Chef Chat: Anthony Baker of Spaghetti Sauce And Meatballs

Food blogger Anthony Baker of Spaghetti Sauce And Meatballs knows a thing or two about cooking up authentic Italian tucker. Here we sit down with Anthony to chew over his (and his grandmother's) food heritage, Italian-American culture, and why it's worth dedicating a few hours in the kitchen to those you truly love.

Hey Anthony. Your website is, just like Pasta Recipes Made Easy, very  much inspired by the cooking of your Italian grandma (or nonna). So why don't you start by telling us a little about her and her food?

My grandparents Luigi Ruggierio Salerno and Anna Copozzi Salerno were from Santeramo in Colle: Apulia Region (Puglia), 10 miles south of Bari, Italy. They both moved to America when they were young.

I learned the joy of cooking Italian food from my grandmother and the joy of eating Italian food from my grandfather. My grandma Salerno would spend what seemed like to me, when I was a kid, all of her time in the kitchen. It was her way of showing how much she loved her family.

“What… you no like my cooking?"

I remember spending time with her in the kitchen, helping however she needed me to or would allow me to. I also remember how much love she poured into the kitchen and how she would be offended if you only had two plates of food.

After two large plates of spaghetti, meatballs, sausage and braciole, I would say I was full and she would say: “What… you no like my cooking? You're skin and bones.. eat some more.. EAT! Here, I will get you another plate…”  and you just could not refuse.

How did your love of Nonna Salerno's dishes translate into your becoming a food blogger with a site packed full of her recipes?

It all started when my father mentioned how much he missed his mother in-law's (my grandmother's) cooking. My parents divorced when I was young and because of that my father missed having the big meals with grandmother.

I told him I knew how to cook the sauce like she did and told him that next time I made it I would write down all the details. So I did that and put up a small webpage way back in 1998 or so.

He followed all the instructions and was able to recreate it pretty well and he wasn't a cook. So I left the page on the internet and almost forgot about it. Then I noticed a bunch of people were finding the page and were extremely grateful that someone had taken the time to write down all the details of how to make the 'Sunday gravy' with all the meats!

It's quickly obvious to anyone visiting your site that it's not only about recipes. You also seem to be on a personal mission to promote and preserve Italian-American culture (and you seem to have lots of conversations with readers about this topic).

Can you tell us more about your passion for Italian-American culture? And for those of us not based in the States, maybe explain what makes Italian-American culture different from, say, Italian culture or American culture in general?

Great question! Growing up Italian-American was special. The amount of time spent in the kitchen and at the table seemed to be way out of whack, proportionally, compared to my strictly American friends. There was so much laughter and love shared in the kitchen and at the table.

I remember having five-hour dinners with several course meals and desserts that would seem to last forever. There was so much conversation and good times that happened around the food. You'd spend the entire day, or two, preparing and cooking the food and then you'd spend hours enjoying it with family and friends. It was an awesome time!

A good example of the cultural differences would be when I would have my American friends over for a big Sunday dinner. One of those long several-course meals that begins in the afternoon and goes on late into the evening, where they'd eat and drink way too much. (Not learning the art of pacing yourself through these epic meals!) They would call me the next day with a hangover and ask me, “How do you do it? How do you survive meals like that?” And to me it was normal.

Food is strongly tied together with memories. Every time I cook something like Anisette cookies for example. The strong smell of Anisette filling the house, the frying of the meatballs and braciole, how the house fills up with smoke... it all takes you right back to a simpler time with grandma. Wonderful memories!

"Italian cooking is not just cooking, it’s an event!"

I guess the difference between the Americans and the Italian-Americans was how much life revolved around food. Not just food, but the shopping, preparing, cooking and enjoyment of the food. Italian cooking is not just cooking, it’s an event!

I also remember one thing vividly: my grandparents did not have a lot of money, but somehow they always had a refrigerator that was packed to overflowing with amazing food. Produce everywhere... Italian lunch meats were always in the fridge, all the antipasto stuff, along with incredible leftovers. When you opened grandma’s fridge you just knew there was going to be something amazing in there. It never failed, ever. I remember thinking back, there was no way they could afford that, but miraculously it was there, and always in abundance. I’m thinking it’s all about priorities...

The holidays as well seemed much more involved. Especially Easter and Christmas - these were family events of epic proportions.

Anthony with his nonna

Also, I do enjoy the conversations I have with my site's visitors very much. I don't get little one or two sentence emails either. I sometimes get small novels from visitors because they go into their family history and what they remember about growing up with all this wonderful food... how they remember their grandma making these amazing meals but finding nobody had ever written anything down, and so many amazing Italian recipes disappearing forever as a result. So many wonderful discussions about this!

"... takes you back to a simpler time"

You see, the impact of finally being able to recreate a meal like your Italian mother did takes you back to a simpler time. A time when you were a kid and had no responsibilities and you had your entire family around you and life was fun. At least this is what you remember when smelling and tasting all the amazing food. There could have been very bad times from your past but with the food you seem to only remember the good times. It’s quite amazing really.

Also, in Italian-American families there were always these special recipes that nobody else knew about except for your family. Or so it seemed. Then 40 years later you meet someone on the internet who had a grandmother who made the exact same thing the exact same way and instantly there is a bond there.

Oh.. and the music! There was always wonderful music playing along with the food. This part is extremely important …and of course I have an Uncle Johnny who played and still does play the accordion.

With regards to the difference between Italian food culture and Italian-American food, I’m pretty sure my grandmother did not start adding all the meats to the sauce until she came to America. The biggest American influence on Italian food that I can see is this addition of the meats.

How did you go about turning the cooking knowledge that was in Nonna's head into easy-to-follow recipes that anyone could use? (If she was anything like my Mamma Marisa, I'm guessing you ran up against a wall of 'Until it's ready...' and 'You'll know how much to put in...' type vagueness!)

Actually yes it does take quite a lot of work to get all the details written down. I also found out a lot of grandma's secrets along the way, after years of talking with my mom and uncles about her cooking. Little secrets would slip out every now and then that were extremely important tips!

My grandmother's written recipes were vague at best, with directions such as, put “some” of this, add “some” of that and “cook until done” etc., just like you mentioned in your question. Obviously you are familiar with this frustration!

So through the years I have gone through a lot of trial and error getting the recipes nailed down. I have been slowly adding new recipes to the site since. It is a very slow process because of the amount of trial and error and detail I put into these recipes. The entire website is a labor of love!

"Fry the meatballs in the salt pork grease? Wow, that was huge!"

I still remember a conversation I had with my mother with one monumental revelation - she mentioned that grandma used to fry salt pork so she could fry the meatballs in the salt pork grease! Wow, that was huge! That was the last step I was missing to nail down the pasta sauce with all the meats like she used to make it. All the meats being: pork chops, meatballs, braciole and sausage. So good! The pasta was just something you added to the sauce, you really didn’t need it. You could make a meal out of just the sauce and meats.

OK, where was I? I’m getting totally side-tracked and hungry now...

Spaghetti sauce and meatballs is the recipe your site is known for, thanks to its name. What's the key to making this dish into something really special?

The people you invite over to share it with. That is what makes it special. When you take all day long, possibly two days, to prepare a meal, you are doing it out of love for those who you will be serving. The people, without a doubt, is what makes this meal special.

And more generally, do you have any Italian cooking tips that you think every new or improving cook should know?

Don’t burn the garlic!

Moving beyond spaghetti and meatballs, what's the one dish you point your readers to that few know about but all come to love?

The one recipe that comes to mind is Eggplant Parmesan. A lot of people do not like this amazing dish because they have not had it cooked properly. There is nothing worse than soft and mushy eggplant. If you make the recipe right though, the eggplant (aubergine - Matt) is truly an amazing meal. I’ve spent a lot of time explaining this recipe and made a nice video to show the special details. Especially the eggplant press, a very important step!

Since you're an Italian food expert, what's the one Italian restaurant you would recommend readers search out? You must have enjoyed a few! Any particular dish they should order?

Well, first of all, I would not call myself an Italian food expert. I would call myself an Italian guy who likes to cook and share that passion with others.

The best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at would be my home. Really, nothing can compete. Restaurants have to cook for the masses. They don't have the luxury of laboring over one pot of sauce all day to make sure it’s perfect. If they do, there would be no profit. They have to take several shortcuts along the way to prepare meals quickly in mass quantities.

What does the future hold for Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs?

More detailed recipes and more videos. I’m having fun making the videos. But there are so many more recipes I have to go through. It will take me a lifetime to get all the details down, so I'll probably be at this for a while.

Here's a a fun video of my trying to teach my teenagers how to make the spaghetti sauce with all the meats! It’s an epic 1.5 hours long so you might want to make some popcorn for the show:

VIDEO: Teaching The Teenagers How To Make The Pasta Sauce With All The Meats

Thanks for speaking to us Anthony and buon appetito!

Thanks for the interview Matt. It was fun!  Happy cooking, happy times and share the LOVE!  

Ciao, Anthony.

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