It's all about the sauce.
If you're from an Italian-American family, and there's pasta on the table, the meal will be evaluated on the basis of the tomato sauce.
Going to a wedding? The post-wedding analysis will be dominated not by the appeal of the bride's dress or the best man's toast, but by the quality of the sauce.
It's always about the sauce.
"Absolutely," said Clarice Squillace, 62, of Shelby Township, Mich. She used a mix of one-fourth ground pork and three-fourths ground beef to flavor her entry in a recent tomato sauce taste-test contest at the Italian American Cultural Society in Clinton Township, Mich.
Her Italian immigrant father and his relatives always critiqued pasta dishes at banquets and parties, said Squillace, a member of the UAW International Advisory Board for Retired Workers. When her father, Giorgio, died in 1986, she addressed the people at the meal following the service by asking: "What do you think George would have thought of that sauce?"
Tomato sauce is fundamental to the identity of Italian-Americans, even as Italian dishes are common staples of the U.S. diet. In the past 12 months, food-sales tracker Symphony IRI reports $360 million worth of tomato sauce was sold in the U.S., according to SupermarketGuru.com editor Phil Lempert.
"Italians," Squillace said, "always will go to restaurants expecting to taste their own sauce."
So, it took courage for Squillace and 13 other women and men to present their homemade tomato sauces for public scrutiny and judging. At stake were family traditions and convictions — meat vs. non-meat; long-simmered vs. freshly sauteed; secret ingredients vs. tried-and-true garlic and olive oil.
The contest was sponsored by the Federazione Abruzzese del Michigan. It's a club whose members have ties to central Italy's Abruzzo region, which stretches from east of Rome across the highest point of the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic coast.
There is no store-bought sauce in Dawn Bartolomeo's home in Washington Township, Mich. — nor in Teresa D'Aristotile's kitchen in Sterling Heights, Mich., or Mary Bucciarelli's house in Shelby Township. All three watched as the contest judges sniffed and sipped their sauces.
Bartolomeo, 41, a mother of four, uses homemade sauce three times a week from home-canned tomatoes. Her sauce is a combination of tomatoes, basil, garlic, sirloin, pork and spices, simmered all day long.
"We blow through it," said her son, Dario, 10, who accompanied her to the contest. "We don't have to do fast-food when we have sauce," his mother explained.
D'Aristotile, 55, eschews long-cooked sauces in favor of crushed tomatoes, basil, garlic, salt and pepper sauteed for about 20 to 30 minutes. "So fresh. So good. So light," said her husband, Lelio D'Aristotile.
Bucciarelli, 71, makes a big batch of sauce once a month and freezes portions to make "spaghetti sauce dishes twice a week — Sunday and Thursday." She was born in Michigan, to immigrant parents, but "my household is still very much Italian."
She uses the basic recipe she learned from her mother and adds her own twist. When she braises the meats she uses to flavor the sauce, she adds red wine.
She cooks for a grown son and daughter. "My kids expect it from me. It's important for me to continue to impress them," Bucciarelli said. "They seem happier when I make Italian dishes."
Her son, 47-year-old Elio, the Abruzzese club's vice president, was a contest judge along with members Elio Ripari and Carlo Di Virgilio. The contest was a blind taste test. The cooks brought their entries into the club's kitchen, where staff assigned numbers to each entry, kept them warm and presented them in serving bowls for testing.
Before the judging, club president Enzo Paglia announced the scoring system. Each sauce would be scored in five categories: aroma, eye appeal, taste, aftertaste and texture. Each element would be rated on a scale of 1 to 5 — for a maximum of 25 points — and according to the following code:
1. I don't even want to taste it.
2. Can't recommend it.
3. It's good enough for non-Italians.
4. I can recommend this.
5. Tastes just like mamma's.
The judges' noses sniffed each sauce bowl for defining scents. They dunked bread into the competing sauces for a taste. Or they sipped sauce poured into a plastic cup to evaluate each offering.
The winner was Amalia Morga, 74, of Sterling Heights. She emigrated from the Abruzzo town Opi in 1955, and worked as a cook for several years at a banquet hall in Eastpointe.
Her winning recipe contained sirloin sauteed with onion and garlic. She adds plum tomatoes she's either canned herself or bought. She adds an Italian sausage link to the sauce for flavoring — but only after she boils it and bakes it to remove the fat. She takes out the sausage and adds a bay leaf near the end of a two- to three-hour simmer. She seasons with a little parsley, salt and pepper. If the tomato sauce tastes sour, a pinch of baking soda removes the acid tones. She brought her homemade lasagna to Thanksgiving dinner at her daughter's home.
"Are you sure you like my sauce? It's so plain," a humbled Morga said at the contest. Club president Paglia, her brother, presented her award — an Italian pasta bowl.
She asked him if he had anything to do with the award. Nothing, he vowed.
Another brother, Sergio Paglia, 64, a Warren, Mich., retiree, entered his tomato sauce that night, too. He's been ribbing Morga for 40 years that his sauce is better, contending that his added twists of red-pepper flakes and tomato puree up the flavor.
"Now," Sergio Paglia said, "she kind of proved she was right."
"He always said his is better than mine," Morga said. "So now I said: Too bad. Mine is better."