlier.

We like the sauce best with short, fat pastas, such as shells or ditalini. Serve with grated Romano and ricotta cheeses.

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