One of the greatest legacies The Godfather left was basic instructions on how to cook dinner

This revelation comes courtesy of a tasting of a marinara sauce made from homegrown tomatoes. Knowing where the tomatoes come from is important because it explains my surprise to find that the sauce lacked the typical sweetness, the main reason for growing your own tomatoes in the first place.

Unable to figure out how to solve this problem, my husband asked, “Have you added sugar? I thought he was joking, but no, he was dead serious.

He then quoted his source, “So says Clemenza in ‘The Godfather’.”

“Did you add sugar? That’s what Clemenza says in ‘The Godfather’.”

Fifty years after its theatrical debut, The Godfather remains a masterpiece of storytelling and cinematography and a treasure trove of career-building performances. Francis Ford Coppola’s narrative of Michael Corleone’s crime boss origin story is so influential that the film’s origin story is being made into its own series called The Offer, which premieres on Paramount+ in late April. The film has many lessons to teach the high cost of gaining and keeping power, which a man gains and loses when he primarily pledges his loyalty to the greatness of his family.

RELATED: We snagged the recipe for Carmine’s Savory Italian Meatballs

But as my husband showed me, even a person who doesn’t live and die by Coppola’s masterpiece can somehow have learned how to make Peter Clemenza’s sauce.

If you don’t, just watch this scene for some basic instructions.

Peter “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli” Clemenza (played by Richard S. Castellano) was a loyal killer for the Corleone family, but he also won everyone’s love the old-fashioned way: through her stomach. To Michael Corleone he was a trusted advisor and brimming with wisdom, but perhaps nothing as useful as cooking for a (grumpy, fully armed) crowd.

You’ll find that the man wasn’t accurate with the measurements, which is why there are so many versions of this recipe floating around. This one tweaks a classic Sicilian-style version that was shared to me many years ago by a friend’s dear mother, who took pity on one of my first attempts at making sauce with fresh garden tomatoes.

“You never know, maybe one day you’ll have to cook for 20 people.”

Clemenza’s trick may be sugar — and while I’ve used the same sweetener-free marinara recipe for many years, he was right about that boost — but the greater accomplishment of this scene is planting a recipe in the brains of millions of people, without that they know. Even if you’re a person like my spouse who doesn’t cook that often, if you remember the outline of what he’s saying in that scene, you know how to make a very simple sauce.

Want more great food descriptions and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food’s newsletter, The Bite.

This scene is useful for everyone, as Clemenza tells Michael, because “you never know, maybe one day you’ll have to cook for 20 guys.”

Here’s our version, along with a line-by-line breakdown. You can use this sauce on spaghetti or other pasta. Without the meatballs, it makes a great sauce for lasagna. But when you’ve got a great meatball connection, why deny yourself the pleasure?

“See, you start with a little oil. Then you fry some garlic.”

Pretty self explanatory apart from a few details including how much garlic to use. I love garlic, so I never use less than six cloves. Mince or finely chop the garlic and sauté until golden brown. Watch closely to make sure the garlic doesn’t burn; The difference between a flavorful, crispy golden hue and a destructive charcoal is a matter of breath.

“Then you put in some tomatoes, tomato paste, you fry it; you make sure it doesn’t stick. You make it boil…”

Clemenza loves using the word “Fry”.

Clemenza loves using the word “Fry” but we get what he means. The acid in the tomato juice slakes the pan, so I like canned whole tomatoes; it approximates the texture of my garden crop. In the film scene, he uses two large cans of tomatoes and two smaller cans of tomato paste. Depending on how much meat you’re using, how many people you’re feeding, and how wet the gravy is, you may want to keep a third can on hand. (If you have access to fresh, home-grown tomatoes, you can simply skin them off by dunking them in boiling hot water until you see them split, then rubbing them with your fingers. Cut and remove you the seeds if you want; I don’t. )
Remove the lid, bring to a simmer and reduce the sauce to your preferred thickness.

“…You shove in all your sausage and meatballs.”

Clemenza probably doesn’t make his own meatballs – not because he couldn’t, but do you know he knows someone, and who has the time? This recipe is all about keeping it simple. Cook the sausage and meatballs separately so you can “push” them closer to the end. As an option, vegetarians, you can omit the meat or use any protein substitute you like. Just make sure to boost your spices.)

“Add a little wine and a little sugar and that’s my trick.”

Once you’ve mixed in the sausages and meatballs and incorporated all of their wonderful flavors and fats into the sauce, add the wine. Give it a moment to soak its flavor into the mix, then add your sweetener.

Clemenza uses sugar; I find that a drizzle of honey in my sauce both balances the acidity and adds what my tomatoes lack in “pep”. Canned goods will almost certainly need that boost, but if you’re lucky enough to grow your own or have access to some great heirlooms when they’re in season, you might not need as much.

Another lesson from this scene: Before you eat this with people you care about, let them know you love them “with all your heart.” That makes the food that much sweeter.

More stories like this:

Leave a Comment