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Marinara Fit for a Don 

Pasta Clemenza gives you a destination for all those tomatoes going off right now

Leave the Gun. Take the Cannoli.
— Pete Clemenza

In "The Godfather," by Mario Puzo, is a scene where Pete Clemenza shows Michael Corleone how to make spaghetti and meatballs. Clemenza was the smoothest character in the story, after the Godfather himself, of course, and quite possibly a better cook. That scene, especially in the movie which is much more detailed, definitely improved my pasta.

Clemenza was a jovial reaper, poetry in motion as he mixed business with pleasure, as a wedding dancer, a chef and as an orchestrator of hits. Like on Pauli, for example, the driver who set up the boss. On the way home from a cannoli run, they pulled over so Clemenza could take a leak, and he never got back in the car, which was now covered in Pauli's blood, thanks to Rocco in the back seat. They walked home and brought the cannoli, presumably ricotta-stuffed, to a room full of angry men, and proceeded to cook them dinner. The Don was in the hospital with gunshot wounds, thanks to Paulie, and the men were preparing for war.

Pasta Clemenza made with cannoli-like pasta. - ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari Levaux
  • Pasta Clemenza made with cannoli-like pasta.

Clemenza pulled Michael Corleone aside to give his future boss some bits of unsolicited, if solid advice on love and cooking. After telling youngest Corleone to sing to his girlfriend, he says, "Come over here kid learn something. You never know you might have to cook for 20 guys some day. You see, you start off with a little bit of oil. And you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it you make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil you shove in all your sausage and your meatballs. Add a little bit of wine. And a little bitta sugar. And that's my trick."

At that moment in the story, Sonny burst in. "How's Pauli?" Clemenza kept stirring his sauce. "Oh Pauli? Won't see him no more."

A few decades later, a certain Dadfather had problems of his own. No gunshot wounds to speak of, thankfully, but his two sons weren't behaving in a manner befitting the children of a sensitive chef. They purported zero interest in dinner, from his kitchen, at least. Other kitchens had take-out, take-and-bake pizza, macaroni and cheese and Chef Boy Ardee, to name a few improvements to the Dadfather's fare, where no dessert is served until salad is swallowed, and the cooked food is often too chunky.

The Dadfather had to dig deep up the sleeve of his white, sleeveless undershirt, similar to the shirt he imagined Clemenza wore, where he found Clemenza's trick. Using the fresh tomatoes of summertime, he took care to ensure the spaghetti was thick with meatballs and the sauce was not chunky.

It was a pasta they couldn't refuse.

Pasta Clemenza

When you haven't gone to the mattresses and you have the time, you don't need paste and canned tomatoes, especially when they're in season. Either way, this dish really hits the pasta spot, especially in the middle of winter with some sauce you froze this coming week. Serve it with a lusty red and eat it until you feel as round as Clemenza's belly.

Serves the whole Family (say, six)

5 pounds fresh tomatoes. I used Oxheart Paste Tomatoes from my garden.
2 heads of garlic, whole cloves
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 large onion, minced finely
1 cup red wine
Herbs: oregano, thyme, and sage, about ¼ cup of fresh, chopped, or two tablespoons worth of dried
Four Italian sausages (or 20 meatballs)
One pound of dry pasta (they used boxes in the Godfather. I use bags of fancy pasta, dried in cold air and imported from Italy)
Six quarts water plus 1 tablespoon of salt (or stock)
2 more cloves of garlic
½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Optional: Fresh basil leaves as a garnish
Optional: hot red pepper flakes

Trim and core the tomatoes and slice them in half, tip to core. Lay them on baking sheets, with garlic interspersed, drizzled with a few tablespoons of oil and a teaspoon of salt. Preheat the oven to broil. Place the sheets in the oven. Rotate the trays every five or so minutes so they all cook evenly until the skins, facing upward, begin to wrinkle and start to blacken–about 20 minutes. Remove the trays of tomatoes. When they are cool enough to work with, pull off the skins.

Fry the onions in ½ cup of olive oil in a heavy bottom pan. When they are translucent, add the tomatoes and the water in the baking pans. Add the herbs. Simmer for about an hour, stirring often to make sure it doesn't burn (if it burns, don't scrape the burnt crap into the sauce— change the pot).

Season to taste with salt and perhaps more herbs. When it tastes good, turn it off and let it cool to room temperature. There is an argument to be made for cooking it all day and then letting it sit overnight. I'm in favor of less cooking, especially with fresh ingredients. Cook until it tastes good and call it good. It will keep cooking as it cools. And then you should definitely let it sit overnight in the fridge.

The next day, blend it until smooth, and then filter out the seeds with cheesecloth or a thin mesh strainer. You now have a velvety smooth, not chunky sauce, much more than you will need to accompany a pound of pasta. The sauce freezes well in quart freezer bags, stacked flat on their sides.

Heat the salted pasta water (or stock) and cook the pasta al dente. Don't worry, it will cook more in the sauce.

While the pasta cooks, cut each sausage into five pieces and fry them in enough oil to coat the pan. Brown them as much as you like. They will cook more in the sauce later on.

Toss the noodles in olive oil and crushed garlic and add them to the pan with the meatballs. Sauté for five minutes. Add two cups of sauce per pound of pasta (or whatever seems right with the amount of noodles you made). Simmer the noodles and meatballs gently in the sauce until the noodles are to your liking. Garnish with grated cheese, fresh basil, red pepper flakes if you like, and serve.

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