I really don't know how to put together this intro, so I'm going to slap some facts together. There's an alternative rock band called Ween. I've never been a huge fan but I can certainly listen to their music and enjoy myself. Being 18 at the time, it was impossible to ignore the 1994 album Chocolate and Cheese, with a rather memorable cover photo. Years later, I listened to former Black Flag front man Henry Rollins deliver a positive rant about Ween. If you're curious about what the band sounds like, "Voodoo Lady" is relatively well known and representative. For something softer, try "The Mollusk".
Now let us step aside for a moment. There's a tradition in Italian-American households of "Sunday Gravy", a meaty red sauce that takes hours to prepare. The kind of big family meal that people dream about when they're away from home, and somehow the spaghetti plate at Olive Garden isn't the same. The New Jersey-style gravy infiltrated pop culture through dozens of movies, but most recently with The Sopranos. Gravy competitions are popular at Italian festivals throughout the United States, even here in the South where gravy is a very different sauce that generally goes on biscuits or grits, or perhaps is applied as a poultice to the head of a wounded man to bring him out of a coma. But Southern gravy is a topic for another post at another time.
In nosing around for information on this dish, I discovered a tasty-looking recipe for Sunday Gravy with detailed instructions and photos put together by Mickey Melchiondo, a.k.a. Dean Ween, one of the two founding members of the band back in the 1980s. Lately he's been really enthusiastic about running fishing charters off the Jersey shore. Seriously, for $300 he'll take you fishing and then you can watch Jaws together. What caught my attention was throwing a couple of whole pork chops in there for flavor. Mmmmm... I'm not going to repeat the recipe or instructions here, because I really want you to read his hilarious writeup. I will, however, comment on the results.
This is a lot of meat, and a lot of work. But worth it. Check out my beautiful photo above. Some penne rigate, some meatballs, a few pieces of the pork chops, and tons more left over in the pot for freezing later. (I should also explain that's a serving platter for three people, and we didn't finish it off. This dish is really filling.)
Unless you have some help, expect a good two hours of prep time before you start simmering the sauce. Making the meatballs, searing them, searing the chops, etc., takes quite a while. And I skipped the Italian sausage, even though I'd picked up a few links. Frankly the huge stock pot was so full of meat at that point that I felt a pound of salsiccia would be too much. Also, have some salt available at the table. I didn't add any salt to the big pot, because it's difficult to accurately salt something like that, especially when it's so thick and viscous. My favorite part of the whole thing was the meatballs, which were racquetball-sized and browned on the outside, but still raw on the inside when added to the pot. For three or four hours, they bob around in a slow simmering tomato broth and get cooked to a delightful tenderness.
I enjoyed this with an Australian Shiraz, but frankly after six hours of work the cook can drink whatever the hell he wants, and everyone else is free to imbibe or not as they wish. I'm not an Italian grandmother, but after a full day's work cooking a meal, I'll fight people off with a chef's knife and big wooden spoon when I need a break.
Melchiondo says he makes this once a month for the wife, parents, and assorted relatives, though without a regular engagement I'd probably shoot for about once a quarter. Once a week is a labor of love, and families are smaller these days and don't require eight pounds of meat right after church. But when you get that craving for some savory Italian-American cooking, put on the Frank Sinatra LPs, wear a red apron that won't get stained by tomatoes and pork fat, and get cooking.