Bushels of the plumpest plum tomatoes from New Jersey.
Crates of achingly aromatic fresh basil.
Salt to taste.
These are simple ingredients that belie the complexities of time, taste, and tradition.
As devout members of the sisterhood of sauce making, Angela Giordano and Ida Mangano say it all boils to this: family.
Giordano, from Somers, and Mangano, from Mahopac, have been friends for nearly half a century.
They both hail from the Province of Benevento in Italy. Giordano is from Colle Sannita, a town about 50 miles northeast of Naples; Mangano from Campolattaro, located not far away on the “ankle” of the boot.
Having moved to America as youngsters, both got married, had families, and pursued careers.
Getting here wasn’t easy. Times were hard in their home country when Giordano’s dad came over.
“There was no work,” she says
There was a quota system and folks also had to be sponsored by people here who had jobs and could support them. So it took a while to reunite Giordano’s family.
Even then, life was sometimes a struggle.
“You came for a better life,” she says, adding: “At least here you had hope.”
Giordano was eight and Mangano was 17 when they landed on U.S. soil. Giordano grew up in the Bronx, where her elderly parents still live. Her feisty 86-year-old madre, who spends her days tending her backyard garden and taking care of her ailing husband, still makes the occasional bottle of merlot.
Her mother really wanted to take part in this year’s sauce making but Giordano told her: “Mom, you can’t; it’s too much.”
Back in Italy, Mangano remembers, her mother “canned” the sauce in bottles, instead of jars. They also made their own bread.
The bottles were “baked” in a big brick oven after the crusty loaves were taken out.
Every member of their extended tribes lives for the day when they can restock their pantry shelves with the coveted quart-sized Mason jars of sauce. They all swear they wouldn’t touch the store-bought stuff with a 10-foot breadstick, Giordano and Mangano proudly point out.
“We’re hoping that they continue to make it, keep up the tradition, when we’re gone,” Mangano says, laughing.
Both women travel back to their homeland for weddings and other family events. Two years ago, Giordano was in Italy at “tomato time” and even got the chance to make salsa with her cousins.
Churning out all that ruby-red goodness is truly a family affair – and an all-day marathon that goes on no matter if it rains or how unbearably hot or humid the weather.
Giordano and Mangano recently set up shop under a tent in the latter’s driveway. Enormous pots handed down through the generations were set up with burners. Tasks – also huge -- were parceled out, but gleefully undertaken.
To get through all the washing and the sorting and the boiling and pouring, the crew connect in other ways.
“We talk, we laugh, we listen to music…all kinds, mostly Italian,” Giordano says, adding: “They started to dance that day, they were so funny.”
Every other year, the production moves down South, to Giordano’s son Joseph’s home in North Carolina. Her daughter-in-law Kristen loves it and even made a video when they were making the sauce during a visit last year, saying “Mama G, I have to tape this. I don’t want to forget.”
Giordano also has a daughter, Lisa, who is going to carry the family tradition on.
Mangano’s son Steven, daughter Denise, daughter-in-law Faidre, and bubbly 9-year-old granddaughter June, were all on hand in Mahopac recently to participate in the beloved summertime ritual. Steven also loves to cook.
Giordano has four grandchildren, ranging in age from 10 to two-and-a-half. She calls them her “little angels.”
“My little buttons are getting too big. My little angels I call them. My son says: ‘I don’t know about that sometimes, mom!’”
Giordano of keeps a colorful collage of photographs of the “buttons” on the wall in her salon.
About 25 bushels of tomatoes, each weighing about 55 pounds, were processed. Although ordered from a farm in Westchester, they came from the Garden State.
First the sauce-makers have to hunt down and toss any blemished ones, a task that the littlest helpers really seem to relish.
(Although treated as a vegetable, the tomato is, scientifically speaking, a fruit.)
Then the tomatoes are washed, piled into a pot and boiled until they get soft and “crack.” They are strained and dumped into a special machine that separates the juice from the pulp and “skin.”
It all goes in a big kettle with legs over a burner. The basil and salt are added and it’s boiled again for an hour.
The glass jars and lids are washed thoroughly with soap and water and rinsed and the usual safe canning methods are religiously followed.
The only “flavoring” comes from salt, which acts as a preservative, and a clean leaf of basil in each jar.
They started washing the ‘maters around 8 a.m. and finished up the canning after 9 p.m. The rain put a temporary halt to the proceedings because the kettles were outdoors.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s so worth it,” says Mangano, who is employed in a bridal shop in nearby Danbury, Conn.
A SAUCE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Thus it forms a solid base for topping pasta, meat, seafood, and vegetables.
To make it a Marinara, add garlic, herbs and onions. And if you want to get really fancy, throw in some capers, olives, and a splash of vino. “Whatever you like,” they both say.
Whether to call it sauce or “gravy,” well, that’s been at the heart of many an argument at the Italian-American dinner table.
Culinary linguists cringe when folks connote meat-containing red stuff with “gravy.” It’s all sauce to them.
LOVE’S MEANT TO SHARE
But whatever you add to it, say the purveyors of the pomodoro, make sure there’s plenty to spread around.
Giordano and Mangano and their happy helpmates cranked out a total of 370 jars, enough to last the hungriest hoards at least two years … and to generously bequeath to lucky friends, acquaintances, and neighbors.
Said one grateful recipient, a regular client at Giordano’s small home-based hair salon: “I’m saving it for a special occasion. It’s going to be so super-good that I can’t just open it and do it for myself.”
And that’s the whole point -- to come together over a meal cooked with heart.
It’s a simple recipe, says Giordano for “keeping traditions alive and families together.”