Take the Cannoli

Godfather Spaghetti Sauce…

“Come over here, kid, learn something. You never know, you might have to cook for 20 guys someday. You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it to make sure it doesn’t stick. You get it to a boil, you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. And a little bit of wine. And a little bit of sugar, and that’s my trick.”

That’s 82 words of unpretentious culinary genius right there. And a classic scene from one of the greatest films in the history of American cinema. Simple. Iconic. And delicious.

This, of course, is the legendary passage in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 blockbuster “The Godfather.” Peter Clemenza (played brilliantly by Richard S. Castellano) teaches Michael Corleone (a young Al Pacino) how to make Sunday gravy – or sauce. It’s a quick scene that doesn’t contribute much to the plot, but it is Castellano’s second-most-memorable line in the film. (What could be better than “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”?)

Sunday gravy is a classic dish among Italian Americans – and it has as almost as many names as recipes. Spaghetti sauce. Italian gravy. Bolognese. Picadillo. Ragù. It’s a simple, meat-infused gravy, often made on Sundays. The extended family would gather around the family table and enjoy the gravy over pasta or polenta.

The earliest documented recipe for a tomato-and-beef based sauce served over pasta can be found during the late 18th century in a northern Italian village named Imola, near Bologna. The chef, Alberto Alvisi, prepared the meal for the future Pope Pius VII.

Over the years, many cultures and cooks have contributed to evolution of the recipe. Most families have a recipe that was handed down from generation to generation – each with their own spin on the basic ingredients. Some like it without sugar. Some like more garlic. But just about every family member loves a good Sunday gravy.

One side note: I have a younger sister who makes the best spaghetti sauce I’ve ever tasted. I’ve had it at least a half-dozen times and all I can tell you is that it is flawless. She learned the recipe from her Italian-born mother-in-law who lived next door to her. I’ve begged her for the recipe, but she claims there isn’t one. She does it by feel. Just like Chef Clemenza.



Prep Time: 30-45 Minutes (Including cooking the sausages & meatballs)
Cooking Time for Gravy: 60-90 Minutes


• 2 T olive oil
• 3-4 garlic cloves
• 2 6-oz. cans tomato paste
• 1 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes (San Marzano preferred)
• 1 28-oz. can of diced tomatoes
• 5 Italian sausages, grilled and sliced • 1 lb. meatballs, cooked (about 10-12 meatballs)
• A splash of Italian red wine (Chianti works fine) • 1⁄8 cup sugar

Step 1:
In a large pot, heat the oil over medium to low heat. Add garlic and cook with the oil for 1-2 minutes, being careful not to let it the garlic burn.

Step 2: Add the tomato paste to the garlic. (“You make sure it doesn’t stick,” warns Clemenza.) Step 3: Add (or “shove in,” as Clemenza says) canned tomatoes. Stir continuously until thesauce is smooth (about 8-10 minutes).

Step 4: Add in your (cooked) meats and stir until incorporated. Step 5: Add a splash of wine and sugar to taste.

Step 6: Reduce the heat to low and let the sauce simmer at the lowest level for 60-90 minutes – stirring occasionally. •

About Terry Olson

Terry loves culinary arts, adult beverages and hiking in the North State wilderness. You may find him soaking up the sun at one of our area’s many state or national parks or sitting on a barstool sipping on a cold locally brewed craft beer.

Related Posts