Basic Meat Sauce

Sugo di Carne Odd, isn’t it? The part of each post that will give us trouble. Last week it was the photos and labels. Just how many pictures does one need of meat & vegetables floating in water? And do I call it “broth”, “brodo”, or “stock”? In the end, I chose one photo and used all three monikers.

This week it’s the post’s title. First off, I thought using the word “Sugo” might be confusing to a few people.  In English, sugo means “gravy” but, unlike some, we never referred to tomato sauce as “gravy”. It was either “sauce” or “sugo”. “Gravy” was the stuff you put on mashed potatoes. But that’s not the only problem in the title. This sauce is not a Bolognese, although I have that recipe and will share it later. I am a Marchigiano but it would be arrogant for me to call my sauce alla Marchigiani, meaning “in the style of Le Marche”. I guess I could say it’s dei Bartolini, meaning “of the Bartolini”, but that would imply that there’s one common sauce for us all. That’s hardly the case.

Back in the old two-flat, each adult was quite capable of making a sauce for pasta. Granted, it was exceptionally rare for one of the men to make a sauce but that doesn’t mean each didn’t consider himself to be a master chef when it came to making one. Oddly enough, each of the adults’ sauces was as different from the others as the cook who prepared it. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if it were somehow possible to recreate each individual’s sauce, I would still be able to determine who prepared each. Yes, they were that distinctive despite using almost the exact same ingredients. “Almost” because there were two minor differences: Mom had her “secret” spice (See Notes) and Nonna might use a little marjoram. It remains a mystery to me how 6 people could have used the same ingredients and achieve such different results. Today, I add a little wine to my sauce and I don’t recall anyone else having done that. The point to all of this is to make clear that there is no one sauce of the Bartolini and for me to use that title for my sauce would be mighty presumptuous. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that I still needed a title for this post, so, I took the path of least resistance. “Basic Meat Sauce” it is.

"Until the juices run clear"

“Until the juices run clear”

There are a few techniques that all of our tomato sauces include. In the first place, all of our sauces use onions. This is significant because the sweetness of the onion eliminates the need for the sugar that some add to their tomato sauces. When it comes to preparing a meat sauce, at one time large pieces of beef and pork were used and later served alongside of the pasta. Today those meats are ground before being added to the pot. Personally, I no longer buy ground meat and, as a result, am in better control of both the quality and fat content of my ingredients. Beyond that, the instructions for many sauces state to “Brown the meat.” Well, that’s half-right. If you only sauté the meat until the pink is gone, you’re missing an opportunity to add flavor to your sauce. As Zia says, make sure “the juices run clear” before you add anything else to the pot. This will ensure that all the liquid has evaporated, concentrating the flavor and leaving just fat behind. Only then can the meat really begin to brown and I’ll continue to sauté it for a few minutes more to do so. Lastly, I’ll add parsley and basil to the pot just like everyone else but I, also, go back and add more just after the sauce is taken off the heat. I find that doing so not only boosts the flavor of the sauce but adds to its aroma, as well.

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Basic Meat Sauce Recipe

yield: 2 quarts (1.9 l)


  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3/4 to 1 lb. (340 to 454 g) ground beef
  • 3/4 to 1 lb. (340 to 454 g) ground pork
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced or grated
  • 4 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped – separated
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 10 crimini mushrooms, sliced – optional
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 quarts (1.9 l) tomatoes or 2 large (28 oz) cans, chopped
  • 2 tsp marjoram
  • 4 tbsp fresh basil, chopped – separated
  • salt & pepper


  1. Heat oil in large sauce pan over a medium-high heat. Once hot, add beef and pork, season lightly with salt & pepper, and sauté until the liquids run clear and the meat browns.
  2. Add onion, garlic, and half of the parsley. Stir, season lightly with salt & pepper, and continue to sauté until onion is translucent.
  3. Add the wine and sauté until all but a trace has evaporated.
  4. Optional: Add mushrooms and continue sautéing until soft, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add tomato paste, mix thoroughly, and continue to sauté another 2 minutes.
  6. Add the tomatoes, basil, marjoram, and stir to thoroughly combine.
  7. Bring to boil and reduce to a soft simmer.
  8. Continue to simmer until the sauce deepens in color and thickens — about 2 hours. Stir occasionally.
  9. Remove from heat, add remaining parsley & basil. Stir to combine.
  10. Sauce is ready for use with your favorite pasta or, once cooled, for storage in your refrigerator or freezer.

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Although this recipe makes two quarts, it can easily be halved to make one quart of sauce.

When you choose to add wine to your sauce will affect its impact on the end-result. If added early, as I did in today’s recipe, the wine will blend into the background, adding to the overall taste of the sauce. Adding it later, towards the end, the wine flavoring will be much more prominent. When preparing a meat sauce, I add the wine early on. For a marinara, I add it later, as you’ll see below. It is yours to decide which you prefer.

Mom did have a “secret” spice that she added to her sauce.  It’s not that I’ve a problem revealing the secret, it’s just that we cannot agree on what that spice was. It’s been over 10 years since I last had a taste and, speaking for myself, my memory isn’t what it used to be. Now, normally this would have meant the end of the discussion, except for one little thing. Recently, while rearranging my basement freezer’s contents, I came across a quart of Mom’s sauce that had fallen in among the ice bags that I used to create a false bottom in the freezer. (The bags were supposed to make things easier to reach and, ironically, prevent something from “getting lost” down there.) Granted, as far as discoveries go, this is not on a par with King Tut’s tomb but is it still a great find. I seriously doubt that the sauce is in any condition to be eaten but, hopefully, we’ll be able to determine just what Mom’s secret ingredient was. To that end, I plan to bring it to Zia — when I remember — and let her palate settle this matter, once and for all. Lest there be any doubt, let me assure you that Zia is a fair and impartial judge. She would never be swayed by the fact that I arranged for her to hold the hand and receive the blessing of her Patron, the soon-to-be-Saint Pope John Paul II.

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It’s déjà vu all over again

Since I shared one tomato sauce today, I might as well take you back to an earlier post in which I shared a marinara (meatless) sauce. You can see the recipe by clicking HERE. It was one of my earliest posts, so, be kind.

And while you’re there, be sure to take the link to check out that lasagna recipe. I doubt you’ve seen one like it.

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172 thoughts on “Basic Meat Sauce

  1. This sounds so good, and I will definitely try it out. I was especially interested to read your notes about adding wine; there are those around my table who object to wine in their food, so adding it early might be the answer. (I like the way it deepens the flavor of a dish.) I wonder what that secret ingredient is!

    • Thank you. When you add the wine early, just be sure to wait until it has evaporated before proceeding. It will, as you say, deepen the flavor of the dish without that heavy wine taste. I seriously doubt if anyone could identify it. It’s much like adding a couple anchovies to the hot oil at the start of a sauce. People who absolutely hate anchovies will love that sauce. :)
      Yes, we’ll soon have the answer to a family mystery.

  2. This looks delicious. I love that everyone has their own secret extra ingredients for meat sauce – crimini mushrooms and marjoram sound like beautiful additions. Intrigued to discover what your mum’s secret ingredient was! For the record, my secret inclusion is lentils; and ‘sugo’ in Australia refers to pasta sauce of any description, but most-commonly a (mainly) tomato-based one.

    • Thanks for commenting. Mom really wasn’t one to hide her recipes or have secret ingredients. This is the only one she had and it really wasn’t much of a secret, as I recall. What I cannot recall is which of two spices it is. My sibling says it is one and I think it’s the other. Finding that container hidden in the bottom of my freezer was “heaven-sent” if ever anything was. :)
      I bet lentils add a nice thickness to your dish and thanks for the heads-up about the use of “sugo” in Oz. Nice knowing we have a whole continent in agreement with us.

  3. I agree.. it’s mystifying that a collection of ingredients can come together to make a unique and sometimes completely different flavor. It makes me wonder if I shouldn’t read up more on the “science” part of cooking… but I think I’d rather come here and discover all sorts of things I didn’t know, for eg. that the timing of the wine makes a difference. My secret ingredient in some recipes is sometimes cinnamon, odd but I love that it’s hard to identify in a savory dish. I don’t have a sugo or a marinara recipe, so I can’t wait to try these. I am so excited you found a packet of your mom’s sauce.. how cool is that to discover?!!

    • You’re probably right, Barb. Knowing more about the science behind cooking would help to explain how these sauces could differ so greatly. On the other hand, I don’t mind leaving this a mystery. :)
      I agree about using cinnamon in dishes. I use a touch of it in my Bolognese. As longs as not too much is used, it add a nice depth to the dish.
      I cannot believe I found a container of her sauce, Barb. Talk about heaven-sent! It’s our own Rosetta Stone. :)

  4. This looks so incredibly delicious and flavorful John! I can almost smell it! I agree too….I absolutely love the sweetness onions provide. I make an onion soup with the sweet caramelized onions and I can’t get enough of it. One thing I always like to add and finish off a dish with is usually some fresh citrus, either lemon or lime. It always livens up all the other flavors and decreases the need for as much salt. This looks amazing!

    • Thank you so much, Brandi. Your onion soup must be incredible if you use caramelized onions as its base. Yum! If you like citrus, you will probably love Mom’s cappelletti when I post it next month. Cappelletti are soup ravioli and there’s lemon zest in the filling. They taste so good in broth and it is the one time you do not mind if the pillow comes apart in the dish. The filling spills out and gives the broth a wonderful taste. You’ll see. :)

  5. When I make sugo/ragù it’s usually bolognese (with milk, prosciutto/pancetta, and nutmeg) but it’s probably a good idea to try some different recipes — if only for variation. This sounds like a good one, so thanks for sharing. Great story about the secret ingredient, I’m curious now and wonder whether it’s nutmeg :-)

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  7. Loved this post John as it took me back to my Godmother´s kitchen (she lived in the house next door to ours) and the conversations we had with her mum (Nonna Maria), my Godmother (Zia Luciana), my mum (Mamma) and the 3 daughters of the two families – we all made sauce, we all made it pretty much the same way but none tasted the same! I make mine almost the same as yours, no parsley though, sometimes I add a little peperoncino, but then I´m a “Calabresa” and they like their food spicier! Fantastic recipe, fantastic post. Have a great week :)

    • I knew while writing this post, that if anyone would appreciate cooks in one family, using the same pantry, with different sauces the result, it would be you, Tanya. Living next door to your Nonna, you know first-hand what I am talking about. All of the sauces were very good, yet somehow different. As for the peperoncini, they were never put in the sauce. They may have been on the table but just not in the sauce. To be honest, I probably use more pepper flakes than anyone in the family. Some like it hot. ;)
      You, too, have a great week!

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  9. John, I have to come clean. I am in a jarred sauce rut! It has been quite some time since I have prepared my own sauce but I am inspired to make it again. My signature has always been to add wine but I didn’t put too much thought into when I added it. I see things differently now — thanks! Now I am anxiously waiting to see what your mom’s secret spices were … Another informative post (as usual)!

    • Come clean? There’s nothing wrong with using a jarred sauce, especially being how good some of them are nowadays. And with 2 ponytails in the house, you’ve got other things to do. I’m sure you serve a delicious dish of pasta and that’s all that matters.
      I, too, am anxious to defrost that sauce. What a lucky break finding it!

  10. sauce, sauce, sauce, sauce, sauce….yes its sauce people….so glad that you call it sauce too and not gravy. John I would be careful letting Zia try something that has been frozen for 10 years, IMHO…but she does have Divine intervention so she might be covered…I’m still in awe of you and her meeting Blessed John Paul…I hope to some day…ps, I like the touch of adding the wine, I cook with wine often, sometimes I even put it in my food…(add rim shot!)

    • Thanks, Maria, and I so agree with you. Even Cook’s Illustrated featured “Sunday Gravy” in one of their shows. I cringed for the entire segment. It’s SAUCE!
      Zia and I were just talking about that container last night. We may not have to taste it. We may be able to smell the ingredient. Don’t worry. If there’s any tasting to be done, I’ll be going first. Even if she must taste it, she’ll be fine. Zia firmly believes that Pope John Paul II is her guardian.
      And I’m a firm believer that if I’m adding wine to a pot, I should also add some to a glass. It’s only fair. :)

  11. I add a little wine too! So you make your own mince? I buy mine but from a reputable butcher who can tell me where it’s come from, not from the supermarket! I’d be interested to know what cuts you buy to make your mince because I’m thinking of mincing my own meat too – I just need to buy a grinder attachment! xx

    • Hi, Charlie. One of the markets I frequent sells beef and pork, cubed in a 1 inch (2.5 cm) pieces, in the same packaging labelled “chop suey.” If that’s unavailable, Ill buy a small beef chuck roast and pork shoulder, carve them up, and grind each, reserving what I need and freezing the rest.
      If you’re going to carve up a roast for grinding, it is better to cut the meat into strips than chunks. And you’ll find that it will grind better if is partially frozen. I’ll carve and trim the roast, put the strips in a single layer on a baking sheet, and place them in the freezer for a half hour or 45 minutes.
      You’ll find that there is much less fat when you cook meat that you’ve ground. Best of all, you know exactly what you’re using. I hope this helps, Charlie. Let me know if I can be of further help.

  12. I like adding wine to my dishes, so red wine will be added to my meat sauce in the future.
    I too am always amazed at how given identical ingredients each cook’s finished dish taste so very different and many times look different also.
    Looking forward to learning about your Mom’s secret ingredient.

  13. I’ve been craving Bolognese or a meat sauce with pasta since Christmas – so far I’ve been continually presented with other exciting things. Great post and back story :-)

  14. that you found your mother’s sauce in your freezer after all this time! What a gift!! I can just imagine how you must have felt with that discovery, John! And it may sound a little over-the-top, but I mean it absolutely, that’s a treasure greater than the Pharaoh’s!
    I love the way you coax flavor out of ingredients in your sauces John, and the addition of wine (yes!) and herbs both early and late seems so right! (I’ll be making your marinara – and that may be the sauce that goes on your ravioli once my dies arrive!)

    • Thank you, Spree, for the nice compliment. That really was quite a find and I cannot tell you how excited I was. A real Blast from the Past.
      I’m excited to read that you’ve ordered the dyes. I can’t wait for you to christen them. With a little practice — and a glass or two of wine — you’ll be making ravioli like a pro. :)

  15. Dear John, you are truly an eloquent story teller and even better, your story and recipe makes me want to make your sauce with a loaf of your glorious Easter Cheese Bread (yes, I’m still dreaming of said bread). You always manage to transport me either into the two-flat of your childhood, or into your present day kitchen, even as I’m sardined into an overheated streetcar on my way to work with the unwashed masses. And I must thank you for that. Wishing my lunch was your meat sauce (which by no means deserves the mundane name of basic) instead of the left-over turkey in a Thai green curry sauce. Have a lovely day.

    • Thank you so much, Eva, for your kind words. That bread has been on my mind, too. There’s been a spike in its views lately, as well. It’s certainly hard to forget the aroma that fills the kitchen while it’s baking.
      I remember all too well those crowded commutes on our subway and/or buses. I’m glad this post offered you a bit of distraction. Again, thank you and I hope you ride home was a bit more spacious. :)

      • Thanks John, I usually get a lift from my friend/boss/neighbour, Kim, so it is enormously more pleasant than the streetcar. If it weren’t for reading the lovely blogs such as yours, I’m sure I would be in prison by now.

  16. I have to digress and tell you a little story. I was driving the other day and while checking the car behind me I see the driver and his face was EXACTLY like your gravatar picture! I could not stop checking and looking again, we stopped at a red light, and there I was staring at his face through the rearview mirror. I think he noticed, and maybe thougth this gray hair lady could be flirting with him… :-) Anyway, I had to tell you!

    back to food, though – your sauce sounds like a Bolognese with less fuss but enough flavor to make anyone happy! Loved it…

  17. What a perfect recipe for a cold Chicago day. I love how the sauce deepened in color and flavor the longer it goes. The “Rosetta Stone” find is way cool, and I suspect somewhat emotional. I hope you solve the mystery!

    • Thanks, David. There are some foods whose aromas fill the kitchen and remind me of my youth. A tomato sauce and last week’s brodo are 2 of them and just perfect for our current cold spell. As for the mystery, I’m sure Zia and I will figure it out. :)

    • Welcome, Glenda!
      You’re so right. Earlier, another commenter remarked that it probably ha something to do with the science behind cooking and that’s probably true. I’m certainly not complaining. It mean that, growing up, we had a nice variety of great sauces to dress our pasta. Life was good. :)
      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment.

  18. What a cool find in your freezer! I would have been so excited (and probably would have teared up a bit). I hope that you will be able to figure out the secret ingredient. I’ll be anxiously awaiting. Your meat sauce looks fantastic. I too usually add wine to my sauce. I think I typically add it at the beginning. I haven’t made a meat sauce in ages. It sounds good for these cold weather days.

    • Thanks, Kristy. That was the find of the decade, to be sure! I can’t wait to get it to Zia’s and defrost it to determine the answer to the mystery.
      If I look in my freezer and don’t see a quart of sauce and a quart of brodo, I get nervous. I simply must have some of both on-hand. And you’re right. Both are perfect for our current weather.

  19. Super recipe. I can only imagine you write as you cook. What a feast. Love your posts and I did giggle about the soon to be Pope. No pressure then?! I wonder if you will find the missing ingredient. It has to be that special ingredient – that only a dish made from love has.

    • Thank you so much, Maria, for leaving such a nice comment. Yes, soon we’ll know the answer to the mystery of the sauce. And I just couldn’t resist the temptation to mention the Pope again. Even though in reality, I was every bit as surprised as my Aunt was, I won’t let her sons forget it. They’re very good sports about it, too. :)

  20. Hi John, oh this post made me hungry! While I was reading through, I even smelled the sauce! Mmm, that basil, parsley and marjoram blended so deliciously perfect… Sugar: add or not to add? When I taste it I decide if I need a bit of sugar, and usually I add a little (on a tip of the knife).
    You know, the first thing I bought when we moved to US was a meat grinder. I am not a control freak (at least I think I am not), but in my kitchen with my ingredients I have to be in charge.
    ” It remains a mystery to me how 6 people could have used the same ingredients and achieve such different results”. It remains a mystery to me too. My mother makes a perfect burgers (let’s call it this), but I can never achieve the same taste as her’s. We even had one time a test: she was next to me watching how I make it, and I followed her directions to the Z. Guess what? It was very good, but it wasn’t my mother’s. Maybe it’s something in mother’s hands that we can recognize in the food? And I found a piece in thinking of it as a signature of each cook: I can tell who was cooking, and definitely choose what my mother made without any mistake. Still a mystery how and why…

    • So you do understand, then, Marina. The inability to replicate your Mother’s burgers is very much the same as my family’s tomato sauces. I gave up long ago trying to duplicate all of her dishes. She had a knack for spices and seasoning that I have yet to learn. I’ll get there, I hope. Until then, I think it was pretty fantastic that we kids grew up in a house where there was such a variety of sauces. Once, on the playground, a kid tried to make fun of me, saying that my house always smelled like spaghetti. Instead of the group of kids ridiculing me, they all asked if it was true and said that I was real lucky. They were right! :)

    • The thing about sugar or any ingredient is that you can always add some at the end of cooking, if it’s needed. Once you put it in the pot, though, you stuck with it. If using onions makes you sauce sweet enough, Colline, you’re all set. If not, a bit of sugar will get your sauce to where you would like it.

  21. I think Basic Meat Sauce is a perfect title! That’s what it is, and once you know how to make one, you can alter it slightly to make it your own – as everyone in your family obviously did! I make my “basic” meat sauce in a way that’s very similar to yours, including early inclusion of the wine. Mine is different in that I’d add the tomato paste in Step 3 and saute for a couple of minutes, usually don’t include the mushrooms, and then I’d add the wine and reduce it to basically nothing. The advantage of adding the tomato paste early is the early sauteing of it helps the flavor bloom, and better incorporates the flavor in the meat. The disadvantage is that you have to be careful in the wine step – if you don’t keep stirring at the end, you can risk scorching the tomato paste. I may have to try your method – the biggest advantage I can see is by reducing the wine to nothing, you’re adding another layer of nice brown caramelization on the bottom of the sauce pan, which will dissolve when you add the liquid tomato (you get a lot more flavor this way; the wine will have dissolved the layer of caramelization that you obtained when browning the meat). Anyway, good stuff! I haven’t made this for quite some time and have been thinking about it – you’re pushing me closer to doing it. ;-) Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks, John, for the kinds words and encouragement. I have cooked my sauce as you do, adding the tomato paste early, but I tend to get distracted and often burnt the tomato paste. Then, too, I was using a different, light-bottomed saucepan. My chances for success are greater now that I’ve been using the Dutch oven. I need to remember to switch it up next time. Easier said than done, as was writing this recipe. I’ve done it this way, pretty much without thinking, for years. Trying to measure and write everything down was unexpectedly difficult. Who knew? :)

  22. John, I got such a kick out of this post! The secret ingredient and various sauces among the family! Ours was the same. Each aunt had her own sauce and NO ONE shared!! As such, I’ve never posted my mother’s recipe, so silly, but it remains a secret! My sister was given her husband’s family sauce recipe with the promise to never share so I don’t know her’s and she doesn’t know mine! I bet we could have fun with this asking Italian families their sauce story! We did not call it gravy either! Well thank you for sharing your meat sauce – it sound richly flavored and delicious!

    • Thank you, Linda, for the compliments. You’ve touched upon another element of the secret ingredient: whether to keep it secret. i don’t mind sharing it, given the reason behind my blog. I’ve a sibling, however, who’s implied it should remain a secret. I’ll cross that bridge if we actually can figure out what it is. No matter, you do know exactly what I’m talking about. That is soo not my way. I share whatever recipe I’ve found and every technique I’ve learned. So, don’t tell me any secret recipes! :)

  23. I really love the title, John, because I think the recipe is exactly what I would like to have. One good recipe! I love the two photos, and see how rich and delicious the second one is. I think that years and years ago I went to more effort to make a good meat sauce, and then over time took less pride in the end result, settling on something much faster or, dare I admit, from a jar! But I personally think with economics being so strangled I have more of a desire to create wonderful memories of meals at home, not eating out, and to establish some of the same happy memories you share from around your table with my children and grandchildren. I can absolutely guarantee that we will be bringing the Bartolini recipe and establishing a west coast presence. I like the addition of the wine and the mushrooms. And I can’t wait to hear what you and Zia discover in your mom’s lost, now perhaps found, ingredient. That will be so fun!

    • When I was still working, Debra, I often did as you do, use a jarred sauce as the base for my own. As time went by, I noticed that my additions were getting more and more involved. I then started to make my own sauce on Saturdays but I’d make 4 or 5 quarts at a time. Everything was frozen and I had enough sauce for a month at least. Now I usually make a quart and if I make two, I’ll give one away. I have time now, though, that I didn’t have before.
      I hope that you do incorporate more meal time with your Children and Grandchildren. We didn’t realize it at the time but we were very fortunate for our time together. Now. looking back, none of us would change a thing. I think you’ll find it’s definitely time well spent.
      Thank you, Debra, for leaving such a nice comment.

  24. I am most definitely making this! I love a GOOD meat sauce! I think it’s funny that family members used the same ingredients, but it all tastes different! If I try my moms recipes, mine will undoubtedly taste completely different-usually not as good! Can’t wait to hear what the secret ingredient was in your moms sauce!

    • It seems, Tanya, that this is the way for many of us in the Comments Section. Few if any can duplicate our Moms’ recipes, even though we’re all using the same ingredients that they did. Too funny! I too cannot wait to find out that ingredient. It really has been bugging me for years!

  25. Ah, this secret ingredient reminds me of a movie about 10 yrs. ago called Bandits with Bruce Willis & Billy Bob Thorton. They were called the ‘sleepover bandits’ because the night before a bank robbery, they would stay at the bank manager’s home then go to work with him in the morning. I always remember the scene where they’re having dinner with the manager’s family (spaghetti & sauce of course) and Billy Bob is trying to guess the wife’s secret sauce ingredient. Hers was saffron & Billy Bob guessed it.
    Now that I’m making the sauce (I used to convince John that he was the only one who could do it) I too sneak in onions but that was a huge NO in his mother’s sauce. Her first rule was that the tomatoes had to be Pastene Ground Peeled. If you didn’t buy that then you were sent back to the A&P to get the RIGHT ones.

    • I’m familiar with Bandits, Diane. That scene has taken place at 10s of thousands of Italian dinner tables across America. I’m aware that some areas of Italy do not believe in using both onions and garlic in the same sauce. That certainly wasn’t the case where my family came from, where every sauce started with onion, garlic, and parsley. As I recall, no one was too particular about the tomatoes used. When I was young, most of theirs came from Grandpa’s garden and they canned all they needed for the Winter months. Today, I peel, chop, and freeze tomatoes every September for the Winter. It must be in my genes. :)

    • You’re very welcome, Kathleen. That lasagna is quite special. It’s not as heavy as those with layers of ricotta and it’s flavors are more delicate. If you do make it, I hope you’ll like it as much as I do :)

  26. I must say I am infinitely grateful to be in your private cooking school. Methinks most of us interested in food [and everybody is interested in Italian cooking, let's face it!] think we can make a basic meat sauce, but even having read these lines quickly for the first time, I have learned to try things differently. I usually have a bigger amount of meats, do not use mushrooms and am more impatient, it seems, as I obviously don’t cook mine long enough! Well, next time it will be cooked ‘Bartolini style’ and, am certain, greatly enjoyed!!! And, oh yes, do make my own mince!!!

    • I understand about the meat content, Eha. Mom would say to use 1 pound (454 g) of meat per quart (.95 l) of tomatoes, presumably canned. Over the years, I’ve begun to vary it somewhat. If I’m going to use the sauce for a baked pasta dish, like our family’s lasagna, I’ll use a lesser amount of meat. These baked dishes are usually loaded with cheese and are heavy enough as it is. A little less meat is a good thing.
      I started “making my own mince” — I feel so Australian! — several years ago and am very glad I did. Every year there are more horror stories of the “stuff” going into “minced” meat. I’ve no such worries and am very happy about it, too.
      I hope you do try our sauce, Eha. and like it as much as we do. Thanks for leaving such a great comment.

  27. John, the first picture made me want to reach my hand into the screen! So delicious on the bread. Excellent picture. I love the recipe. I never have added mushrooms in my sauce. What flavor that adds!! Although I am not a huge mushroom fan like I use to be, this is delicious with that option. I also love the start and finish sauce pictures. It is amazing how it formed beautifully into a delicious sauce. Love it!!!

    • One of the things I enjoy about cooking, Judy, is how the food transforms as it cooks. Watching bread rise in the oven, onions caramelizing, or a tomato sauce thickening as it deepens in color, to name a few. A dish’s taste may be the final determinant of whether that dish is good but, as cooks, we get to watch that taste develop. Yes, it doesn’t take much to enthrall me. :)
      Thank you, Judy, for always being so complementary when you comment.

  28. Oh, that sauce looks anything but basic to me! The colour is so rich, it looks so hearty and I can only imagine how good it tastes. I do understand why you named the post as you did, but perhaps you should consider some other options. How about “Sublime Meat Sauce”?

    • Thanks, Mar, that’s very kind of you to say. You have to remember, though, that my family reads these posts. I’m chuckling now because I know that if I were to name something “sublime,” they would never let me hear the end of it. :)

  29. There is nothing better than slow, long simmered sauces! Thank you SO much for sharing your family meat sauce. I can’t wait to make it. Bobby mentioned just the other day that we haven’t had pasta and meat sauce in a long time. Maybe that’s because I don’t like my own sauce. :) Yours looks perfect!

    • Thank you, MJ, for your kinds words. I’m sure your sauce is better than you’re letting on. I bet Bobby feels differently. Mom was sometimes critical of her food and I did my best to tell her otherwise, especially after my first trip to Italy. A few times I would have sworn she or Zia were in the restaurant’s kitchen preparing my dinner. It was really something.
      If you do make this sauce, I hope you enjoy it — and Bobby, too. :)

  30. Wonderful ingredients put together for perfection.
    And doable for sure. I like the finished photo, the comparison of how it looks starting out, so rich at the end.
    Your papal connections give you a lot of clout, John. You are golden.
    Love to read the process of preparation and cooking on your blog. Great Food Writing for the world. Very generous of you.

    • Thanks, Ruth, for being so generous with your compliments. It’s very kind of you.
      You’ve only gotten a small taste of how I remind everyone of our Papal meeting. I usually sign cards to Zia’s Great-Grandchildren, for example, as “The Uncle who pushed your dear sweet Nonna’s wheelchair across Rome’s 7 Hills so that She could meet the Soon-to-be-Saint Pope John Paul II.” They’ll never forget. I won’t let them! :)

  31. John, how interesting to read this and see the things we do differently and similarly – we saute the onions before adding meat, but only until translucent, never brown, and we always add wine while the meat is still pink. We don’t add mushrooms or tomato paste, but we do use Italian passata and tinned San Marzano tomatoes, the end result of a nearly 20 year quest into Italian cooking tomatoes. Pete will often enrich the sauce with a generous lump of good butter as well. Finally, I thought you might be amused to know that in our predominantly Italian neighbourhood, the butchers all sell a combined pork and veal mince – it’s what everyone (except us) uses for sugo! (We use straight homeground beef mince!). Thanks for sharing, it was a great read! xx

    • Thank you, Celia, for leaving such a thoughtful comment. Growing up, Mom and Zia relied on Grandpa’s garden for their tomatoes. In the Fall they bought bushels of tomatoes and canned them all for use in the Winter. Back then, San Marzano tomatoes were an unknown to most. I’ve only seen tomato passata at online shopping sites. It just isn’t common over here. Funny Pete adds butter. Mom didn’t add it to her sauce but she very often added a bit of butter to her pasta when it was finished draining and before she added the sauce. I imagine the effect is the same. I’ve seen various minces packaged but I’ve not used any of them in years. I like knowing my ingredients whenever possible. Grinding my own meat is an additional step but so very worth it.

      • John, I agree with your completely about grinding our own meat! The butter came about in quite a convoluted way. Years ago, we read a “traditional” recipe for bolognese that added milk to the meat, and were surprised how good it tasted. Then I became a little lactose intolerant as I got older, so Pete started adding butter instead. It adds a truly lovely richness to the finished tomato sugo – a bit like adding cream.

        It would have been wonderful to have your own canned tomatoes – over here, the old Italians would bottle into old beer bottles, cap them, then boil the bottles up in large drums. The process took hours and hours! When we first started cooking all those years ago, there was only local tinned tomatoes, and we were so excited when we found our first La Gina and Annalise branded canned plum tomatoes imported from Italy. Then a few years later, bottled passata became quite commonplace. We like the Mutti brand of both passata and San Marzano, but they’re not cheap. But who wants to save on something like that? Better not to buy the second pair of shoes. :D xx

    • You have a serious case of pot envy, my friend. I hope your “tools” catch up with you soon. I can’t imagine going a few days. let alone months, without mine.
      If it helps you at all, that pot isn’t a Le Creuset. I cannot justify that kind of expense. Mine is a knock-off, though a well-rated one. Even so, I expect to have to replace it eventually. Something I’ll be able to do 7 or 8 times for the cost of un Le Creuset. ;)

  32. I like the addition of marjoram to this sauce. A woefully under-used herb, if you ask me. A story: years ago whilst traveling with Italian friends in Italy, my friend Martino was gifted some wonderful agnolotti from the shop his family owned in Siena. I was tasked with making the sauce. For much the same reason you do, I added onions to my sauce. And received a lecture! From both Martino and Matteo: an Italian *never* mixes onions and garlic, it ruins the sauce! I ruined the pasta! (Or so they said.) I came to learn that this is/was entirely a regional preference and that, in fact, in certain regions onions and garlic marry perfectly happily in classic sauces. Still, reading about your onions made me smile.

    • Oh, Susan. You poor thing. I can just imagine how badly you must have felt. Yes, using onions with garlic is a regional thing. From our part of Italy, no sauce is started without them. In fact, marjoram, too, is used there rather than oregano like the rest of Italy. For such a relatively small country, they have a wide variety of ways to prepare the same dish, like tomato sauce. Thanks for sharing your anecdote. :)

  33. I made this yesterday John and now I want it on everything. This is the perfect meat sauce, and I I need to make at least another batch for the freezer for days when I just don’t want to be in the kitchen a lot. Where has this been all of my life anyway? :) I’ve tried so many sauces from various Italian cookbooks, but this is our favorite by far. So grateful! Thank youuuuuuuu!!!!!

    • Gee, Sarah, that was quick! I’m glad I posted it in time and that you liked what I posted. I do hope you view that sauce as a “basic” sauce and feel free to modify it to suit the tastes of you and your DH. You’re such a good cook that I’m sure you’ll improve upon it. Just come back and let me know about it, so, that I can give it a try, too. :)
      Thanks, Sarah, for the vote of confidence and for being so complimentary all of the time. You spoil me!

      • And you keep us fed! For which we are very grateful.
        In the interest of full disclosure, I had already planned to make a ragu from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, so I already had the ingredients….most of them anyway. I will let you know what, if anything, I do to modify it. But it really is wonderful just like this. I LOVE the mushrooms in it. I’m serving leftovers here in a couple of hours at Hubby’s request. And guess what we’re making tomorrow? Your feta.
        Happiness! I hope you’re feeling better after your bout with the crud. AND, that you have a wonderful weekend :)

  34. Oh, I’m looking forward to this one – and, hopefully, the secret ingredient at some point down the road. I’ll let you know as soon as I get this on our table! It sounds delicious — the kind of straightforward Italian cooking that I love.

    Your comment about same-ingredients-different-sauces reminded me of culinary school. I was always astounded that we would get the same instructions, same recipe, same starting ingredients and work with the same equipment – yet not a single dish ended up looking or tasting the same. It reminded me that cooking truly is as much an art as a science.

    • Thank you so much. I was worried it might disappoint. One of the hallmarks of my family’s recipes is that they are all uncomplicated and use relatively few ingredients. Even today, once you separate the spices used in baking, there are few left in Zia’s cupboard and she’ll laugh when a TV cook uses a dozen spices and herbs in an Italian recipe.
      Your cooking school experiences mirror those in the old two-flat. Now I find it fascinating and realize just how lucky we kids were. In many homes, you’re fortunate to have one good tomato sauce for pasta. We grew up in a house that had 5 or 6. For a pasta lover like me, it was heaven! :)

  35. My problem has always been that i just don’t take the time to brown the meat properly, and I have wonderful grass fed meat too, though it is not terribly fatty. Next time I make this I shall follow your recipe to the letter. There are two major things that are different, you have pork as well as beef, and you brown in oil, I use butter, making these two changes might just be the trick.( Now that I have found some good reasonably priced californian olive oil.. I like to buy as local as I can, though how we can call california local I have NO idea).. I make this sauce reasonably often so i will be trying this very soon. The pork will definitely add a new flavour and possibly more yummy fat.. Have a good day .. c

    • Thanks, Celi, but I bet your sauce is better than you think. Like Mom, you’re your own worst critic. What does John and Tripple T have to say about it? I bet they love it. Your grass fed beef, though, does sounds very good, no matter what recipe you use it in. I’m glad to see this country is finally starting to pull away from grain fed cattle. It may take years but at least they’ve started.
      As for olive oil, Judy over at Savoring Today wrote a post about olive oils. The post is very informative and even has a link to a list of oils approved by the California Olive Oil Council. I’ve referred to that post often.
      Good luck with your next pot of sauce. I’m here if you’ve any questions. :)

        • I know of 2 more local companies, Celi. They’re both located in Geneva, Illinois, and deliver. Still, even though they’re local, there are no olives grown here. They must be imported from somewhere, be it California or Europe.
          One is called The Galena Garlic Company
          The other is called The Olive Mill.
          I’ve received gifts from both companies but, ironically, the gifts were balsamic vinegar. The vinegars are good but I’m sure there are other places offering olive oils. I just don’t have any experience with the companies. Hope this helps.

          • thank you, I know it is too cold for olives here, but if they import the olives then at least we know the olive oil is ALL olive oil! I shall check them out,, I saw a little olive oil shop in Evanston when I was walking to the train one time, is that one of the Two?

  36. Ah, the secret ingredient, yet unrevealed. Tantalizing stuff, John. :) I cook so much by the seat of my pants that it is difficult to get my recipes down to the finite truth. I do my best but a lot is a palm full of this and a palm full of that. It is amazing how you can assemble ten cooks, provide each cook with the same list of ingredients, set them to work, and each will produce a slightly different product. Even when I’m cooking the same recipe repeatedly it will vary from night to night. At any rate, I go on as usual. Looks delicious as always. Susie

    • Thanks, Susie, You’re a very good cook and I bet most of your cooking is intuitive now. Trying to record a recipe you’ve done by rote is no easy task. I know because this is one of the few recipes that I know that well. I really hadn’t thought about what I was actually doing for some time. I thought this would be an easy post to write and, instead, I was editing it right up until it was posted. I’m sure that if I come back to it in 3 years, I’ll probably have to rewrite it. What suffering we artists must endure! :)

  37. There is nothing like fresh homemade pasta sauce. I use jarred sauce as well but I prefer when I have the time to make it fresh. I should look into grinding my own meat. I’ve seen a couple of references to the quality and control of the ingredients. Though I’ve had good luck with ground local meat so far. Once in a while it is a bit dry but most of the time it’s just right.

    • Time really is the issue for most people. When I still worked, I relied on jarred sauce for some time. I eventually went to making a big pot of sauce on Saturday and freezing it. About that time, I started grinding my own meat. Over time, i just quit buying any ground meat. I like knowing exactly what I’m using in my sauces and burgers. It’s only an added step in the food’s preparation and all of my grinder’s parts go into the dishwasher. I’ve got the time so there’s really no excuse for me not to grind it myself. Once you start, I bet you, too, will never buy ground meat again. :)

  38. I loved reading this post. It’s so genuine, from the heart…..I haven’t made a lot of gravy, but this one sounds so delicious.

    Funny that you wrote about two different recipes using same ingredients…..I have often tried replicating my Mom’s recipe, with her on the other end of the ph giving me instructions, and it NEVER tastes like hers, really.

    • I think your comment regarding trying to copy your Mom’s recipe has been echoed about a dozen times in these comments. Everything in the recipe is the same except the cooks and the outcome. It’s universal! :)
      Thank you for leaving such a nice comment.

  39. Hey, Deb!!! You very well may be right. Nutmeg is one of the 2 possibilities that Zia and I have narrowed it down to. Luckily, both are rather strong and we may be able to smell the spice without having to actually taste something that’s been frozen over 10 years. Yikes!
    Thank, Deb, for stopping by. Feel free to pop in anytime. :)

  40. Dear John, you choose wisely, is a good name. But if anybody ask, I’ll say this John B’s sugo ;)
    Fantastic recipe :) I hope you find that secret ingredient (and when I say you, I mean Zia) and revisit the recipe.
    Have a nice day!

    • Thanks, Giovanna, for the compliment and for the accreditation. :)
      I’m looking forward to finding out what that spice is. This riddle has been around for far too long.

  41. I apologize for being so late to this party. I don’t know why, but once again I’m not getting an email alert and I’m fickle with the reader, so I’m behind in reading. I love the tip about concentrating the flavor of the meat when it’s ground. I’ve never known to do that, but can’t wait to try it! This looks like a fine sauce, basic or otherwise. And wine in the background as an enrichment sounds lovely. I probably won’t grind my own meat since I don’t have a grinder, but I probably will make this delicious looking Sugo!

    • Thank you but there’s certainly no need for an apology, Betsy, especially since the very same thing has happened to me with others’ posts.
      Just like when I cooked with Mom, I learn so many little tips when I cook with Zia — and very often some anecdote involving when she learned it. It’s a great way to learn. I got my first meat grinder as a free gift when I bought my stand mixer — and I’ve never looked back. I really like the sense of control I have over my ingredients.
      If you do make our sugo, I hope you enjoy it as much as we do. :)

  42. It is so interesting how we all tweak our recipes. I think if all the ingredients were measured and placed in front of different cooks…the end result would be different. As you say, it makes a difference when the ingredients are added.

  43. I’m know I’m in the right place when my stomach starts grumbling when I read your posts… even though I have no intention right now, recovering from holidays, busy back in the office and preparing for another quick break… to cook much at all but it’s so good to read what you write about what you do, and the stories you weave through it. I will however bookmark it :)

    • Thank you again, EllaDee. You are so sweet to try to get to all of these posts. If I lived nearby, I’d bring you a quart of sauce and then you wouldn’t need to bookmark anything. :)

  44. Here is one of those family recipes that should actually include in the recipe steps and ingredients “love and care” of course along with the garlic. I think timing of adding the ingredients in so important and that a lifetime of experience of making it, can be your only guide. Love the rich reduction of the sauce and would love to dig into that bowl with a crusty piece of Tuscan bread. Ciao… BAM

    • Thanks, BAM, for leaving such a nice comment and compliment. You know, no matter how often I make a red sauce, I just cannot resist dipping a piece of bread into the pot. I’ll go out, while the sauce is simmering, to buy bread if I discover, much to my horror, that I’ve none in the house. I find it completely irresistible. :)

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  46. Love the flavor profile of this sauce, John, as well as the technique. So many people dump the meat in, overcrowd the pot and cook (resulting in the meat being kinda boiled) until it is somewhat gray, ergo done, and then start adding other ingredients. What they fail to recognize is that by searing the meat until the juices run clear, you are actually caramelizing the exterior of the meat resulting in greater depth of flavor. You also eliminate the “gray scum” in the sauce from cooking the proteins of the blood in liquid thereby improving the overall texture of the sauce. Last, I love that you add the wine at the beginning because it melds better with the other ingredients than if you add it at the end. I also like to watch the color develop after adding the wine. Great post!

    • You certainly do know your tomato sauce, Richard. “Caramelizing” was not a word used in our cooking lessons but the effect on the meat and sauce was well-known. As for the wine, I added it later in the cooking process and over the years. added it earlier and earlier. That’s the thing about a tomato sauce, at least for me. It’s a work in progress. I looked at a tomato sauce recipe that I wrote 6 or 7 years ago and though similar, there are differences with what I do today. I imagine that the same will be true 5 years hence.
      Thanks, Richard, for leaving such a thoughtful comment.

    • Thanks, EllaDee, The frigid cold is gone now. It’s still cold but not so bad as to be dangerous like it was. In fact, early next week high temperatures of 45˚F (7˚C) are forecast. We’re fine … until the next blast of Arctic air comes roaring down the Plains.
      Again, thank you for your concern. Feel free to send us a bit of your heat anytime. :)

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  49. We often have my vegetarian marinara sauce on pasta around here, but sometimes we’re in the mood for a meaty pasta sauce. So, I started with my marinara sauce recipe and modified it a touch for the slow cooker. I added some ground turkey in place of the usual ground beef or pork in a meat sauce to cut down on fat and calories and pump up the protein. The result is a savory, hearty sauce that’s as good as those higher calorie versions. It freezes well, too.

  50. Oh my goodness. Just give me the whole pot, a loaf of crusty gf bread and a good book and I’m set for the whole day. ;) It would have been fun to have gathered your entire family together and done a taste test to see who could guess which sauce belonged to which person. I too use wine in my sauce. I love the depth it adds. My husband’s family…who are real Italians (I’ve just been grafted in), put ketchup in their sauce!! The horror. I believe I’m more Italian than they are. ;)

    • This is one Bartolini recipe, April, that you needn’t fear any gluten or dairy. Pull up a chair, grab a spoon, and dig in! A cousin and I were talking about this post last week. He agreed that he’d be able to distinguish the sauces, too. How lucky could we be to have so many truly delicious sauces on our pasta? I must say, though, not a one used ketchup. We’ll just keep your husband’s family’s special ingredient a secret and speak no more of it.

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  55. So glad you had the link for Basic Meat Sauce on your Gnocchi page!! Can’t wait to make it. Actually, I was going to post Stuffed Shells Florentine tonight. if it’s OK with you, I’ll use your recipe for Basic Meat Sauce – with a link to your wonderful blog, of course!
    Something seems to be going on and it might be my computer but I haven’t been able to “like” posts on a few Word Press sites for a few days now. Has anyone else complained of the same thing?

    • So sweet of you to ask, Cecile. Of course you can. In fact, I’m honored that you would choose our recipe for your post. Thank you very much. I look forward to seing your recipe. Stuffed shells is a family favorite.
      I’ve not had problems with the Like button and haven’t heard of any. I will let you know if and when i do. Thanks again, Cecile.

      • Thank you, John. I wanted… planned… hoped.. to make both the sauce and the stuffed shells but not feeling 100% once again. That being said – I can’t wait to make your recipe for that fabulous Meat Sauce!

  56. I was brought up using the metric system so for a long time the word “quart” was an enigma to me, until I finally decided enough is enough and googled it. I felt very silly because it was more like “take a litre of water and remove three tablespoons from it and voila you have a quart” I would add my wine at the end, to make it more prominent. What was Zia’s verdict? sorry I missed that one. I am on my infrequent browsing spree, best wishes!!!

    • Hi, Liz. I try to put both types of measurements in my posts just to make it easier for everyone. You’d think by now I’d know the most common ones by heart.
      I brought that frozen sauce with me to Zia’s on my last visit, placed it in her freezer, and promptly forgot all about it. I’ve since spoken with her and we’ll conduct the tasting during my next visit. I’ve waited 12 years, a few more weeks won’t matter.
      Thanks for taking the time to look up these older recipes, Liz, and for commenting on them when you do. I really do appreciate it.

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  58. I’m making this wonderful sauce tonight. I’m so glad you added the “hints” about cooking the meat until the juices run clear etc. It’s those things that make a recipe go from “good” to “excellent”. And I agree with you 100% about adding a bit of fresh herbs (no matter which ones) at the end, as well as during the cooking process. The “late addition” does add an extra punch of flavor ! (I’m going to add some chopped fresh basil, as well as the parsley, ’cause I love the taste.)

  59. I just did a quick scan on the comments above and I think I’m the only one who asked this question… I can only find where we add the parsley but I don’t see it menioned when to add the basil, so I’m adding it at the same time as the the basil (well, half of the parsley). About adding a bit of nutmeg, I did it recently when I made the stuffed shells florentine but I didn’t care for the taste of nutmeg, although no one else seemed to even realized it was there.

    • Sorry for my oversight, Cecile. I’ve corrected the post. I add half the basil when the tomatoes and marjoram are added. Thanks for catching my error.
      I’m so glad to read you’re making this sauce. I certainly hope it doesn’t disappoint. Having lived on Malta, yours is one opinion that I value. Feel free to offer any suggestions that you may have.
      I finally remembered to bring that ancient container of frozen sauce to Zia for that taste test. Unfortunately, we were so busy cooking, that we both forgot about it. Now it sits in her freezer waiting for my next visit. I’ll be returning in a few weeks and we;ll settle the debate — I hope. After a dozen years, it may be freezer burnt beyond recognition. :)

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  62. We think it must be the same the world over…using exactly the same ingredients but a different pair of hands, equals a different outcome! Both of our families experience this, as do we! Your recipe is remarkably similar to both of our families, and we totally agree about properly browning the meat to enhance the flavour of the sauce. We love the heart and soul you put into your posts, and as new readers can’t wait to read more. Finding your mum’s sauce touched us deeply, and we can only imagine the mixed emotions this treasure brought to you. We have read with interest about how the ‘secret ingredient’ has given rise to much intrigue and speculation amongst your other readers and have to admit that we are now hooked! We realise we come to this meat sauce party very late, but did you ever work it out or have you acquiesced to your sibling’s wish? Whichever, we are with you in meat sauce loving solidarity!

    • Thank you so much for leaving such a great, thoughtful comment. Even though most of those cooks are long gone, I bet if today I could have a taste of each sauce, I would be able to name the cook behind each one. The thing is, I use those very same ingredients and my sauce tastes differently. :) Mom’ secret ingredient remains an unknown. I brought the container of sauce to my Zia’s house, stuck it in her freezer, and forgot all about it while I was there. once back home here, I remembered (of course). Since then, when we speak on the phone, one of us always says, “We can’t forget about the sauce” sometime during our conversation. I’m still not so sure that we’ll remember. I’m bound and determined to taste that sauce and settle the matter once and for all.
      I can’t wait to get over to your blog and check things out. For now, I have all I need to know: you love sauce. Perfect! :)

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