Italy has had a profound impact on the American culinary scene. However, what we most often think of as Italian food is actually Italian-American food.
Many people would be confused by an Italian restaurant that didn’t have meatballs and spaghetti, Alfredo sauce, calzones or American-style pizza.
That’s not a criticism. Italian American food is hearty, delicious and often affordable. It almost always has a good red sauce, made with tomatoes, which of course are a New World food. Let's look at this ubiquitous sauce a bit closer.
There are two basic red sauces, a fresh sauce that has a short cooking time and a long-cooked sauce that we often call a ragu (from the French, ragout).
Both are good, and both have different applications. The fresh sauce is best during the height of the tomato season -- fragrant red tomatoes, just off the vine, fresh herbs, a little good wine and just a few seasonings.
A ragu is meat-based, and takes at least an hour to make. The most important point is not to add the meat until the last 45 minutes or so. It becomes mealy when cooked too long. The tomato sauce can cook, condense, and become more flavorful for hours.
Meatballs and spaghetti is perhaps the most popular application of a good red sauce. You can use either red sauce above, but to make a good meatball involves one important ingredient: crust-less bread soaked in milk. The bread keeps the meatballs from becoming too dense, and makes them light and fluffy. Give it a try and let me know what you think.