Cook's Illustrated Recipes»Stews»Italian»Pork»Hearty Italian Meat Sauce Sunday Gravy Recipe

This over-the-top Italian-American tomato sauce typically calls for six cuts of meat and half a day at the stove. We wanted the same flavor with a lot less work.

The Problem

This dish usually includes half a dozen types of meat and requires four hours of simmering.

The Goal

We wanted a full-flavored meal on the table in less than four hours, with no more than an hour of hands-on cooking.

The Solution

As our first step toward making this dish more manageable, we decided to limit our recipe to just one kind of sausage and one cut of pork. Tasters preferred the mild kick that hot Italian links gave to the sauce, and baby back ribs won the pork spot because they weren’t too fatty and turned moist and tender in just a few hours. Even better, the bones added richness to the sauce.

Next, we turned our attention to braciole, the stuffed, rolled Italian beef that is the meal’s centerpiece. Tasters loved the beefy flavor it brought to the sauce, but preparing braciole is laborious, and it usually turns out a little dry. We decided to build a recipe for truly standout meatballs and have them serve as the meal’s focus instead. We used ground beef, pork, and veal in our meatballs and then incorporated seasonings and a panade (or binder) of bread and buttermilk for tenderness and subtle tang. To capture the distinctive flavors of the braciole’s filling, we incorporated some of its ingredients, including prosciutto and Pecorino Romano, into our meatballs. We browned the meatballs separately in a nonstick skillet, then added them to the sauce in the final minutes of cooking so they wouldn’t become lopsided or break apart during the long simmer. When all was said and done, we had moist, richly flavored meatballs and a sauce that tasted very close to gravy made with bona-fide stuffed beef-but with far less work.

We then moved on to perfecting the sauce. Without the braciole-and with the meatballs added at the end-our sauce needed something to beef up its meatiness. The best boost turned out to be the straightforward addition of beef broth; a scant amount added rich depth. For more flavor, we sautéed the onions until they began to brown and cooked the tomato paste until it nearly blackened, which concentrated its sweetness. We used acidic crushed tomatoes and garlic for further intensity.

For a final trick, instead of simmering the meat and the sauce together on the stovetop, which requires constant monitoring, we covered the Dutch oven and transferred it to the even heat of the oven, where we could leave it unattended for most of the cooking time.