My mom considers this sauce, in all of its deliciousness, a bit of a failure every time she makes it. That’s because 20 years ago she tasted it prepared by the exacting hands of my grandmother’s neighbor and friend, Signora Sofia. Everybody loved Signora Sofia’s cooking in the building where my grandmother (nonna) lived. Scents and aromas emanated from the fissures of apartment 212’s door that would bewitch you. They distinguished themselves from the enticing aromas of the excellent and knowledgeable Italian cooks that surrounded her, including my nonna.
“We always said she left something out, some special ingredient, when she gave us her recipes,” my mom always says when we eat this sauce. She raises her eyebrows and shakes her head slowly and in subtle defeat. “But Serena, that sauce…it was something else. Maybe it was the butter… Now we’ll never know.” I suppose I need to mention that Signora Sofia, along with my wonderful nonna, passed away a number of years ago now.
Fab food blogger Suzanne of A Pug In The Kitchen expressed this beautifully in one of her comments to me: ‘Italian women, especially the older Italian women who are renowned in the kitchen almost always leave some ingredient out of a recipe when they pass it on. Not everyone does this but I know for a fact that some do, the reason they do this is so that their legend will live on, no one can replicate their dish exactly as they made it.’ So true, Suzanne. Thanks for sharing that. I mean, let’s look at some anecdotal evidence…here I am, 20 years or so later, living in Alabama and talking about this wonderful woman.
When I was little and would go visit my nonna, I never realized how special she was. I always just thought of both her (and her husband) as the sweetest elderly people I’d ever met. And I adored her. I would always stop by her apartment because she always gave me chocolates. But if I were to be really honest, I think I loved going there because I was allowed to touch all of Signora Sofia’s nick knacks, especially her husband’s prized miniature steel sculptures in the shape of rockets and wheels. They were all fascinating to me and I loved to run my fingers along their smooth, polished surfaces.
I was especially taken because Signora Sofia never rearranged all the nick knacks I touched the moment I put them back on the shelf, the way my nonna always did. Who knows? Maybe she rearranged them the moment I left her apartment, but at the time I thought they were the most relaxed people I had ever met. My family’s wonderful, but I would never describe any of them, as much as I love them, as relaxed. I would just like to believe she never rearranged them.
As it turned out, she was also an exceptional cook. I was just too young to know it.
But back to the sauce.
I think it’s absolutely delicious. Maybe it’s because even if I did taste Signora Sofia’s sauce eons ago, I don’t remember it, which is good because now that I am an adult I can savor it without fits of nostalgia hitting me in wafts as they do my mom.
I am almost certain that this is an original recipe. I just happened to have the good fortune of inheriting it from family relations. I’ve never seen a recipe that resembles this one online or in any cookbook, and I am thrilled to be able to share it with you. I hope you give it a try and see how special it is.
making signora sofia’s gnocchi meat sauce
Grate 1 large yellow onion and 1 celery heart, which includes the center of the celery along with the leaves and the more delicate, pale surrounding stalks.
I prefer grating to finely chopping because I find it allows the vegetables to cook more uniformly as it also lends wonderful texture to the sauce. Click here for an easy and super fast way to grate both onions and celery.
In a large, heavy saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over a medium-low flame. Add the grated vegetables with a good pinch of salt and sauté for 15 minutes, stirring often. It may seem like a lot of cooking, but don’t be tempted to turn up the flame to make this process go faster. This step slowly brings out the natural sweetness of the onion and celery. Rushing it can make them taste bitter instead.
Once the mixture resembles translucent mush, turn the heat up to medium-high and add 1 ½ pounds of ground pork. With a potato masher, press down on the meat as it is cooking to break it up.
Add some salt to season. How much salt you add depends on the type of chicken stock you use. Go heavier on the salt if you use a salt-free stock, which – by the way – I don’t recommend as it tends to lack in the flavor department. I usually go easy on the salt during this phase because the chicken stock I use tends to be pretty salty. But that all depends on taste and what broth you use. This is the chicken stock I use when I haven’t had time to put an ol’ chicken in a pot with some veggies and herbs for stock. I think it’s delicious and doesn’t have some of the nasty ingredients that other bouillon products have. AND there’s an organic version for a little more change. (Nope! Not getting paid to say this…unfortunately.)
When the meat has turned a grayish brown, indicating that it is completely cooked.
Add 1 cup of dry white wine, or 1 cup of whole milk if you so choose.
Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the wine (or milk) has completely evaporated.
Then add 2 bay leaves and 5 cloves (or ½ teaspoon of ground cloves) and cook for a couple of minutes. Add 1 ½ of chicken broth and 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and bring to a boil.
At this point, lower the temperature to simmer and cook, covered, for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a separate small nonstick frying pan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter on medium heat. Once it starts to bubble, add 6 sage leaves. Cook for a couple of minutes, until you start to smell the wonderful aroma of sage. Do not allow the butter to brown. You just want to cook it just enough so that the sage leaves release their oil, which flavors the butter. Take the pan off the heat and remove the sage. Then pour the butter into the meat sauce and mix very well. The sauce is now finished.