Rigatoni with 20-Minute Sunday Gravy

Family Dinner

When I was a kid, Sunday afternoon meant dinner at Mama’s, my paternal grandmother. We’d all pile into the family Buick and my dad would drive the short distance to her house.

I knew what to expect, and looked forward to it. Mama had been up since the crack of dawn preparing her gravy; the dark, rich tomato sauce that embellished giant bowls of macaroni (which refers to any type of dried pasta) and platters of tender braised beef, meatballs and homemade sausages.

My many cousins would already be there, tearing through the tiny house, doing their best to aim a football at Mama’s collection of Hummel figurines. I’d find Papa, my grandfather, sitting at the kitchen table drinking a beer with a raw egg floating on top, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes.

Soon, a steady stream of people would file into the kitchen; aunts, uncles, cousins twice-removed. Mama would put some homemade red wine on the table, along with a saucer of olive oil seasoned with salt, pepper and fennel seed for dipping crunchy, cold celery hearts.

Papa’s job was to break pounds of long hollow noodles into ziti-sized pieces while Mama brought a huge stockpot of water to a boil.

Now when my own kids come running into the kitchen asking when their food will be ready, I can remember how impatient I was for the pasta to cook. I was hungry! Why did the grown-ups seem to spend so much time yelling, smoking and drinking?

Mama never once sat down, not even when finally, the steaming pasta was set on the table. I made sure to find a spot on my father’s lap, because Mama’s table wasn’t big enough for all of us to sit down at once, and it was first come, first served.

Since I don’t have or care to spend an entire day preparing pasta sauce, I’ve come up with my own interpretation of Mama’s gravy. She’d probably think it sacrilege, but it’s my way of conjuring up a taste of those Sunday afternoons.

20-minute Sunday gravy
for one pound of pasta

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1/3 cup red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/2 cup fresh basil or Italian parsley
1/2 pound ground beef, turkey, or pork( to make this vegetarian-friendly, substitute crumbled soy protein such as Morningstar Farms )
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese

Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and fennel and cook, stirring, until softened but not browned, about 3 minutes. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil. Cook until the wine is reduced to a syrupy glaze, then add the tomato paste, tomatoes and basil or parsley. Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper; cover and simmer 15 minutes.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat the remaining tablespoon oil until shimmering. Add the ground beef; cook, breaking up with a spoon, until done.

Puree sauce with an immersion blender until semi-smooth. Stir in cooked beef and serve over hot rigatoni pasta. Pass the cheese grater at the table.

Copyright (c) 2007 FamilyStyle Food


  1. Lovely!! It’s so real, I swear, I want to wave my hand to clear the smoke away!

  2. You are making me hungry! I could eat this every day.


  3. What happened to those Sunday traditions? That was one thing I remember from being young…Sunday dinners at Grandmas house.

    What a great looking substitution for the real thing! I’m all for time savers.

  4. That veg-protein gravy is like sliding into third all outta breath with a triple. Mmmmm-mmmmm!

    Childhood memories are all well and good, but I prefer to live in the moment.

    (I got a tattoo, you know.)


  5. I like the sound of your recipe. I always put ground fennel in my red pasta sauces. It’s essential.

    Sounds like your family dinners were a lot of fun. Not much like my Sunday dinners in Bountiful, Utah, that’s for sure. Ours were nice too, but very different.

  6. Oh, Karen, this post is dear to my heart! I too have several posts brewing about Sunday dinners–macaroni and gravy, chicken cutlets, meatballs and sausage,etc. Thanks for this vividly imagistic post. I’m so glad Alanna introduced us!

  7. said…

    Alanna – And, I guess that explains why the smell of a smoky pizza joint can provoke a sensory jolt in me!

    Liza, I would cook this for you every day, sweetie.

    Kristen – I know. I feel a little melancholy sometimes when I think that my kids aren’t getting that kind of experience. No Grandmas in sight!

    Tony, you are seriously manly, with or without the tattoo. Maybe it’s the protein.

    Kalyn – It’s interesting how we get used to our own family traditions. I’m sure at the time I thought it might be more fun at some other grandmas house.

    Susan – I am very glad to share with you. Sometimes I think I must be a freak when I watch the Sopranos and feel like I know those people!

  8. All day sauce that doesn’t take all day – perfect.

  9. Karen, Alanna just shared your muffin win! Way to go. The muffins look wonderful.

  10. Thank you for this delicious recipe! I tried it, we loved it, and I am never going to make pasta sauce any other way ever.

  11. Nupur, I’m so glad you liked it!
    And I love the idea of you adding my Italian-American recipe to your amazing repertoire.

  12. That’s a beautiful recipe. I also like fennel in a tomato sauce; when I used to put it in the sauce I used for a vegetarian lasagne, people thought there was sausage in it because of that flavor!

  13. Hi Karen,
    Nupur’s post lead me here and I cannot wait to try this sunday gravy !!
    Only thing is, I live in India and here, we do not get canned tomatoes and nor do we get tomato paste. What we get is fresh tomatoes, all year round 🙂
    We get packaged tomato puree, but it is very different from the tomato paste that you get in US (I have lived in US for some time, so used all these varieties of canned tomatoes).

    Can you give some approx measures for using fresh tomatoes? Also if I use fresh tomatoes, would I need to blanch them, de-seed them .. ?

    It will be great if you could give your suggestions.


  1. […] (some might say stubbornly) swerved toward my mother’s meatballs. Even as much as I loved my grandmother’s Sunday gravy, I was ambivalent about her meatballs. And because each person’s meatball is as unique in form as […]

Leave a Comment