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This recipe for marinara sauce with meatballs and sausage, a family favorite, has been in my cooking repertoire since the Carter Administration, which is to say a very long time. I’ve made a number of adjustments and refinements to the original recipe over the years, chief among them the addition of dry red wine. I love cooking with wine—it’s such a generous thing to do for your dinner guests! The Clemenza cooking scene in The Godfather provided the inspiration for this enhancement—after the movie was released on video I had a chance to study his method—so I suppose we ought to thank Francis Ford Coppola. (He produces his own wine, too.) You’ll notice, however, that I don’t precook the meatballs or the sausage before adding them to the pot; they get cooked along with everything else, since the sauce simmers at least four hours on the stove. I tried precooking the meat only once, and found that the sauce took on an entirely different flavor. I prefer my method, since it retains the tenderness of the meat and prevents it from drying out, but by all means, adjust this recipe to your own tastes. You might also wish to substitute turkey sausage and turkey meatballs for the red meats shown here. As my Grandma Monia used to say: Mangia!


1 large (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes (I prefer San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes)
3 12-ounce cans tomato paste
salt, freshly-ground pepper, and garlic salt to taste
one-quarter cup sugar
one-half to 1 cup dry red wine, such as Chianti or Cabernet Sauvignon
one-half cup grated Parmesan cheese, or to taste**
1 and one-half pounds hot Italian sausage, cut into 4-inch sections
1 and one-half pounds sweet Italian sausage, cut into 4-inch sections
2 pounds ground chuck
4 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley
6 eggs
4 cups (approximate) seasoned Italian bread crumbs
1 cup (approximate) grated Parmesan cheese**
salt and freshly-ground pepper

I begin by making the meatballs so that they’re ready to add to the simmering sauce.

In increments, so that everything is blended well, combine ground chuck, garlic, chopped parsley, eggs, breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper. (If you prefer, substitute garlic salt for the garlic in the meatballs.) Keeping a small bowl of water nearby, wet your hands and break off the meat into about 2-inch pieces, rolling into meatballs. Continue the process, wetting your hands as you go. (Take a look at the picture above; the meatball simmering in the pot is the size you’re going for. And take care not to overdo it with the breadcrumbs; you want the meatballs to adhere, but you don’t want them to be dry.) When all of the meatballs have been made, set aside in the refrigerator in a covered bowl.

Chop the canned tomatoes and put them in a large pot, adding one can of water and three cans of tomato paste. Stir well to combine, then add water to the pot until you’ve filled the pot slightly halfway. (Too much water and your sauce will be thin and, well, watery. Plus, when you add your meat and the sauce begins to boil and then simmer, too much water will make the sauce boil over. Trust me: you don’t want that.)

Over medium heat, begin bringing this mixture to the boil, adding salt, pepper, garlic salt to taste along with the sugar before it gets to the boiling point. (Let your taste preferences be your guide in terms of how much seasoning to use. I sprinkle everything fairly liberally to begin with, stir and simmer, and then check my seasonings a couple of times throughout the cooking process.) Add the wine and the Parmesan cheese to the sauce, and stir well, bringing to a boil.

Add the sausage to the sauce.

Add the meatballs to the sauce.

Return everything to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer slowly for four hours. Continue to stir the pot, using a wooden spoon, and scrape up from the bottom in case you’ve let the heat get too high and the sauce starts to burn. The secret here is a SLOW, STEADY SIMMER. If your dinner is delayed for some reason, one of the beautiful aspects of this recipe is that you can keep this pot of sauce simmering for an extra hour. Make sure that you cook it for the full four hours, though, because you want to make sure that your meat is done. Check the sausage before serving; if it’s pink inside, keep simmering it, and the sauce, until done.

This is a hearty sauce, so serve it over a substantial pasta like rigatoni, rather than a delicate angel hair pasta. Toss together a green salad, add a loaf of crusty Italian bread, and mangia!

*Mimi is John’s nickname for me.

** A word about the Parmesan cheese. If I’m economizing (and aren’t nearly all of us economizing?) I’ll use Kraft grated Parm. But on the rare occasions when we’re splurging, I’ll grate fresh Parmigiano-Reggianno cheese for this recipe; I firmly believe in using the freshest, best ingredients that one can afford, and there’s nothing like the real thing.

P.S. Your entire house will smell amazing while you’re cooking this sauce!