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"Old Stoves", Saveur Magazine and Donatella Arpaia’s Mama’s Meatballs and Ragu

        
         I’ve always been a huge fan of Saveur Magazine and not just because, over the years, they’ve published more of my food pieces than anyone else.  To me, the magazine broke the mold.  The relentless publication of Celebrity chef’s recipes in every other food magazine separates Saveur instantly.  Saveur has recipes you don’t find anywhere else.  They have a particular fondness for grandmothers’ cooking whether the grandmother is called “Opa” or “Ba Noi.”  One of the earliest grandmother stories I can remember was in a 1994 issue of the magazine. A food writer and cooking teacher, Peggy Knickerbocker, took us into the kitchens of a group of home cooks in San Francisco’s North Beach. This center of Italian American cooking was presided over by “Old Stoves”.
        

One of Saveur’s “Old Stoves”,
Rose Pistola

Ms. Knickerbocker explained:” An “Old stove” is gentle, complimentary North Beach slang for someone who has put in a lot of time in front of a lot of stoves in his or her day. Old stoves are sometimes restaurant chefs, or retired restaurant chefs—but more often they’re simply home cooks, with many years of experience making savory dishes for themselves, their families, and their friends. Old stoves are renowned throughout the community for their culinary skills. They’re old souls, legends, well aged and cured. There is not one chance in a million that you’ll have a bad meal at the hands of an old stove.”

        

Donatella and “Mama” Arpaia

The story of North Beach’s Old Stoves went on to give their recipes which all shared a common thread.  Everything they cooked was simmered for hours, and the ingredients were a little loosey goosey.  If they had a chicken neck or a leftover pork chop, it would find its way into their Sunday ‘gravies’ which were, I was to discover, a Sunday fixture not just in San Francisco but in Italian American households all over the country.  I became a collector of these recipes and whenever I see one, I feel compelled to spend a Sunday afternoon trying to replicate it.  This is almost impossible of course because the preferred quantities tend to be ‘some oregano’ or ‘a handful of basil’.  So I was pleased to see that even a chef like Donatella Arpaia, admit “no matter how hard I try, I can’t get (her mother’s) recipe exactly alike.”  But I think that’s the point.         

Rocco and Mama di Spirito

Chef Arpaia is a Long Island girl who gave up her career as a lawyer to launch one in food.  For the past 15 years, she’s been racking up awards from everyone from the James Beard Foundation to New York magazine, which named her meatballs the best in the city in 2007.   Now meatballs are a special fascination of mine so when Donatella’s Blog landed in my email box with a recipe for “Mama’s Meatballs and Ragu”, I was hooked.  You have to be very brave to celebrate your Mother’s meatballs.  The last time it was done in New York, Chef Rocco di Spirito was practically run out of town for featuring his mother’s recipe at his soon defunct “Rocco’s”.  It seemed that anyone with any remote connection to an Italian American mother simply did not approve of Mama di Spirito’s version,much preferring their own and having no qualms about saying so. Nevertheless, Donatella forged ahead and shared her mother’s recipe for their family’s Sunday dinner.  Mama Arpaia’s meatballs are flawless.  They are pillows of ground beef lightened with Italian bread and egg and flavored with garlic and Parmigiano or Gran Padano cheese.   Spareribs and sweet Italian sausage are the meats in the ragu.  These start out whole and as the cooking process continues, they slowly break down into the tomatoes.   The result is a pasta sauce so meltingly rich, so tender that it embraces you like a hug from your Italian grandmother…even if you, like me, never had an Italian grandmother.

         The major lesson here is one Chef Arpaia shared on her blog: In order to get the full flavor into your ‘gravy’, you can’t rush it.  Patience is essential and turning up the heat cannot compensate for long cooking times.  But you will be richly rewarded and the praise will lap over you like a Sunday afternoon nap.  Here is the recipe:


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