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Sunday Sugo in Martina Franca

Soffrito–the first step in making a memorable sugo di carne.

We don’t need a clock or a calendar in Martina Franca. Every day has a rhythm of its own, punctuated by any number of church bells and the ebb and flow of human activity down the street in Piazza Roma. The bells chime the hour first, followed by one, two or three bongs for the fifteen-minute intervals in between. Days are differentiated by the presence or absence of saints’ days and festivals. And through it all, an absolute, profound silence descends at midday—l’ora di pranzo or lunchtime—broken only by the tinkle of silverware encountering plates at tables everywhere.

Lunchtime in Martina Franca and not a soul is stirring.

When we first arrived in Martina Franca over seventeen years ago, we stumbled through the massive Porta Santo Stefano and wondered where all the people were. We joked that an alien invasion had transported every living being to some other galaxy, leaving behind only the pigeons—a good call on the part of the extraterrestrials. Instead, it was just the middle of the day, with a relentless sun beating down on the limestone streets leaving little shade for shelter. We came to understand that only tourists would bumble around during lunchtime in the heat of the summer sun. Everyone else is inside eating, a practice we now know extends through fall, into the winter and during the much-awaited spring.

Lunchtime, it seems, is sacred territory. Families reunite daily around the table at midday. Working families do their best to respect this tradition, cleverly starting the meal before leaving the house for work, then rushing home to pull it all together in time. This is, perhaps, easier than you think. Over 95% of Italian businesses are family owned and operated; people often live where they work in a home attached to their ground floor business establishment. And most school systems cooperate by ending the school day no later than 1:30 p.m., including Saturdays. The entire culture is united in preserving this moment of familial unity, even more so in the south where we live.

So we’ve gotten into the swing as well. Lunchtime has become something more than a quick sandwich on the run or a sad little salad at my desk. Today I’ve tackled a classic sugo di carne, which I’ll pair with sausages and polenta, a decidedly northern, un-Martinese aberration. More common accompaniments are the ubiquitous orecchiette or little pasta ears or another semolina pasta made at home.

At any rate, sugo di carne always includes tomatoes and some form of pork. In Basilicata, lamb is often added to the mix, but it would be wrong, wrong, wrong in Puglia, according to my informal research. Sugo di carne starts with a soffritto, a simmered mixture of finely chopped onions, carrots, celery, parsley and garlic in extra virgin olive oil. The unorthodox might add finely chopped dried chile pepper. Crumbled, dried oregano isn’t out of place either and basil is a staple in the summer. The previously seared meat, tomato puree and a splash of white wine follow, then it’s on to other activities while the sugo simmers for an hour or two. I have made countless sughi in the past, but never with pieces of pork ribs, which is the hallmark of this southern Italian version.

I shared my plan with our butcher, Onofrio, who was rendered speechless by the news that I hadn’t made a proper sugo di carne before. It seems that the versions I had happily adopted in Tuscany and Umbria were only pretenders and therefore deeply suspicious. Still, he sold me the appropriate puntini di maiale for the sugo di carne along with a great deal of advice. My sugo is simmering contentedly on the stove now and we’ll eat it at mezzogiorno (midday) when all of the Martinese gather around the table and a hush blankets the town.

Sugo di carne simmering on the stove.

Sugo Quotidiano or Everyday Tomato Sauce

Ingredients:

1 lb. (approx.) meaty pork ribs cut into pieces about 2 inches long (about six pieces of cut up pork ribs)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 large or 2 small white or yellow onions, chopped fine
2 carrots, chopped into small cubes (about ½ inch each)
1 stalk celery chopped into small cubes (about ½ inch each)
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 bunch Italian parsley, chopped fine
½ cup white wine
4-5 cups of homemade tomato puree or 1 ½ bottles of organic Italian passato di pomodoro (pureed tomatoes) or two cans of organic Italian plum tomatoes, drained, with the tomatoes pureed in a blender or food mill
10 fresh basil leaves (in season only)
Sea or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Remove the pork rib pieces from the refrigerator and salt them half an hour before you plan to start the sugo. Heat a thin film of extra virgin olive oil in a heavy-bottomed sauté pan until it shimmers. Over medium-high heat, add the pork rib pieces. Brown them on all sides, then remove. Drain excess fat from the pan, but don’t clean it.

Add another film of olive oil to the same pan. Over medium-low heat, add the chopped onion. Saute for a few minutes, then add the celery. After a few more minutes, add the carrots, parsley and salt and pepper to taste. When the mixture has softened and the onions look glossy, add the garlic. Saute a few minutes more, then return the pork ribs to the pan.

Raise the heat and pour the white wine over the mixture. Stir to incorporate, then let almost all of the wine evaporate, stirring to prevent sticking. Add the tomato puree and stir well. Taste for salt, then add accordingly. If you aren’t using your own tomato puree, you may want to add a pinch of sugar to the pan to accentuate the tomatoes’ natural sweetness. If it’s in season, add torn basil leaves. Stir again, cover the pan, lower the heat and leave it alone.

From time to time, check to make sure that the sugo is just barely bubbling. Make sure that the sugo hasn’t become too dry. If so, add a little water, stir and reduce the heat a little. The sugo should simmer happily for at least an hour and half. It will have reduced in volume, with a similarly concentrated flavor of meaty-tomatoey goodness that cannot be replicated using shortcuts.

This is an ideal recipe for multitasking. So little of this meal involves active cooking time that you can check your Facebook, write your blog (guilty), shell walnuts and almonds, talk on the phone or put your feet up and have an uninterrupted read. Just make sure the sauce doesn’t burn.

Serve the resulting sauce with pasta or polenta, serving a pork rib piece or two with each portion. A primitivo or susumaniello from Puglia would make a terrific wine accompaniment. You can also double the recipe and freeze half of it for an amazing mid-week dinner when it is least expected.

Serves 5-6 with 1 lb. cooked pasta

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tony #

    You are in a wonderful space. Would love to see you all this summer.

    November 18, 2012
    • So glad to hear from you, Tony! Our door is always open in Martina Franca. Come visit and we’ll go find your relatives in Stigliano with you! Hope all is well with the Calciano clan.

      November 19, 2012

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