All Things Italian, (Especially an Italian Tomato Sauce Recipe)
My introduction to Italian food (and an Italian Tomato Sauce Recipe) came about in, of all places, Doncaster, South Yorkshire. I had just become the proud owner of my first show-jumping horse, and both she and I spent the next two summer holidays living, working and learning in Arksey, Doncaster, in a tiny house with numerous big stables and an enormous stable yard belonging to the legendary Lanni family. Mrs Lanni, a tiny, loveable lady was, I believe, a member of the Masserella family, well-known in both the show-jumping and the ice-cream world. Her two sons, John, small in stature but a formidable show-jumper, and Carmen (charming and very good-looking) knew everything and everybody involved with horses.
Still not that adventurous with food (and certainly not with Italian food) I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mrs Lanni’s cooking. On my first morning, after mucking out loads of stables, grooming both my horse and the Lanni’s huge international show-jumpers and being schooled over the practice show-jumps by John, a brilliant but hard teacher, I was so hungry that I felt ready for anything. Tidying myself up before lunch, in my tiny but cosy bedroom, I wondered what was for lunch. Would I like it? Judging by the aromas wafting up the stairs, it smelled good. But I was still anxious.
I needn’t have worried. Mrs Lanni’s cooking opened my eyes and taste buds to real Italian food, and my food adventure really began.
“You like Italian food? Sure – you like Italian food,” said Mrs Lanni on my first day.
I nodded, not daring to say “Not sure.”
So sitting in the tiny kitchen, at a formica-topped, mini kitchen table, I tasted my first real Italian taste. I believe it was the equivalent of Beef in Barolo – slowly cooked brisket of beef, braised for hours in tomatoes, onions, carrots, garlic, seasoning and red wine. The intense aroma filled the kitchen, even the house and filtered out into the stable yard.
“But first you ‘ave the pasta with the sauce. This is ‘ow we eat this. Then I slice the meat and you ‘ave it after.”
(What I love to this day is the memory of the Lanni’s voices – part Italian, part South Yorkshire and part upper-class words thrown in from the ‘posher’ clients they had dealt with. It always makes me smile when I remember those voices.)
Well, one mouthful of Mrs Lanni’s food, and I was hooked. The flavour of the sauce, cooked with the brisket, was strong, not sweet. More like roasted tomatoes, slightly charred around the edges, mixed with the meat juices and wine. I have tried many times to recreate the mouthwatering aroma and taste of that dish, but never quite made it. I just live on the memory of it.
My other major lesson at the Lannis’ house, apart from all things horsy, occurred one lunchtime. After the usual morning of looking after the horses, Mrs Lanni called out to me to make sure I brushed my hair and looked as clean and tidy as possible because they had a special guest coming. So looking as neat as I could in denims and a clean jumper, I went down for my lunch. Sitting at the mini-kitchen table was a man straight out of an Italian film – about 55 years old, streaky, silver wavy hair and those crinkled Italian eyes that teenage girls long to see smiling at them.
“Now – you meet the Count. This is Count Palastrelli, he come to buy ‘orses for the Italian show-jumping team from John and Carmen. Sit down and ‘ave your lunch.”
Dumbstruck, tongue-tied and feeling suddenly very scruffy, I tentatively smiled as the Count stood up, reached out for my hand and kissed it, smiling.
“Buon giorno. So pleased to meet you. Let us sit down.”
My imagination clicked in – I half-expected a mandolin player to waltz in and serenade us – that’s what happens in Italian films, isn’t it?
But no, not in Doncaster. So I sat down.
Mrs Lanni refused to eat with the Count, maybe out of deference or maybe there just wasn’t enough room around the table for three to eat in comfort. She was very happy just to oversee the food.
“Now, you ‘ave a treat, Astrid. Real Italian spaghetti – not that awful stuff in tins. This Tomato Sauce is a sweeter one than the one I cook with the brisket of beef. With tinned tomatoes, slowly cooked with a tiny bit of bacon, a little onion and a pinch of sugar. That’s all you need. Oh, and the Count has been kind enough to bring me a present from Italy. Real parmigiana – not that disgusting ground dust you buy here in a carton. You try this and you will see what real Italian cooking is all about. Yes?”
I nodded, visibly blanching. Real spaghetti was impossible to eat whilst trying to look at least a bit sophisticated a la Sophie Loren. My horror must have showed. The Count smiled at me again.
“OK. Now, follow me, what I do. For this, we have a serviette.”
With a flourish he swished the white cotton serviette, and neatly tucked it into his collar.
“Now you, dear girl.”
I tucked my serviette carefully into neck of my woolly jumper.
Smiling again, the Count scattered a handful of freshly grated parmigiana (parmesan) cheese over his dish then picked up his spoon and fork.
“In Italy, we love food – food is to be eaten with gusto. Copy me with the spoon and fork, and when you get it wound round your fork as neat as is possible, open your mouth and just enjoy the taste of the tomatoes and pasta. Don’t worry about being delicate and tidy – that’s what the serviette is for – so just suck up any long strands of spaghetti that have escaped. It may splash your face, but that is the fun of it all.”
So there we sat, opposite sides of a little table slurping up our spaghetti joyously, occasionally dabbing the sauce splatters on our faces, and I relaxed into the fun of it. By the end of the lunch, we got on famously. But how I wished that I looked like one of the girls in the films, in a floaty dress and coiffed hair – not dressed in slightly muddy denims and an old jumper. To this day, whenever I eat Italian food, especially spaghetti, I remember the Count, and always follow the instructions and enjoy my spaghetti ‘con gusto’.
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion or 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 25 g pancetta (or bacon)
- 1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp tomato puree (sun-dried tomato puree if possible)
- 800gm tinned plum tomatoes
- Pinch of sugar
- Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta/bacon and onion and cook for approx. 3 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic for 2 minutes to soften gently. Add the tomato puree, and stir well for a minute, coating all the ingredients.
- Break up the tinned tomatoes with a spoon and add to the pan. Add a good pinch of sugar. Stir well.
- Simmer gently for 40 minutes until all the ingredients have merged into a thick, rich sauce. Keep tasting and season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Either eat straight away with pasta, or cover and store in fridge when cooled, or freeze.
Omit the pancetta/bacon if you want a pure, vegetarian Tomato Sauce. Or add some chilli (fresh or dried) to give the sauce a ‘kick’ of heat. The addition of fresh basil leaves sprinkled on top of the sauce when eaten give the traditional Italian flavour.