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Three Italian Chefs Rate the Sunday Gravy (And All the Other Food) From ‘Goodfellas’

Sorry, Vinnie — three small onions really IS too many for two big cans of tomatoes

There are countless things to love about Goodfellas, but chief among them is the food in the movie. There’s Pesci’s ma’s cooking. There’s the huge sausage and peppers. There’s prison food that looks better than any meal most of us have ever eaten. And then there’s the Sunday gravy, which is being cooked over the entire last portion of the film. If you do the math, that sauce is stirred for about 10 hours continuously by Henry Hill’s wheelchair-bound brother, all while Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill is in a coked-up haze, on the run from helicopters.

But is ten hours of cooking really necessary? And what about the rest of the food in the film? Like, do you really need to slice garlic with a razorblade? Is three onions too much for just two cans of tomatoes, as Paul Sorvino’s Paulie says in the film? To weigh in on the mouth-watering authenticity of Goodfellas, we spoke to a few Italian chefs about all the food in this classic Scorsese film. 

On the Sausage and Peppers

Amanda Vasquez (Presti), Italian chef and executive chef of a burger restaurant: Italians pretty much eat all day, and with sausage and peppers, that’s just a simple thing that the guys usually make when they’re drinking beer around the grill. They just cut off a bit of the sausage and serve themselves. 

Giuseppe Fanelli, owner of Tredici North in Purchase, NY and winner of Chopped: With how they’re doing it, they’re grilling the sausage in a pinwheel. When you do it that way, it locks in all the juice that’s running through the casing. If you were to cut pieces off and then grill it, all that juice would just come out. But if you cook the sausage whole, in the casing, the juice stays in, and when you take a bite, it explodes in your mouth. My mouth is watering right now just from talking about it.

Genia Townsend, co-owner and head chef at Nee Nee’s Italian Steakhouse in Warsaw, Missouri: I have an Italian sausage and peppers sandwich on my menu. I use the classic red and green peppers and onions and do a fire roast on them. For the sausage, I cook mine three different ways: I start it in the oven, then drop it in the fryer to crisp up the outside, then finish it on the flat top. Frying it really seals it and keeps the juices in, putting it on the flat top just makes sure the internal temperature is correct. It’s a big seller.

The way they’re eating it in the movie, though, is the most traditional way Italian families eat it, especially for lunch. It’s a pretty common lunch dish, which is why I included it on my menu. It’s a staple.

On the Prison Food

Is three small onions for two cans of tomatoes really too much?
Vasquez: I mean, it really is personal preference. If one person really likes onions that may be perfect. For me, though, I don’t put that much in there. I’d do like, two, or maybe one-and-a-half.

Townsend: I probably wouldn’t use that much, but onion is a good staple in Italian food and it goes hand-in-hand with garlic. It’s in everything. But I wouldn’t put that much.

Fanelli: Yeah, that’s too much. 

Does the pork really make the flavor in sauce?
Townsend: Definitely. I personally don’t think there’s any meat flavor better than pork. It’s so flavorful, you can do the least amount of seasoning because it has so much flavor. It flavors everything great.

Fanelli: When you put sausage in a sauce, the sausage overpowers the sauce. Originally, when we were making the Sunday sauce here, I did it the traditional way — without sausage — and it just didn’t go far. So then I put sausage, meatball, pork ribs and braciole in there, and suddenly people were like, “That’s the way we used to eat it!,” which is how we make it here now. But at home or if my mother does it, there’s no sausage in the sauce, we use lamb neck.

Have you ever sliced garlic with a razor blade?
Vasquez: That’s a little much, but if that’s what makes him happy, I guess it’s fine. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve seen people use a mandolin, but I’ve never done garlic that way. He’s right though, if you cut garlic really thin like that and cook it slowly, it does kind of melt and caramelize; the same goes for onions.

Townsend: I’ve never done that, but that’s no different than a regular knife. Although, honestly, after watching this, I may try it, just to see if there’s a difference in the flavor.

Fanelli: No, we just use sharp knIves. You do want it sliced fine like that but no, no razor blade.

What’s the best way to cook a steak?
Townsend: Medium rare. Turn it one time — do not keep flipping it. Salt, pepper, garlic — that’s all I put on my steaks until I flip it. Then I have melted garlic-butter, I take half a ladle of that, put that on it and it seeps down into the meat. That’s it, and if anybody orders over medium rare, I tell them, “That’s your own fault.”

Fanelli: Medium rare, just like Frank Pellegrino — the actor who’s cooking the steak — says in the movie. I actually knew Frank Pellegrino, he was the owner and host of Rao’s, where I worked for a few months. He was a very giving person. If he liked you, he’d take the shirt off his back for you. He took me in and showed me the recipes and told me about the history of Rao’s, which had the best meatballs and baked clams. And their sauce was bar-none, it was the best in the city. 

Rao’s was just magical. Celebrities were always coming in and Pellegrino loved to sing — one of his favorites was “My Girl.” He only really cooked when the cameras were around, then he got his hands dirty. He didn’t cut the garlic with a razor blade though, that was all for show. But really, working for him was one of the highlights of my career. He was a personality —  a breath of fresh air in an otherwise difficult industry. 

On the Sunday Gravy


Why is it called gravy?
Vasquez: So this is a controversial thing, I haven’t even figured it out myself. Some people call it gravy, some people call it marinara, some people call it sauce. It’s just about the different region that you’re from. For me, it’s not gravy. Gravy to me is the gravy you have on Thanksgiving. I’d call it sauce. My grandmother was from Naples, and she called it sauce.

Fanelli: For every Italian, a question is, “Is it gravy, or is it sauce?” To me, it’s sauce. I make sauce. Gravy to me is a totally different thing. But the Brooklynites and the guys from Queens and Staten Island — they make gravy. For whatever reason, it’s gravy down there. 

Does anything really need to be stirred for 10 hours?
Fanelli: No. Whatever it is you’re making in the sauce — if it’s ribs, braciole or whatever — when they’re ready, then the sauce is ready, and that’s usually about four hours. The trick to sauce is low and slow, just stir every 10 minutes or so on low heat. It has to simmer, if you boil the sauce, you’re just going to burn it. Plus, you’re shocking the meat, which makes it crimp up, which makes it hard and it won’t be uniform tender throughout.

Vasquez: I really think that 10 hours is just an exaggeration for the movie. I’ve never had sauce cook for 10 hours. Some old traditional grandmas swear by it because it breaks down the acid in the tomatoes and makes it sweeter. That’s the whole point of the cooking — it breaks down the acid. I’ve always cooked it for a couple of hours — two or three, maybe even four — but again, everybody’s different. Everybody has their own method, and everybody swears by their own recipe. But 10 hours is a little extreme.

Townsend: It depends on the ingredients. My sauce includes brown sugar, for example. The days I’m making sauce, which is about twice a week, I start about five in the morning, and I make about 12 to 15 gallons. That takes about eight hours. The reason why you’re cooking it is to reduce the acid in the tomatoes, and they need to cook that long to reduce that acid. You also have to keep adding liquid to it about every three hours, otherwise it gets a little bitter. You also have to stir pretty continuously — like every few minutes — otherwise the sugar in it will burn. Even if you can’t see the burn, you can smell it, and that ruins the sauce. Also, I only use a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon. I don’t know if it does anything or not, but my grandmother, who taught me how to cook, that’s what she always said.

I also won’t serve it the same day; it goes into our walk-in. That’s because anything that has fresh ingredients in it, the aromatics will open up after they’ve been cooled. That’s why stuff like spaghetti or pizza tastes so much better the next day.

On Being an Italian Chef

Vasquez: I grew up with my grandparents, who were straight from Italy, so it was an Italian household. I used to watch my grandmother cook, and really, she’s the one who inspired my journey. I work every day with her in my mind.

Fanelli: Both of my parents are from the Puglia region of Italy. My mom’s a phenomenal cook, and my dad was the traditional barbecue guy. I got into cooking because I was always working with my dad — he was a mason — but in the late 1980s, we had this recession where my dad almost lost everything, so then I was working for him for free. In order to make money, I was working as a waiter at night. It just so happened that one night a cook got hurt. The chef told me to come on the line. I started by burning everything, even the water, but I fell in love with cooking. I went to school, and the rest was history.

Townsend: My great-great grandmother was full-blooded Italian and came over from Sicily. I’m all self-taught; I never went to culinary school. I’m just lucky that I have it, I guess. I have no recipes — I know by the look and by the texture. That makes it difficult in a restaurant sometimes, but my daughter works with me here and she’s picking a lot of it up. She can replicate a lot of what I make because she’s been watching me for so many years — I make the same things here that I make for my family.