[On the Hunt]

Searching for Sunday sauce: Can you find Italian food as good as nana’s?

Get sauced up at Casa di Amore.
Photo: Jon Estrada

The Sundays of my childhood always started with the sound of a slow simmer emanating from the kitchen, followed by the fragrance of garlic and onion sweating in my mother’s giant frying pan. Soon, savory smells of basil and oregano were added to the mix, permeating the air with deliciousness no one could deny.

The sabbath was for sauce, an Italian-American tradition—don’t be fooled by my surname; my mother was a Scaletta. Family recipes are handed down through generations, and my nana’s recipe lands somewhere on the spectrum between Bolognese and marinara, with homemade meatballs and links of sausage added to the tomato and herb blend for a robust, complex flavor.

While I’ve learned how to prepare my family’s sauce—some call it “gravy,” but we don’t—sometimes the two-hour prep process and the six hours of simmering is just too long to wait for a heaping plate of penne. So my sister and I hit the road, sampling sauce at Italian restaurants across the Valley.

First up was Ferraro’s (4480 Paradise Road, 702-364-5300), where not only is the sauce made fresh, but the pasta, too. My mom joined us to sample as much as we could from the happy-hour menu. The gnocchi tasted just like my Great Aunt Mae’s, perfectly dense dumplings with the right amount of chew. The pomodoro sauce was delicious, but my family is much more heavy-handed with “the greens”—basically, I wanted more basil. Ferraro’s bucatini Bolognese and spaghetti are also quite tasty, but it was the meatball appetizer that tickled my taste buds the most, spheres of beef, veal and pork with bold and flavorful sauce. This tasted like Sunday.

My sister suggested we dine next at Casa di Amore (2850 E. Tropicana Ave., 702-433-4967), a classic joint known as much for its food as its old-school ambiance. I went rogue and ordered lasagna, a fantastic decision because Casa’s tasted exactly like Mom’s—the perfect ratio of ricotta to ground meat and flat noodles, all swimming in a meat sauce so delicious I almost asked for more. This didn’t taste like Sunday—this tasted like Christmas.

One local favorite I couldn’t pass up is the Bootlegger (7700 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-736-4939). Its owner, former Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt-Bono, is actually a distant relative through marriage. Would her family’s recipe taste like mine? I had to find out. I again decided on lasagna and my sister went for spaghetti and meatballs, all delicious, but what spoke to me was the tomato-basil dip, a perfect marriage of tangy tomatoes and a generous sprinkling of my favorite fresh herb. Add a few cuts of meat to the mix and this is my family’s dish.

While none of these extraordinary eateries did my family’s sauce spot-on, I’m grateful I discovered dishes that remind me of my relatives and their transcendent cuisine. The hunt is long from over—I hear Rao’s Sunday gravy might be exactly what I’m looking for—but for now I’ll spend a few more Sundays at work in my kitchen. It’s hardly anything to complain about. Who’s coming for leftovers?

Tags: Dining, Food
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