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Help with Old School Spaghetti Sauce with Meat/Meatballs

Hi all,

So, I was in the mood for a really good spaghetti with meat sauce. NOT an authentic Italian ragu/bolognese, which is light on the tomatoes, but a rich, meaty tomato-based sauce. Based on a prior thread on this board (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/361559), I ended up making this recipe for Vita Greco's Gravy Recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/co...

It's good, but I'm not liking the lingering flavor of tomato paste in the sauce, which I can taste, even after following the recipe exactly and simmering for over 3 hours. I'm wondering if the combination of crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, without actual tomatoes, is what I'm not liking about the final result. Anyhow, I'd love to hear tips and tricks on making a really great meaty/tomatoey sauce for pasta.


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  1. "I'm wondering if the combination of crushed tomatoes and tomato paste, without actual tomatoes, is what I'm not liking about the final result."

    I don't understand what you mean here. Crushed tomatoes are tomatoes. Funny, I've used Vita Greco's recipe for years (I have her little homemade cookbook - La Dolce Vita), however I add a chopped onion and I don't use tomato paste or tomato sauce. I found the result to taste the most like my mother's sauce(she passed away many years ago). Try it without the paste and add more canned tomatoes. If you like a chunkier sauce, by all means add a can of diced or hand-crushed whole tomatoes.

    2 Replies
    1. re: lynnlato

      Most crushed tomatoes are canned with added puree, which is what I meant when I talked about the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. My final sauce has a tinny tomato paste flavor, that I think comes from both the crushed tomatoes with added puree and from the tomato paste. I don't think I've ever made a sauce before that only called for crushed tomatoes, rather than some combination of whole tomatoes in the mix. In any event, I did use a can of whole peeled tomatoes in juice instead of the tomato sauce called for in the recipe, so I did have some whole tomato pieces in the mix. I also added a chopped onion at the garlic/tomato paste step of the recipe. If I make this recipe again, I will omit the paste and probably sub two cans of whole tomatoes for two of the three crushed tomato cans.

      1. re: DanaB

        I've used whole tomatoes, then just used a, forgive my typing , I sliced my right index finger tip today, and used a chef's shears to "chop" the tomatoes while in the pot, or even the can.

        But I've gotta say, you need the tomato paste to give the sauce the extra body, not to mention that in the sauce I make, it helps to deglaze for when the actual tomatoes go in. Otherwise, the sauce has no body. I use a CI Cook's country recipe which replicates the GIANT meatballs they serve in the Northeast, which is heavily southern Italian, with a great marinara, not a ragu, although when done oven - frying the meatballs, you put them in the sauce for 15 mins or so. I've had them on the stove for hours while I picked up my M&D at the airport for an hour or more (LA traffic) since it's my Dad's favorite dinner. LMK if you want it & I'll copy & paste.

    2. Vita's recipe looks pretty good. (The pork neck bones are key. I've never used lamb but it could be interesting.) I always deglaze the pans used for frying whatever meats with red wine -- that may help round out the flavor. Also, try cooking the paste in the pan used for meatballs for a few minutes over low heat (most of the fat poured off), then deglaze.

      For the sauce I like to use half crushed tomatoes and half whole tomatoes, broken up.


      1 Reply
      1. re: carbonaraboy

        I thought the lamb shank was a little odd, too, but I went for it. I like to follow recipes closely the first time I make them to give them a fair shot :-) I didn't end up shredding the lamb meat into the final sauce, however, as it still had a pretty assertive taste after the 3+ hours of simmering. I did add the pork from the pork neckbones.

        Thanks for everyone else's comments! While I did saute the tomato paste for a minute or two with the garlic prior to adding it to the sauce, perhaps I didn't saute it long enough. In any event, next time I make meat sauce, I will try it with a combo of whole tomatoes and crushed, and will try to get San Marzanos. I'm still up in the air on the tomato paste, though :-) I also like the idea of deglazing the saute pan with wine. Thanks all!

      2. My recipe is on the link provided above, it's pretty darn good if I say so myself.

        Why not cut the tomato paste amount down a bit, and make sure you saute it for a good five minutes. It takes most of the raw, overpowering flavor out of the paste.

        1. That metallic aftertaste has plagued my sauce every time I use chopped tomatoes. I find the best way forward is to forget them (all together--but you don't have to go that far) for sauce. Buy San Marzano (variety not brand) whole plum tomatoes from Italy. Ideally without citric acid added, but that can be really hard to find here in the States. Open the can into a bowl and then get in there with your hand and crush. Otherwise a passapomodoro (ricer) works well, but with more mess. I think tomato paste can be a culprit as well sometimes. Try pushing your garlic and/or onions to the side once they have cooked, and add a few tablespoons of the tomato paste--half of what you normally might use (you can freeze it) and toasting the paste in the pan for a minute to soften the flavor a little. Then add the rest of the tomatoes. fayefood.com

          2 Replies
          1. re: fayehess

            I was going to suggest buying san marzano tomatoes as well. Their flavor is far better than any other canned tomato I have tried. In a pinch I use organic canned tomatoes, but they're not quite as good. Also, I've found that tomato paste in a tube is also tastier than that in a can. I follow Lidia Bastianich's tip to "roast the paste" in a small section of the pan before adding it to the rest of the sauce. Good Luck!

            1. re: fayehess

              Yes, I only use san marzano tomatoes too.

            2. I'd make just one addition: after cooking the tomato paste for a few minutes, add a paste canful of red wine and cook that in before adding the tomatoes. :)

              1. I've been making this recipe for gray for 30 years without any complaints from the peanut gallery.....give it a try. :0))


                Below are two highlighted comments I made from the above thread, copied and pasted:

                Although the Italian Sausage idea sound intriguing, I prefer the sausage to be sausage when making a Sunday gravy....along with meatballs, spare ribs and braciole......however, I will try this next time I make sauce/gravy ....I am curious to see what the flavor and texture difference will be.

                My meatballs always consist of the following ingredients:

                Ground Beef
                Ground Pork
                Ground Veal
                Day old bread soaked in milk
                Salt and Pepper
                Large amount of Freshly Grated Cheese
                Freshly Chopped Italian Parsley
                Grated Onions and Garlic (very fine


                I do not have the patience to fry the meatballs in a fry pan, so I always place them on a greased sheet pan and cook them in the oven for about 20-25 minutes @ 325* before transferring them to the sauce pot. I have also put the the raw meat directly into the sauce as well with positive results. One tip I read if your intent is to make large sized meatballs....is to place them into muffin pans to reduce the oil splatter. I believe I have also read on this site to include some water into the meatball mix for softer meatballs...although I have not tried this yet myself.

                For some variations, I also include Ricotta into the mix which makes a lighter meatball(not as firm or dense).....and sometimes a small cube of Mozzarella. I have made Ground Chicken and Turkey meatballs in the past and most times no one could tell any difference. i have never experienced the problem of them being loose myself.....I guess I have been fortunate....:-)

                Cpt Wafer,

                My Sunday Gravy recipe above is the basic foundation for my usual method, but it is not etched in stone. Truth be told, I never follow exact measurements or recipes, so the sauce is always a little bit different in terms of seasoning ingredients and the cuts of meat I use, based on what is on hand or what is available at the market (on sale).

                I do not know if it is a virtue or curse, but my background includes working in the restaurant and food industry..... Along with that comes a wealth of knowledge from Professional Chefs(too many ideas) which I have been privy too...and also, I have been able to purchase everything wholesale at reduced prices.....but for the home, buying wholesale other than at the holidays is excessive, so I do shop at supermarkets and in general, I prefer a rustic style of cooking for my home meals. What does this have to do with your query about (gray ingredients)? Shopping retail is very offensive to me...so I only purchase what is on sale on any given week to plan or prepare any meals. Seeing any premium beef cuts over $4.99/lb or chopped meat over $1.99/lb., pork cuts over $1.99/lb., or chicken over .79/lb. is hard for me to take.. Luckily for me I am able to use a knife and can butcher pretty well......and there are some Asian grocery stores with butchers and fish mongers where the prices are very reasonable. When purchasing ground meats, I always purchase the three meats individually and never in a meat loaf three pack mix. Generally, I purchase about 6-7 pounds total (2-3lbs beef, 2lbs pork and 2.lbs veal) which makes anywhere from 40-50 medium sized meatballs.

                Usually, when I make gravy, I make a large amount so I can have leftovers and have extra for my son to take home...as he is a single guy working very hard and does not have time to cook for himself. For tomatoes, I like to use San Marzano when available and two of my favorite brands are La Fede or Pastene...but I also like Cento and Pope too. If I cannot find them, I will use Contadina Crushed, which is the standard brand available at Costco. I use the equivalent of two number ten cans in a large pot and add the meats after they have been browned or not...depending on how lazy I am. The meats used are:

                beef, pork and veal
                pork braciole
                hot and sweet Italian sausage
                baby back spare ribs(first choice)
                st louis style ribs (second choice)

                variations will include:
                pork shank or butt
                pork shoulder
                Chicken carcass and/or dark meat

                My winter time sauces will include oxtails or short ribs for sure........ My sister-in-law's paternal grandmother(RIP), who was regarded as the absolute best Italian home cook. made her gravy with a whole chicken in addition to the pork choices....and her gravy was fantastic. iI would suggest you give this a try as well.

                As I mentioned above, the ultimate recipe used will depend on what is on hand or what is on sale at the market. The supermarket I frequent most usually has manager specials that are unadvertised in the weekly circular. For pork cuts, they will usually have either the pork shoulder(first choice) or fresh butt ham(second choice). or a pork loin roast with ribs. I usually will bone out one of the three and use the bone and some of the meat from them. In the case of the pork loin roast(which I will purchase two quantity of), it would save me on purchasing the ridiculously expensive back ribs(usually 5.99-7.99). I guess on reflecting, the shank and ribs from the loin roast are equal to the pork shoulder for preference...since they both have a good deal of marbling and the shank has the great connective cartilage/collagen. The shoulder and butt are almost always .99 or less and the pork loin roasts are usually from 1.49-1.99.....After boning out the loin roast, I will save the loin for another day...usually a low heat, slow roasted application for quick meals, i.e., slicing for add-ins or sandwiches.

                1. Don't forgo tomato paste.

                  This quick recipe was given to me by my mother, who got it from an Italian neighbor in 1952. What sets this recipe apart from the run-of-the-mill recipes is that it yields delightful-tasting meatballs that are very soft. So soft that when I make this recipe, we spread our Italian bread with the meatballs, as well as eating the meatballs with the spaghetti.

                  1/4 cup good olive oil.

                  A big, fat sweet yellow onion (do not substitute small yellow ones; they taste awful).

                  Garlic. I use eight cloves, smashed or run through the garlic press.

                  2 bay leaves.

                  As much fresh or dried basil* as you care for.

                  A large can of very good peeled crushed tomatoes.

                  A medium can of tomato sauce.

                  A small can of tomato paste.

                  1 lb. ground beef (or 1/2 pound ground beef and 1/2 pound ground pork).

                  1 cup good quality coarse breadcrumbs (hopefully that you've made yourself from a crusty two-day-old loaf).

                  1 egg.

                  1/4 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated finely

                  A pound of thick spaghetti (preferably "number 12" from DeCecco or Barilla), cooked until al dente (chewy) in salted boiling water and drained.

                  In a large frying pan with a lid, sweat the onion and the bay leaf in the olive oil and add the garlic half-way through. The garlic should not be browned (it will become bitter). Add the basil, and salt and pepper to taste. This will make your kitchen smell just wonderful.

                  Separate the onion-garlic mixture into halves. Leave half in the pan, making sure to leave in the bay leaves, and place the other half in a bowl. Add the three cans of tomato products to the pan and simmer, covered, on low heat. Stir this mixture occasionally.

                  Place the meat, breadcrumbs, egg and cheese in the bowl with the onion-garlic mixture. Mix thoroughly and shape into balls about 3" in diameter.

                  After the tomato sauce has been simmering about a half an hour (the longer the better), add the balls to the sauce, raw, and simmer an additional half hour to an hour, covered. You must stir this mixture to keep it from scorching.

                  Check the salt and pepper and serve over the cooked spaghetti. Pass more of the Pecorino, or use Parmigiano Reggiano or Asiago. Serve with good Italian or French bread. Serves 4.

                  In case you're wondering: there's no oregano in this recipe for a reason. Oregano overpowers this dish.

                  1. My go to sauce uses the same crushed tomatoes (albeit san marzano tomatoes), but I never use ANY tomato paste. If you let it simmer lid off you can still get your sauce quite thick without any tomato paste.

                    1. Just made this for the first time this weekend.


                      15 large tomatoes from the garden blanched, peeled and seeded
                      1 large yellow onion sauteed with 8 garlic cloves, 10 fresh basil leaves and about 1/3 cup EVOO for approx 2 minutes
                      crush tomatoes with hand and add to onions/garlic and salt
                      let simmer for approx 1.5 hours, put in the fridge and let sit overnight
                      next day puree in food processor and heat

                      ground pork and beef
                      italian seasoned breadcrumbs
                      salt and petter
                      lots of parm
                      fry meatballs until almost done - add to sauce for 1 hour

                      This was one of the best meals I have made!