Cooking with Mom: Pancetta Romano Pasta Sauce

Getting my mom to write down one of her recipes is like finding the holy grail. Only better.

My mom is the type of cook you always thought your grandma should have been. Everything is made from scratch with cream and butter and good fats and all the time in a day. When she is done cooking every pot in the kitchen is dirty and somehow the ceiling will be covered in flour. (I mean…does she just chuck food across the kitchen when no one is looking?) But the table is always set immaculately and the food – oh the food – is melt in your mouth, slap your neighbor, fourth helping fantastic.

As kids we didn’t help much in the kitchen.  As an adult I understand exactly why that was. The kitchen was the one place my mom could disappear into the moment and create exactly what she wanted to without sticky hands and little voices. I am glad she had a room of her own, even if it was just for a few hours each week.

Riley grew up eating my mom’s cooking and I think the poor boy was a bit shocked when we got married and all I could cook was a very soggy tuna melt. My skills have improved over the years but they still haven’t come anywhere close to creating the meals I was raised on. (Of course, my ceilings are flour free but I am not sure that is a fantastic trade-off.)

So over the next few months I am going into the kitchen with my mom and she is going to teach me the things I was too impatient to learn as a child. I will share the recipes here and in doing so will share moments I can remember but cannot always describe. There will be cream, there will be butter, and every pot in the kitchen is going to get dirty.

First up….

Pancetta Romano Pasta Sauce

Oh! The Pancetta Romano sauce! So decadent and yet so accessible. It is that unique recipe you can serve when the boss comes over for a fancy dinner or on a Friday night in with the kids. It is the perfect complement for your favorite pasta, lasagna recipe or game day meatball sub. My favorite thing about this culinary delight? It tastes like the kind of thing that should be simmering in a nona’s kitchen in the Italian countryside. And when I grow up I want to be a nona in the Italian countryside. This sauce may be as close as I get.

I’ll take it.

This time we used our sauce to smother the Smitten Kitchen’s Caramalized Onion Meatball Subs. Oh….yeah.

Makes about six cups


1 large sweet onion diced

8 oz pancetta diced

1 cup carrots diced

3 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 cup white wine

2 35 ounce cans whole tomatoes (and here my mom steps in to insist you only use Cento tomatoes imported from Italy. And I step in to agree that those tomatoes really do have a distinctive taste. You can find them in most supermarkets and they are only about 30 cents more than Hunts. Worth it.)

1 ½ cups shredded romano cheese

1/8 cup high quality extra virgin olive oil (in my opinion, the fruitier the better)

About 8 fresh basil leaves

2 tbs fresh oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Place onion, pancetta and carrots into a medium skillet and brown together over medium heat until the vegetables are tender. Once, the veg is tender add one cup of white wine. Let the wine, veg and pancetta reduce until there is hardly any liquid left in the skillet. Use a wooden spoon to scrape up any tasty bits that may have stuck to the pan when the pancetta was browning.

Put the tomatoes into a large sauce pan. Add pancetta and wine mixture, garlic cloves, basil and oregano. Stir together and then add romano cheese. Simmer on medium-low (so that there are just a few bubbles on the surface at all times) for 1 ½ to 2 hours.  Stir occasionally so the cheese doesn’t stick and burn on the sides of the pot.

Now here comes the fun part. Turn off the heat and bust out that emulsifier. Emulsify the sauce in the pot until it is one nearly smooth tomato masterpiece. And then, for that final delicious touch, stir in the 1/8 cup of extra virgin olive oil.

Bellissimo! You have a sauce worthy of the most aggressive sopping.  (Bonus? Everybody will think you slaved all day and will love you for it. Which is really the point of cooking anything right?)

 Heck. Yes.