James Ricci’s incredelicious pasta sauce recipe
by Maria (Hercher) Struck
Newspaper columnist James Ricci, who is/was to The Detroit Free Press what John Schneider is to the Lansing State Journal, was a daily “must-read” for me when we first moved to Lansing from Detroit in the early 80’s. In fact, we could ill afford it, but I insisted on subscribing to two daily newspapers because I needed to stay in touch with my familiar and beloved columnists from the Freep: Ricci, McWhirter, Talbert and Harris. Being an at-home mom at the time, I was thus better able to keep my fingers on the pulse of the world.
One day Ricci ran a column about the ethnically rich pockets of the old Detroit neighborhoods and the foods that defined them, and especially how he was convinced that the food factor — in Italian neighborhoods at least — sparked Amore. With just the right combination of nostalgia, irony, mockery and sensitivity, he described the sights, sounds and aromas that emanated from the homes and streets of his youth….and mine.
As soon as Ricci began describing the foods of his Italian heritage, I could smell the pungent but delectable aroma of garlic that wafted from Mrs. Amico’s kitchen next door. At least twice a year she was asked by Father Anthony DeSantis to prepare an Italian feast for neighboring parish priests– sometimes as many as 12–who were gathering at Patronage of St. Joseph rectory just down the block for “Forty-Hours Devotions.” She would cook and bake for weeks in advance, and the neighborhood kids would hang around her front porch hoping to be invited in to taste the lasagna, meat sauce, cannoli, or whatever other mouth-watering delight she had in the oven or on the stove. But Mrs. Amico was special to her German immigrant neighbors in another way: she made the first pizza pie (in those days we added “pie”) that my sisters and I ever tasted in this country. As if it was yesterday I remember looking at this round, flat, foreign-smelling concoction of pepperoni, tomatoes, and melted mozzarella cheese and thinking, “How am I ever going to eat this and keep it down?!” … Well, was I surprised! There has not been a pizza baked since then that could compare to any that Anita Amico pulled out of her Culver Street oven.
With Ricci’s words continuing to evoke memories, I was swept back into Mrs. Provenzano’s kitchen, where at any given time at least six kids-–some who lived there, some who were friends of those who lived there, some who were friends of the friends of those who lived there—were hanging around, waiting their turn at the bottomless pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove, and the warm garlic bread just out of the oven. Her sink and counter were piled high with dirty pots and pans, the stove covered with more pots and pans, gurgling, bubbling, boiling, and sending delicious smells into the air. This woman loved cooking and spent her life in the kitchen doing just that for anybody who walked in the door –-no questions asked.
Sal, Angie, Pete, Vince and Theresa, five of the eight Provenzano kids, had a regular and steady stream of followers to their home, whether they were leaving school, a basketball game, a cheerleading practice, or a choir session. I never stopped marveling at the generosity and informality of the Provenzano “Open-Kitchen Policy,” which was still going strong even when I left the neighborhood in the late 60s. My mind’s eye will forever replay the scene of kids of all ages leaving the house, screen door slamming behind them, happy, yelling, smiling, laughing, well-fed, and totally oblivious to the spaghetti stains on their clothes. I know for a fact that Sister Mary Martin Ann collected more than one English homework paper punctuated with Mrs. Provenzano’s spaghetti sauce.
Ricci’s column coursed along in this nostalgic vein, referring to the sensuality of food, especially Italian food, and most particularly, Italian food with garlic, and how, among Italians, the garlic invariably triggered Love at First Smell. His article went on to list ingredients, measurements and necessary utensils essential to the making of pasta sauce. I cut out the piece and tucked it away in my growing pile of mostly-never-to-be-looked-at-again “stuff.”
Months later I ran across the Ricci article again, and thought “Hmmm, this might be a real recipe after all, not just a put-on. I should try it.”
Madre Mia! Even my adolescent boys loved it. On evenings when they had dates with girls whose reputations I deemed to be a tad short of virginal, I exercised my maternal duty and put extra garlic in the sauce, but had the wisdom to pretend ignorance: “Oh, I didn’t realize you were going out tonight, but I’m sure you can have a little of the Ricci Sauce anyway. No one will be able to tell.” Of course they wouldn’t be able to resist, and, to my great relief, reeked of garlic all night. (I had to be careful not to outsmart myself though, since I was taking a big chance that my sons would come home engaged if the date happened to be Italian.)
I still have that original yellowed 2” x 3 ½” piece of paper that contains the main recipe from the column. I’ve had to retrieve it from under the refrigerator, behind the stove, in the spice rack, and search for it within pages of magazines, but I have it! I’m sure I’ve never made the recipe the same way twice, substituting this for that, doubling an ingredient, or cutting another in half, but the garlic cloves have remained constant.
Over the years I have figured out why I’m so attached to this recipe. It’s good stuff, to be sure, but certainly every family has its “Best Ever” ethnic favorite. I’ve concluded that this particular recipe takes me back to the days of my youth through the language, the smells and tastes that vividly bring to mind old classmates, friends, and neighbors in a carefree and innocent time when my biggest worry was how to finish my shorthand homework during Sister Crispin’s algebra class, and the most grievous sin I could conjure up for Saturday confession was talking during Mass while exchanging holy cards.
So, to James Ricci I say, “Grazi.”
And to the Amicos, Aversanos, Bommaritos, Carrieras, Cassanis, Comitos, Finazzos, Frontieras, Giardinas, Grazianos, Leones, Lotitos, Merpis, Minchellas, Palazzolas, Pelleritos, Provenzanos, Scalicis, Spinas, Tagliones, Torrices, Tuccis, Ventimiglias, Vitales, Vultaggios, and those I’ve forgotten who lived in Detroit’s east side Gratiot-Harper neighborhood in the 50s and 60s, I say… Salut!
Maria R. (Hercher) Struck
James Ricci’s article in part:
“Here is a recipe for a simple garlic, tomato and fresh basil sauce from Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking. It is meant to be tossed with about a pound of cooked thin pasta called spaghettini. No cheese is to be used.
Combine in a saucepan 5 cloves of finely chopped garlic, 1 ½ cups of coarsely chopped *fresh basil leaves, 2 cups of canned Italian plum tomatoes (drained, seeded and coarsely chopped) 1/3 cup of olive oil, half a dozen twists of freshly ground pepper and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook uncovered over medium-high heat for 15 minutes.
Oops, I almost forgot: Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon. It should come in handy also for fending off amorous persons in the neighborhood.”