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Classic Italian Sauces


During these cold winter months there are any number of clever, forward thinking people who are enjoying homemade sauces using the tomatoes they canned last summer. And as Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School preaches, if these folks have any sense, they'll be looking up some of the classic sauces of Italy.

We're casting a wide net and bringing in a few other sauces that are not necessarily tomato based, just to be a little more comprehensive.

One of the most familiar is Marinara, whose name derives from the word for sailors, the first to bring back tomatoes from Italy.  In many respects this is the classic tomato sauce.  The ingredients are basic:  tomatoes, garlic, herbs and onions, although a few add-ons are certainly allowed, just don't go crazy.  If you have your own canned tomatoes, peeled and de-seeded, that's good.  If not there are some high-end imported whole tomatoes that are wonderful. Cento San Marzano's are regarded as the best.  Marinara is commonly used with the spaghetti shapes.

One of the most popular sauces is Bolognese and it's something you should try to master.  As the name implies, it does come from the northern city of Bologna where it traditionally is used with broad flat noodles.  In Bologna today, the sauce is simply known as "tagliatella" after that pasta.  And you will never see "spaghetti bolognese" in Italy, which would be a crime against la dolce vita.

Bolognese is a slow-cooked sauce that involves a soffritto of onion, celery and carrot, finely chopped beef or veal, a little fatty lamb, tomatoes, either whole or concentrated, a little red wine, and often a bit of milk.  Extra acceptable ingredients would include pancetta, a little chopped mushroom, truffles if you have them, a perhaps a touch of garlic.  No herbs, just salt and pepper.  At the end of the day it is the meat that should dominate.  And about the milk; a little bit adds to the creaminess of the sauce, but it's bland so it won't cover up the meat.

One of the most, hm-hmm, colorfully named sauces is Puttanesca, or sauce of the whores; and it is perhaps the most recently developed.  It comes from Syracuse in Sicily and it came about sometime after WWII.  The sauce is known for its anchovies, oregano, capers and garlic maybe some hot peppers.  Apparently a local restaurateur was implored by his late-night customers to whip up something to fend off starvation, and using what he had at hand, he produced something so basic that he feared only whores would like it.  He was wrong.  It caught on and became the culinary equivalent of Italian street slang.

Finally, one of the more challenging sauces is Carbonara, challenging because you have to cook with eggs that cannot become scrambled.  In the States, it is thought of as "the bacon sauce", but back home the more subtle pancetta is preferred.  So use that if you want authenticity.

Although many recipes call for whole eggs, the best results come with using the yolks only.  The eggs are mixed with grated cheeses and a lot of pepper, and then cooked pasta, sautéed pancetta, its oil and a little pasta water are combined and cooked slowly in a double boiler.  Do not let the bottom of the top pot touch the water, and stir constantly. The result should be a very creamy, golden sauce that goes perfectly with a wide variety of pasta shapes.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.