I have been trying ever since I arrived in Upstate New York to understand the appeal of the “red sauce place”. This is a neighborhood restaurant that serves a limited menu of Italian-American staples, and many people are passionate about their favorite local spot. To me the food seems one-dimensional (which objectively it is, since the identical red sauce will make its appearance on three or four dishes at your table) and often rather high priced (I’m talking $20 or more for a pasta dinner with a food cost of maybe $4).
Last weekend, I finally got it while enjoying a pressed prosciutto sandwich and an antipasto platter at Mike’s Deli in the Arthur Street Market in the Bronx. Arthur Street, variously called the “real” Little Italy or the “original” Little Italy, is full of strollers all of whom know each other and are happily catching up as they munch on foodstuffs or dart in and out of shops. Our plan (which I recommend) was to fortify ourselves with lunch prior to visiting the Bronx Zoo. We were there before the sit down places opened at noon, so we wandered into the retail market and found Mike’s.
The food was good but not great (once the hunger subsided and I took a look around I realized there are two eating establishments in the marketplace, and Mike’s is the less popular) but what was great was the abundance. Choose your own pre-made sandwich from a pile higher than your head and they will griddle and plate it for you. Or design your own. Or order a sampler of the day’s entrees (Veal Saltimbucca, Chicken Marco Polo, Calimari in cream sauce and Linguini with Shrimp) for $6.95. Or…
What sums it up is Mike’s slogan, on the waitress’ t-shirt: Our salami satisfies everybody. That, I realized, is the litmus test of the red sauce place: the delivery of pleasure through food. And abundance has to be at the core of this, because you need plenty of volume if not variety to carry you through a lengthy table experience.
And that is why the upstate red sauce places charge so much. They may not have the best ingredients, they may not have the most imaginative preparations, but they sure do give you a ridiculous amount of food. (Invariably, reviewers who give a red sauce place five stars on Yelp will talk about how they had enough food for another meal the following day.) And in retrospect the taste of the food is mingled with the pleasure of the conversation and maybe a few glasses of wine and ecco, a great red sauce place.
I have written previously about the San Marzano sauce I made from scratch, with organic tomatoes just picked in the fields, using a recipe from Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It is just one of three basic red sauces in that book, and Tomato Sauce III (a light, briefly cooked sauce with butter and a halved onion that tastes to me like the essence of summer) is a world apart from Tomato Sauce I which I made. Start adding ingredients, to make for example Ragu Bolognaise, and your red sauce repertoire branches out considerably. Which is to say I believe the numerous red sauce places I’ve sampled are coasting.
Tomatoes lend themselves beautifully to canning (so it’s silly that Yelpers who want to disparage a place will carp that “the red sauce tastes like it came out of a can”) and it’s easy enough to make a sauce better than 90% of what I’ve had so far by opening a can of San Marzanos and cooking it down with the addition of some sugar and tomato paste for intensity. The result is pretty close to what they spread on the tomato pie at Perreca’s. It’s 30 miles down the road in Schenectady, but I’ve decided this is my neighborhood red sauce place until something better comes along.
This post originally appeared on my marketing blog, Otis Regrets… or Not. If you want to read about marketing instead of eating, click here.