Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, September 22, 2017

My Ancestors: Great-Grandmom Protani's Spaghetti Sauce Recipe

This is the 2nd post in my occasional series honoring my ancestors.

Vincenzo and Assunta, seated, 1912

My great-grandmother Assunta Mastracci Protani was born on August 12, 1886 in the village of Arnara in the Italian
province of Frosinone.  She was the daughter of Michele Mastracci and Maria Katerina Fiori.

Her future husband, Vincenzo Protani, was born in the same village on December 23, 1873. After many reputed adventures, Vincenzo came to America to make his fortune in 1903. I do not know whether the sixteen-year-old Assunta and the thirty-year-old Vincenzo had any kind of romantic relationship prior to his departure. However, Vincenzo returned to the little village to make Assunta his bride in 1907. 

Her family did not approve of the union. I do not know whether their disapproval stemmed from a fear that Vincenzo would take their daughter away from them forever, or simply because of his reputation as a tough guy. Regardless, Vincenzo refused to take no for an answer. According to my great-aunt Mary Protani Maccubbin, Vincenzo eventually kidnapped Assunta and spirited her away on horseback to the Vatican, where they were married. She arrived in New York City with him in February 1907. After a brief stay in New York, they permanently settled in Baltimore, Maryland.

Assunta with my uncle Tony.

Vincenzo and Assunta lived first on Stiles Street in Little Italy before moving to Montford Avenue just above Patterson Park.  They had eleven children and a horde of grandchildren. Assunta loved her family. Sadly, because of my grandparents' divorce, our family slowly drifted away from the greater Protani family. I only met Assunta once. I have a vague memory of being taken to see her when I was a small child. At the time I didn't know my grandmother had been previously married, so I assumed I was seeing her second husband's mother. Later, when I discussed the memory, I was told it was Assunta.

When I began my journey into genealogy was sadden to discover that Assunta lived until August 24, 1980. Had I known more about the Protani branch of my family, I would have sought her out. I would have loved to have met her as an adult, and I'm sure she would have been happy to meet me. 

Assunta with part of her family on her 50th wedding
anniversary in 1957. 

My great-grandmother may be gone, but I can still get a taste of the life she lived.  My great-aunt Elsie Protani shared Assunta's homemade spaghetti sauce recipe with me.  Here it is, as filtered through Aunt Elise:


Fat Back
Tomato Paste
Peeled Tomatoes

Assunta cooked in fat back. She would render it down to liquid, add chopped garlic, then put it in a can and keep it in the refrigerator for cooking purposes. When she wanted to make sauce, she would put some fat back at the bottom of the pot. Then she would add some kind of meat. She would brown the meat and add salt or pepper as desired. Then, she would add tomato paste. She would let that cook for a while before adding the peeled tomatoes.  If she used two cans of paste, she would add two cans of peeled tomatoes. Three cans of paste, three cans of tomatoes, etc.  For every can of paste, she would add one paste can of water.  You can add more or less water depending how thick you want the sauce to be.  She would next add basil and oregano.*  How much?  Who knows?  It was never written down.  This is more a "pinch of this, a pinch of that" recipe.  Then she'd let it simmer for a couple of hours. 

The key to the recipe is the fat back and meat.  That's what gives the sauce its taste.

I personally found it interesting that she never added onions, then I remembered my cousin Carmen Falstaffi's spaghetti sauce recipe.  She made it for us some while visiting Baltimore and she didn't add onions.  She said she used either onions or garlic but never both at the same time since she felt the tastes fought each other.  Personally, I like both, but I will remain true to the cooking traditions of my ancestral village of Arnara!

Assunta last visited her hometown of Arnara in 1948 while arranging the marriage of one of her daughters. I went to Arnara in 2000 to meet the family.  Here's a little film about it:

*Aunt Elsie always adds some cinnamon at this point.  It cuts back on the acidity.

My blog wouldn't be complete without plugging my book.  Have you read it yet? The Kindle version isn't very expensive....

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