To send off The Sopranos, I cooked "la cucina nostra" - some of their food. It was my way to say ciao to Tony, Carmela, Meadow, A.J. and the rest of the characters who have spiced up the HBO television series that airs its final episode Sunday night.
I prepared baked ziti with meatballs, a dish that takes at least two hours to make for the sauce alone. I used a recipe from The Sopranos Family Cookbook. This 2002 book, supposedly written by Artie Bucco, the chef who ran Nuovo Vesuvio restaurant in the TV series, had as much trivia in it as tips about food.
Author Michele Scicolone gets credit for the recipes, which were hard to follow. But, as Paulie Walnuts would say, "whaddaya gonna do?"
As I paged through the book, I considered making several dishes that had figured in the Soprano legacy. There was, for instance, Carmela's ricotta-and-pineapple pie. It was that pie, along with a threat, that persuaded an alum of Georgetown Law School to write a letter of recommendation for Meadow, whom she had never met. Meadow ended up going to Columbia, so I passed on the pie.
The spaghetti-puttanesca recipe also initially looked promising. Uncle Junior had said that one tip for living a long life was to eat a bowl of spaghetti every day. Another was to have lunch with friends three times a week, and "if they resist, insist." But I recalled the incident in the restaurant kitchen, when Benny Fazio stuffed Artie's hand in a pot of boiling spaghetti sauce, and the dish lost its appeal.
There were unpleasant associations with pizza, too. When A.J. and his buddies vandalized their school, it was their distinctive pizza order, extra mozzarella, for a pie they had delivered to the school that police used to link them to the crime. Also, Christopher Moltisanti's father, Dickie, was whacked outside a pizza joint.
Ziti, on the other hand, has made frequent, mostly happy appearances at Soprano gatherings. A.J. touted his grandmother's baked ziti; it was one of the few nice things anyone had to say about Livia Soprano, the manipulative mother of Tony and Janice. Father Phil, the parish priest who seemed to have eyes for Carmela, definitely had a thing for her ziti. And when at the urging of Janice, Bobby Bacala finally ate the ziti made by his deceased wife that he had been keeping in the freezer, his relationship with Janice began to heat up.
It didn't take me long to cook the ziti, but preparing the Sunday Gravy and meatballs that went with it took most of an afternoon. Sunday is the only day most people would have time to make this dish.
I also noticed that some of the steps in the recipe seemed to be dictated more by a sense of ritual than by common sense. The tiny meatballs, for instance, were supposed to be browned in a skillet, then cooked in the gravy, then pulled out and finally reunited with the ziti. Many of my meatballs "had an accident" in the process.
Likewise, the order to pull the Italian sausages and pork out of the gravy and save them for another day gave me pause. So I disobeyed; some of the Italian sausages made it into the ziti gravy. No disrespect intended.
The finished dish, like The Sopranos, was complicated. There were a lot of things going on under the surface. It was not subtle, and parts of it ran red.
When I was putting the dish together, it seemed out of proportion. But in the end, it delivered. It had deep, rich flavors. It was satisfying. It disappeared too quickly, and when it was gone, there were calls for more.
Baked Ziti With Little Meatballs
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound ground beef or combination beef and pork
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sunday Gravy (see recipe)
1/2 pound ziti
salt to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (divided use)
1/2 cup ricotta
4 ounces mozzarella, cut into small dice
To make the meatballs: Combine all the ingredients except the olive oil and the Sunday Gravy in a large bowl and form mixture into meatballs about 2 inches in diameter. Heat the oil in a large frying pan, add the meatballs and just brown them. Once Sunday Gravy has simmered for 2 hours, add the meatballs to the gravy and let them finish cooking in it.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring at least 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the ziti and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the ziti is al dente, about 10 minutes.
Draw off about 3 cups of Sunday Gravy from its pot and separately remove the meatballs, along with the sausages and pork already in the gravy. (Put away the rest of the Sunday Gravy for another use; the sausages and pork can be served as a second course or saved for another meal).
Drain the cooked ziti and put it in a large bowl. Toss it with about 2 1/4 cups of the Sunday Gravy and half the grated cheese. Stir in the meatballs.
Spoon half of the ziti mixture into a shallow, 2- to 3-quart baking dish. Spread the ricotta on top of the ziti and sprinkle with the mozzarella and half the remaining grated cheese. Pour on about 1/3 cup of the remaining Sunday Gravy. Top with the remaining ziti, the rest of the gravy and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
Cover with foil and bake in the oven until warm throughout, about 20 minutes, then remove foil and bake for another 5 minutes.
Adapted from "The Sopranos Family Cookbook"
Per serving (based on 6 servings): 562 calories, 35 grams protein, 27 grams fat, 11 grams saturated fat, 43 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 154 milligrams cholesterol, 731 milligrams sodium
Makes about 8 cups (see note)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound pork meat
1 pound Italian sausages
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup tomato paste
3 cans, 28 ounces each, Italian peeled tomatoes
2 cups water
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
6 basil leaves, torn into small pieces
Heat oil in bottom of a large, heavy pot. Brown the pork and sausages, then set them aside. Drain most of the fat from the pan, then brown the garlic over medium-high heat, for 2 to 3 minutes. Once garlic has exuded juices, remove it from the pan. Add the tomato paste and cook it in garlic juice for 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the cans of tomatoes, cutting the whole tomatoes into pieces. Add the water, salt and pepper to taste, then add the basil, and the pork and sausages. Bring the mixture to simmer, partially cover the pot and let the mixture cook over very low heat for 2 hours.
(Note: This recipe can be cut in half. But because the sauce stores well and could be used later to flavor any pasta or with lasagna, it makes sense to make a large batch and refrigerate the leftovers.)
Per cup: 100 calories, 3 grams protein, 3 grams fat, trace saturated fat, 12 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 532 milligrams sodium