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The Recipe That Kept Us Together

After a shocking tragedy, Suzy Vitello drew strength from her mother-in-law’s sauce

two photos on the left is author suzy vitello and her grandson luca cooking pasta sauce on the right is a family photo from about thirty five years ago

Courtesy John Clark

Left: Suzy Vitello with grandson Luca sampling the spaghetti sauce. Right: Evelyn Vitello (Suzy’s mother-in-law), Suzy Vitello, Lisa Walker (Evelyn’s daughter) circa fall 1988, around Thanksgiving.

En español

New Year’s Eve 1983, outside a ranch house in suburban Buffalo, New York. My boyfriend, Frankie, turned and said, “Ready?”

I was 22, and this was my first time as an I-want-you-to-meet-my-parents girlfriend. If my previous, short-term boyfriends had even had parents, they had been tucked away, only emerging to bark out warnings regarding muddy shoes or reminders to take out the trash. My own parents had recently split. They were younger and wilder than most. I loved them for their outrageousness, their intelligence, their passionate flailings through life, but their divorce created, for me, a vacuum. In my senior year of college, I felt adrift and yearned for an intact family.

Enter Evelyn and Frank Vitello. Bona fide ’50s sitcom parents — the Italian American version.

I plunged my frozen hands into the pockets of my parka and followed the boy who would become my husband into a family room redolent of party food: roast beef, pizza and wings. Along the perimeter of the room, perched upon puffy-seated folding chairs, sat the aunts. So many aunts. And a layer of young cousins. A couple of grandmothers. And a large, balding man — Frank Sr. — who grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into the center of the room. “Frankie,” the man bellowed, “are you kidding me with this one?”

“Frank!” yelled Evelyn from the kitchen. “You’re scaring the poor girl.”

“Calm down, Jumbo,” he responded, his meaty hand leading me into the nest of family. “I need to check her closely and figure out what’s wrong with her.”

The aunts laughed. And by the end of the night, the people in that ranch house had become my new family. They nourished me with love and stability and a lifeline.

In Evelyn (“Ma” to her kids and, ironically, “Jumbo” to her husband, even though she was lithe as a fawn), I found a kindred spirit. Where my own mother was brilliant and somewhat aloof, Evelyn was grounded in her no-nonsense compassion. A high school math teacher universally beloved for her toughness and caring, Evelyn smoked, gambled and guided the Vitellos through illnesses, tragedies and squabbles. She made sure all occasions were marked with flowers and food. Especially food. For that big New Year’s crowd, she offered finger food. But when close family came to visit, Evelyn made her sauce and meatballs. The stainless-steel pot filled with simmering sauce — and a Buffalo Bills game blaring in the background — often marked Sundays in football season. Ma’s sauce was for the inner circle only: the ones who gathered around the boomerang Formica table that separated the kitchen from the swirly iron banister that looked over the family room.

A life cut short

Frankie and I started our marriage in Phoenix, Arizona, moving to downstate New York after our first child, Sam, was born. Whenever we visited Buffalo, it was a full-on joyous occasion: the simmering, spooning, tasting of the sauce while shuttling back and forth to a pinochle game. Supper (never call it dinner) was macaroni (never call it spaghetti, no matter how long and stringy it might be), iceberg salad with oil and vinegar. After supper and dishes, I’d sit at that boomerang table, and Ma (her breath Chiclets-fresh after sneaking outside for a smoke) would entertain me with stories of her young adulthood: confrontations with brash and sexist school administrators, the audacious demands of her own cantankerous mother.

Oh, those happy, early days.

Then, three years into our newlywed life, with a second baby on the way, Frankie was killed in a car crash when the other driver fell asleep at the wheel and plowed head-on into him. The rip through the Vitello family fabric left a huge scar. The senselessness of a 25-year-old new father suddenly dead. Mass cards poured in. Casseroles and pans of sustenance. Who could eat, though?

Grief enveloped us all. Frankie’s only sibling, Lisa, along with her husband, Jim—parents to two babies themselves—made space for me and my two babies in their California condo. What a strange household we must have seemed to the neighbors: three adults and four children under the age of 2. We shared the cooking, cleaning and caretaking, and looked forward to visits from Ma and Dad. And Ma, whether sitting on the sofa with her grandkids, reading picture books or changing diapers, never concluded the visit before making a couple batches of sauce. She stirred and steered her family through grief. Her only son was dead; still, she had no choice but to keep living, for her husband, for her daughter, for her grandkids and for me.

She made sauce. We ate the sauce. And, as time went on, she taught me to make the sauce.

The recipe was handed down from her own mother-in-law, back when they used tomatoes from their gardens. Evelyn modified the recipe for her 1950s kitchen, and eventually I added my own touches, too.

Evelyn passed away a few years ago. In her final months, her appetite waned, but her steady hand on the tasting spoon endured. She would no doubt have been pleased to see that her firstborn great-grandchild—my 2-year-old grandson, Luca—has just learned to stir a pot of the simmering sauce. He and his younger siblings and cousins won’t have the privilege of knowing Ma, but when they gather round the table on macaroni night, they’ll feel her love.

plate of spaghetti and meatballs with sauce

Courtesy John Clark

Ma’s Sauce and Meatballs

Serves 8

For meatballs:

2½ pounds lean ground beef

3 eggs, beaten

1¼ cup Italian style bread crumbs

1 tablespoon dried parsley

¼ cup grated Romano cheese

1½ cup packaged herb stuffing mix

A few sprigs of fresh fennel, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix ingredients with hands, then slowly add warm water until mix is very moist but still holds its shape.

Form mixture into balls, cover with foil and refrigerate.

For sauce:

1 pound country-style pork shoulder, bone-in preferred

2 29-ounce cans tomato sauce

2 bay leaves

Half of a green pepper, seeds and ribs removed

One pinch red pepper flakes

Tomato paste to thicken sauce, if needed

Water to dilute sauce, if needed

½ teaspoon baking powder

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400˚F. Bake pork until browned, turning once, 5 to 6 minutes per side.

In a large pot, mix tomato sauce, bay leaves, green pepper and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and add raw meatballs and browned pork. Reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally, at least two hours.

Remove pork and transfer to a bowl. Shred meat and discard bone, if any. Return shredded pork to pot; simmer another 30 minutes.

Discard green pepper and bay leaves. Add water or tomato paste to arrive at desired consistency. Just before serving, add baking powder to cut acidity.

Nutrients per serving: 538 calories, 43g protein, 30g carbohydrates, 2g fiber, 27g fat, 190mg cholesterol, 1,187mg sodium


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Suzy Vitello, 60, lives in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of four novels, including Faultland. This essay was originally published at EatDarlingEat.net, a website about mothers and daughters and food traditions.

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