Say "Italian," think "food." Americans have embraced the warm, familial culture expressed often by "Mangia, mangia" ("Eat, eat."). Comforting meals prepared with love, gardens full of tomatoes and peppers and herbs, and family recipes of simple but hearty, real food are still hallmarks of Italian cuisine.
Truly some of the most beloved dishes are those of pasta with sauces - rich and red or decadent with melted cheese and butter or fragrant basil and olive oil. They do have histories, however. Pesto sauce, herbs "pounded" with olive oil, was probably created in Persia using coriander and adopted by the early Greeks and Romans using basil. It was definitely part of the cuisine in Medieval Italy. Many variations have followed, but the key to pesto is grinding or pounding the ingredients into a pulp.
The origins of a basic white sauce called Bechamel (bay-shah-mel) are fuzzier. Italians credit Catherine de Medici (and the chef who traveled with her) for bringing this sauce to France when she married the future King Henri II in the 14th century. However, the French argue that in the 1600s Duke Philippe de Mornay, Marquis Louis de Bechamel or, most likely, Chef Francois Pierre de la Varenne, a court chef for King Louis XIV, created the sauce made with butter, cream and flour.
Roma, San Marzano and Amish Paste are three top sauce tomatoes because they are meaty, flavorful and have fewer seeds than traditional round varieties.
Basil is a member of the mint family that originated in India. Sweet basil is the variety usually used in Italian cooking. Basil pesto is a mixture of basil, olive oil, parmesan cheese, garlic and pine nuts.
Fresh is best, and Frank Muraca of Wheeling grows his own herbs to use in his award-winning sauces.
Frank Muraca’s sauce entries from last year, bottled and ready for judging. His marinara, a tomato sauce with spices and herbs, won a gold medal.
Tomatoes have become nearly synonymous with Italian food. An ancient fruit used as a vegetable, the tomato was probably "discovered" by the Aztecs. By 500 BC it was being cultivated in Mexico. No one in Italy even saw tomatoes until Spanish explorers Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortez brought them back to Europe from South America. At that time a botanist likened tomatoes to eggplant, and they were grown for decoration rather than food. Over the next two-hundred years Italians - especially the wealthy - assimilated them into regional dishes and soups around Naples and Genoa. In 1692, a tomato sauce appeared in an Italian recipe, but it wasn't until 1790 when a recipe combining tomato sauce with pasta was included in L'Apicio Moderno, a cookbook by Neapolitan chef Francesco Leonardi.
Two types of tomato sauces emerged as Italian cuisine evolved: sugo and ragu. Pellegrino Artusi, in his 1891 cookbook La Scienca en cucina e l'arte de mangier bene, defines sugo as "made from tomatoes that are simply cooked and run through a food mill. At the most, you may add a small rib of celery and a few leaves of parsley and basil to tomato sugo, if you must."
Ragu sauces are richer and heavier, made with meat, vegetables, wine and, possibly, cream. Its origins are attributed to Bologna.
Immigration at the turn of the 20th century fueled the market for Italian imports of olive oil, fruit and canned tomato sauce from the homeland and created a new food industry in the United States for citrus fruits and tomatoes. It also introduced most Americans to Italian food as enterprising immigrants set up restaurants using family recipes.
Today's Italian cooks are still using some of those recipes, and the annual Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival at Wheeling's Heritage Port, this year from July 25 through 27, celebrates the culture, history and food. For the second year the festival will host a sauce contest, open to the public, with three categories: red, white and "miscellaneous" (such as pesto).
One of the contest judges, a chef for 30 years who grew up in a traditional Italian family, says that people do still use family recipes - when they cook. Hectic lives have families reaching for processed foods or fast foods instead of fresh tomatoes and herbs from a backyard garden. But it doesn't have to be home grown to be good, she adds.
"There are some really good canned tomato products out there," the judge explains. "Take canned tomatoes, some spices, garlic. Make a whole batch and freeze part of it. It's a lot cheaper than jarred sauces, and you're using real food. People need to get back to real food."
Lisa Badia of Wheeling grew up in Bellaire in a large Italian family with her grandparents close by.
"My sauce recipe is in my grandmother's handwriting, Teresa DiPaolo Badia," she says. "She used her own tomatoes and canned them. My only modification to her recipe is that I use organic sauce rather than growing my own tomatoes."
Badia's father lovingly tended backyard gardens which provided the foundation for their meals. When she visited Italy Badia says she was "humbled" when she saw the same gardens in Italian yards where her ancestors lived.
"I really felt the connection to my heritage, to the food," she adds.
Frank Muraca grew up in Wheeling a third-generation steel mill worker. Last year he won three medals in the Italian Festival sauce contest: silvers for his Bolognese and puttanesca sauces and gold for his marinara. He describes himself as a "self-taught" cook though, he, too, grew up in a traditional Italian household and remembers a neighborhood full of small family grocers and shops with "cheeses hanging from the ceiling."
He developed an appreciation for culinary arts as a bachelor who wanted "good food" like that of his childhood. Muraca grows his own herbs and has extensively researched canned tomatoes to find the right taste. He remembers his grandmother's sauces with beef, pork and even rabbit, and adds that his father was an excellent cook. His method is trial and error, and he encourages others to do the same.
"There are a lot of good cooks in the Valley, but if you want to learn you have to keep trying," Muraca notes. "I don't have to measure anymore, but I do have to taste while I'm cooking. The key is to make it the way you like it."
Local caterer Diane Conroy says that by the time she was 10 years old she could cook well enough to prepare a family meal. Her sauce recipe comes from the old country, too. Her Uncle Joe and his mother taught her aunt the fine points of sauce making, and she passed the recipe on to her sisters (including Diane's mother). Sauce ingredients came from the garden, and children were expected to pitch in and help with picking, prepping and canning.
For Conroy, who cooks sauce by the gallon now, preserving the recipes helps preserve family memories.
"As a child I felt I knew many of my relatives that had passed away already just by listening to the stories about them and the food they made or how much they loved the recipe we were eating," she explains. "Our mothers (the sisters) would get together at least once a month to cook for the family. We were together learning about our family's history and faith. The best times even today are cherished because of favorite recipes, stories and traditions of my own family."
Conroy plans to enter the sauce contest this year, and Muraca is busy preparing three entries again, his marinara and two other sauces. The judge is also looking forward to the contest and has some advice for home cooks.
"Most people cook the sauce either too long or not long enough," she notes. "There has to be a balance between tart and sweet from the ingredients, but a sauce doesn't need to cook all day. Sauces should have some viscosity, but not be like jelly. A rich sauce like a Bolognese should have some weight. It shouldn't run off the spoon, but drip off of it."
She and Muraca caution against putting sugar in sauces. According to them, good sauces should have a tang, but any sweetness should come from good quality tomatoes, or, as Muraca recalls a relative doing, adding a carrot.
Information and entry forms are available online at www.italyfest.com. The deadline for the sauces is July 10, and only homemade sauces are eligible. Entry fees are $10 for the first jar and $6 for each additional entry. For questions, contact Kim Smith, festival coordinator at (304) 242-1090 during regular business hours.