When I was a kid, I never thought about where my next meal was coming from. All I knew was that sooner or later my mother would call me into the kitchen from playing outside to sit down with the rest of my family and eat the dinner she had prepared for us. More often than not, her meals were inspired by her Southern Italian upbringing. Spaghetti with marinara sauce, roast chicken with potatoes and bread crumbs, stuffed eggplants and artichokes—these are the dishes I remember from my childhood and have always wanted to make my own.
Last week I invited my mother to my apartment so we could cook one of her classic Italian recipes together: Beef Pizzaiola. It’s a simple, one-pot meal of tomato sauce and chuck steak with a spicy yet comforting aroma I can recognize immediately. The word pizzaiola means pizza-style, and refers to a tomato sauce made with garlic and oregano. I tried to do some research about this recipe’s origins, but all I could find was a short note about how this humble dish doesn’t have a defined history; no one has ever laid claim to it because it’s just that simple.
Now, let me make something clear: my mother and I cooked her version of this herb-filled, meaty sauce. There are many variations of this dish online and in cookbooks, but we made the version that has existed in her Apuglian family for generations. I have no idea which recipe is more authentic than another, as every region and every tiny village in Italy has its own culinary traditions. This is ours.
My mother’s recipe is very straightforward: Take some chuck steak, a can of whole tomatoes (pureed in the food processor), a bit of garlic, a few handfuls of pecorino romano cheese, parsley, oregano, and a few glugs of olive oil, and throw it all in a big pot. I should note here that my mother does not measure her ingredients; she eyeballs them, which is why I needed to cook with her and try to write down all the steps. Anyway, the ingredients sit one on top of the other, in festive layers of green, red, and white, until they come to a boil. Then you just let the whole mixture of beef and tomatoes simmer away for an hour or so, stirring it here and there, until the meat is very tender and can be pulled apart with a fork.
Served over spaghetti with some meat on the side or as a secondo, this sauce is completely different from your everyday marinara. Dark red, abundantly spiked with gutsy oregano and salty romano cheese, pizzaiola is a hearty, in-your-face type of sauce. Infused with flavor from the slow-cooked meat, the sauce is deep and satisfying, and an appropriate remedy for these cold winter days. And while chuck steak can be rather tough, in this dish it’s transformed into a soft, satisfying bit of protein.
As you can probably tell, the pizzaiola tasted as wonderful as I remembered. I just hope it will again next time, when I attempt to make it without my mother.
Recipe for Mom’s Beef Pizzaiola
- 1 1/2 pounds chuck steak
- 1 28-ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup parsley leaves
- 1/3 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated
- 1 1/2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 pound of spaghetti
Cut each steak roughly into thirds. You should try to achieve equally-sized chunks of meat, following the natural lines of the steaks.
Pulse the tomatoes a few times in the food processor. They should be left a little chunky; they do not need to be perfectly smooth.
Combine the meat and the tomatoes in a big pot. Add the garlic, parsley, cheese, oregano, and olive oil. Do not stir.
Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat and bring to a simmer. Cover. Stir every once in a while, making sure the meat doesn’t burn and the cheese doesn’t clump together. If the sauce seems to reduce too much and becomes too thick, add a little bit of water to the pot. Once the sauce is simmering, bring a big pot of salted water to boil for the spaghetti.
Cook for about an hour, until the meat is soft and breaking apart with a fork. About fifteen minutes before the sauce is done, cook the spaghetti.
When the spaghetti is drained, stir with 2 or 3 spoonfuls of sauce. Plate the spaghetti, and generously sprinkle each dish with romano cheese. Top with sauce. Serve the meat on the side or after the spaghetti course is finished. Serves 4 with leftovers. Enjoy!