Sylvia Vidal lives in the house that her father built. Photographs of her family line the walls, decorate the mantle, and overlap in a dizzying collage on her fridge. In her kitchen, a cookie jar with handles holds a collection of family recipes, some neatly penned on index cards and others scrawled on scraps of paper.
The recipes aren't organized in an obvious way. "She knows each recipe by the stain that's on it," jokes Sylvia's close friend, Susan. It's clear that Sylvia doesn't really need to refer to them; she knows her family's recipes by heart. "This meatball is too big," she tells her son, Tim, while he carefully shapes one meatball after the next. "And this one is too small."
"She's the boss," Tim says.
Over the years, Sylvia has picked up a lifetime's worth of culinary know-how. As she makes red sauce for the meatballs, I see her tuck a few fresh basil leaves into each opened can of tomatoes. After adding the tomatoes to an enormous pot, she rinses the empty cans, swirling the water around to loosen any stubborn tomato pieces. Rather than dump the water down the drain, she pours it into the pot. "Another thing I do, honey," she says, "is add a little water to the skillet that the meat was browned in. That's all flavor in there." Into the pot it also goes.
Sylvia describes her own grandmother, an immigrant from Sicily who arrived in Jamestown, New York via Ellis Island, as "the best cook in the world." When Sylvia was a little girl, her grandmother baked bread every Thursday and made a special, little bun for each of her seventeen grandchildren. "I could hardly wait to go pick it up after school," she recalls. "It felt like receiving a really good present."
Sylvia is carrying on her family's traditions, which means not only cooking Italian dishes--cannoli, anise-almond biscotti, and pasta e fagioli--but also sharing generations of Italian kitchen wisdom.
Sylvia Vidal's Meatballs and Red Sauce
Serve these meatballs and sauce over pasta with a generous shower of grated Pecorino Romano. According to Sylvia, the bigger the pasta shape, the less sauce it needs.
Makes about 2 dozen meatballs
1 head garlic, peeled and sliced, plus 3 cloves, peeled and minced
106 ounces crushed tomatoes
Small handful of basil leaves
24 ounces tomato paste
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 pounds pork shoulder, trimmed of fat
1 pound spicy Italian sausage
2 pounds (85% lean, 15% fat) ground beef
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
3 large eggs
½ cup milk
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a very large pot, sauté the head of garlic in a few tablespoons of olive oil until golden brown. Blend the tomatoes and basil in a blender or food processor and pour them into the pot. Fill the empty tomato can (or cans) with water and pour the water into the pot. Add the tomato paste, sugar, 2 tablespoons salt, and a generous sprinkle of pepper. Bring the sauce to a simmer.
Meanwhile, brown the pork shoulder and sausages in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. When all sides of the meat are nicely browned, add the pork to the sauce, then cut the sausages into thirds and add them to the sauce as well. Pour a splash of water into the skillet and let it bubble for a minute or so while scraping up any browned bits. Pour the water and browned bits into the sauce.
In a large bowl, combine the beef, remaining 3 cloves garlic, breadcrumbs, Pecorino Romano, parsley, mint, eggs, milk, 1 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Using your hands, gently mix everything together, but don't overwork the mixture or the meatballs will be tough.
Shape the meatballs. Brown them in a skillet with a splash of olive oil, then drop them into the bubbling sauce. Cook the meatballs in the sauce for about 3 hours.