The walks that started it all: Cindy Litterini-Smith's marinara sauce

Updated: Apr 27


Photos by: Jason Minear

A view of West Park in Stowe Township.

By Carol Dzadony-Mancini

-CAROL OF MOON-

When I grew up there, West Park – not to be confused with the West End – was known for a few things: its great firemen’s parade, the now-defunct West Park Beverages and the iconic Mancini’s bread. We had a pharmacy on every corner and thriving bakery shops right next to each other. You got your chickens and everything poultry-related at Sarah Jacob’s and your Italian sausage at Ernie Ricci’s. Anything else Italian could be found at Cersosimo’s or Mazzotta’s. Blue Eagle Market could be relied on for everything else.

Growing up in this historic portion of Stowe Township, we walked everywhere. We found shortcuts to get us where we were going faster (or home quicker so not to be in trouble for breaking curfew). Along the way, I found myself running past open windows where the smells of the kitchen wafted in my path, past bakery shops, and nationality church festivals with the best food around; it was a great place to grow up.

One such window, Emma Mancini-Litterini's, constantly had aromas that would transport you to another world. To get anywhere fast, I'd run down my front steps, across the street past my Grandpap's house, through the alley to maneuver the 30 steps of Emma's house onto Ridge Avenue. Even running fast, I could smell her tomato sauce as the aromas carried on the movement of air I created. Sauce must have cooked on that stove under that window 1,000 times. That delicious bouquet tickled my nose.

I had the pleasure of eating her spaghetti with marinara several times. Hell, I even got to watch her make it on occasion. You see, my mom Bernie and she were friends, so we’d “come for coffee.” Emma would smoke her cigarette and stir the sauce. She'd get to talking with my mom about one thing or another and that ash would grow and grow right in Emma's lips as she talked. And they talked. Sometimes the cigarette would stop smoking, no more tobacco. And no more ash.

Before long, her sauce would coat the perfectly cooked noodles (usually spaghetti) that she generously sprinkled with Pecorino Romano cheese. Mangia! We would eat the spaghetti and dinge our Mancini’s bread in the leftover sauce. Oh, it was the perfect comfort food! I couldn't wait until the next time we were invited ‘for coffee’.

Fast forward decades, and I found myself part of her family. You see, I married her nephew, Dan, and suddenly my favorite neighbors were family. You know what that meant? If I played my cards right, I might one day be legacy to family recipes, including that sauce!

My neighbor turned cousin, Cindy Litterini Smith, was a graduate of Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park. She learned and perfected her already passionate culinary skills while at CIA and moved back to Pittsburgh to start her chef career at Sewickley Hotel. After years of back-breaking work, she retired, but she never stopped loving food, or cooking and teaching. And she loved to teach. And I loved being her student. I took it all in, asked millions of questions, and became privy to secrets of the culinary world she may have been shunned for disclosing. One day I asked her to teach me how to make the sauce. You see, Emma died suddenly before I became part of her family. Cindy made sure Emma's recipes lived on with another generation by cooking them, and she shared with me.

Cindy always demystified cooking – including that sauce. She broke it down to the simplest forms and taught plainly, but used technical terms so that reading cookbooks and recipes would be easy to do.

She gave me that recipe, a mere five simple ingredients, and taught me how to listen to my food, love my food, and make the best damn marinara sauce I ever ate.

Cindy has since lost a battle with ovarian cancer, but I promised I'd teach others how to make it so Emma and Cindy continue to live on and touch our lives every time we make their sauce.


On a side note, my sauce has never ever tasted just like Emma's, no matter what I‘d do. Looking back, perhaps all that talking and talking, and that growing and suddenly disappearing cigarette ash gave her sauce just the extra bit of umami that mine is missing. Perhaps that was her secret ingredient. (Disclaimer: I don't recommend putting cigarette ash in any recipe).

Carol Dzadony-Mancini is a former resident of Stowe Township and currently resides in Moon Township with her family. Her hobbies include riding horses, skiing, crocheting, hiking with her dogs, and of course cooking for the people she loves.

Without further ado, I give you:

Cindy Litterini's Marinara Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 3) 28-ounce cans whole plum tomatoes (San Marzano or similar style)

  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed

  • 1 cup fresh basil chiffonade (Explained below – save dried basil for meatballs)

  • 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • Salt to taste

Instructions:

1. In a food processor, blender or by hand (squish), puree tomatoes to desired consistency

2. Crush garlic with the back of a knife. Remove and discard skin. The large pieces can be removed after cooking if desired.

3. In a large saucepan or skillet, add oil and garlic. Turn on heat to medium/medium-high. The garlic will cook and infuse the oil with garlic essence (about 5-7 minutes). Do not let the garlic burn.


4. Add tomatoes to the pan. The tomatoes will bubble up – stir so they don’t burn. Turn heat down to medium.

5. Chiffonade the basil (save this process for during cooking so that the basil does not oxidize).

- stack flattened basil leaves on top of each other.

- starting with stem sides closest to you, roll basil leaves tightly together

- turn leaves perpendicular and with a sharp knife cut small cross-sections of the leaves

5. Add basil to the tomatoes.

6. Bring to boil and reduce heat to low/simmer and cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. The sauce should thicken slightly after simmering. Remove heat and let cool slightly.

7. Taste tomatoes. They should taste slightly sweet on palette. If bitter, add 1 tablespoon of sugar. This is not a required step as good-quality tomatoes are usually sweet.

8. Grate cheese and, with the heat off, add to sauce.

9. Cook your favorite pasta according to the directions on the box. Drain and return to pot.


10. Ladle just enough sauce over pasta and toss to cover. Don’t add too much – but add just enough to coat pasta.


11. Transfer to serving dish, sprinkle additional cheese and serve.



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