Little Nonni’s Baked Spaghetti
My grandmother on my paternal side left her native country of Italy to come to the USA with her husband and three small children. She left her sisters and all her relatives in a small town in Puglia, Santeremo en Colle, and settled in Jersey City, New Jersey. In the 80+ years that she lived in the USA, she never learned a word of English. Her food, however, had a language all to itself, and we knew how much she loved us, not through words, but through her cooking.
She did not like to give up her recipes, not even to her daughter and especially not to her daughter-in-laws. The way my sister and I learned how to make the dishes that we loved was to just sit quietly in her kitchen and watch. We were certain that she would turn her back so we couldn’t see what secret ingredient she was throwing into the pot. Without that special ingredient, whatever it might be, nothing ever tasted like hers.. There was indeed “something” missing, and this made her very happy. We were in her kitchen in Jersey City every Sunday in the fifties, and we continued to watch her every move, and as we got older,one of us could distract her while the other on memorized exactly what was going into the dish. We were so determined to get this recipe to taste just like hers, that my sister took the pan from Nonni once she had stopped cooking. We felt that this banged up pan, that traveled many miles on holidays and special Sundays to bring this dish to our house or the houses of our cousins, was instrumental in achieving this taste from our childhood. We now share the pan. It travels back and forth from New York City to New Jersey several times a year as we continue this traditional meal for our families and friends. When I make it for my father, who is 92 years old, I can see him drift away in sweet memories of his childhood and his mother.
This recipe is actually three recipes in one since you need to make a heavy meat sauce (ragu) and you need to make tiny meatballs. I will include these two recipes as well. It has taken us years to get it all to taste like hers, but we are very close. We took our mom’s recipes for meat sauce and meatballs and watched diligently for those “secret ingredients” of little Nonni’s.
4 cans of Italian plum tomatoes, 28 ounce cans…..make sure the can says “Product of Italy”.
1 6ounce can of tomato paste
1 onion, chopped
1 to 2 pounds of pork spare ribs
1 to 2 pounds of beef ribs or any beef on the bone
1 pound of Italian pork sausage
1/2 cup good olive oil or lard…of course, Nonni used lard and I will sometimes use this or one part olive oil / one part lard
1 1/2 cups of red wine
salt and pepper to taste
In a large, heavy pot heat the oil and /or lard over medium heat. When oil is warm, add the various meats in batches and brown, turning occasionally until brown on all sides. Remove meat as it browns and continue adding until all the meat is browned well and out of the pot. Now add the chopped onions and sauté for 5 minutes or so. Add the wine and then stir and turn off the heat. Now add the tomatoes, which have be “squished” in your hands until basically you have pureed tomatoes. If you prefer, you can pulse them once or twice in a blender instead, but little Nonni would never have done that! Turn the heat back up to medium and cook for thirty minutes. Then add the tomato paste. Clean out the can of paste by swishing a little water around in the can and add it into the pot, stirring to mix the paste in well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook on low for one hour, stirring occasionally. Then put the meat back in the pot and cook for another hour, at least. the longer the better. Make sure you stir occasionally so that nothing sticks to the bottom.
While this is cooking, make the tiny meatballs.
Nonni’s Tiny Meatballs
1/2 pound each of ground beef, veal and pork
1 1/2 cups of Italian style breadcrumbs
3 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 cup fresh, Italian flat parsley, minced
salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil for frying meatballs in a skillet
Combine all ingredients, except the olive oil, in a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, mix thoroughly. Really get in there. If consistency is too wet, just add more breadcrumbs.
Once they are the right consistency, wash your hands, but leave them slightly wet for rolling the tiny balls. They should be the size of grapes. I place them in a cookie sheet as I go along and then fry all at one time. She always used a cast iron heavy skillet to fry the meatballs and so do I. But any skillet will do just fine. Heat the oil. Add several meatballs at a time, but keep an eye not to burn. Keep turning until they are nicely browned. I line another cookie sheet with paper towels and this is where I put the meatballs to drain as they come out of the pot. This will get rid of the excess oil.
Okay then. Now it is time for the baked spaghetti!
Along with the ragu and the meatballs, you will need the following:
3 pounds spaghetti, cook very al dente
2 fresh mozzarella, about one pound each, cut in 1 1/2 inch cubes…roughly cut
1/4 pound sliced prociutto, cut into short strips about 2 inches wide…roughly cut
1/4 cup or less grated Pecorino romano
And of course, THE pan. Since this coveted pan is presently in New Jersey,i am happy to suggest other options. I think an oval roasting pan is the best option since once assembled, this is very deep. It needs a deep pan, so any pan with high sides would do.
1. Heat the oven to 500 degrees, then lower to 450.
2. Once the spaghetti is cooked very al dente, drain it and put it in a bowl and mix it with the oiliest part of the ragu
3. Butter (or use lard or Crisco) the entire pan…especially up the side. Then coat with breadcrumbs.
4. Then layer:
Mozzarella and prociutto (sort of stick it into the spaghetti, don’t just lay on top)
Ragu…not a lot
a little Romano cheese
Continue layering in this manner, until you have reached the top of your pan.
5. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Then take cover off and cut into portion size pieces. Put back in the oven, uncovered, for another 15 minutes. The sides and top will get crispy. Not to worry. This is what they end up fighting for. Once it is out of the oven, let it settle for 15 minutes.
Pass that delicious ragu, and some of your big eaters may have room for the ragu meat.
I hope you enjoy this dish. Yes. It is a bit of a cooking marathon, but you can make the ragu and meatballs in advance.
I can smell and taste it right now. I am salivating. And I can see my grandmother’s smile as we all enjoyed each morsel. I hope your family and friends will feel the love that goes into this dish. THAT is the “secret ingredient!”