In Italian households, there's a saying: "Mangia bene, stare bene" — eat well, be well. Or so I've heard. In my fourth-generation West Coast Italian-American family, the only Italian word spoken was the first, "mangia," uttered most Christmas Eves as encouragement to dig into voluminous Italian meals prepared by my great-grandmother, who came through Ellis Island from the motherland and immediately boarded a train for L.A.
By the time my maternal grandmother took over the cooking duties for big events, she was living in Monterey Park and had mastered Mexican food more so than Italian. Traditional meals were prepared according to recipes transcribed from a language no one in our family used anymore, and the post-church Sunday dinner — the most important, red-meat-centric ones in Italian homes — meant, for my mom and her siblings, a giant meal of whatever my grandmother felt like heating up. Tacos, chicken soup and leftovers were all fair game.
After I was born, my mother and grandmother would take me to Sunday mass and we'd hit up Charlie's Trio in South Pasadena for lunch on the way home.
Which is why the Sunday Gravy menu at Rao's in Hollywood was such a strong lure, despite the fact that the restaurant has proven itself to be a poorly translated version of the New York Italian-American original (the original Harlem location is supposedly the most difficult reservation in the country). Still, I've always longed for even a small portion of that romanticized Italian Sunday supper I never got, the one where the smells of garlic and simmering tomato sauce fill the house all day, the conversation is punctuated by hearty laughs, and the inky red wine flows until there's more on the white tablecloth than in the glass.
Could a menu of slow-braised beef shoulder, pork blade, beef braciole, meatballs and hot and sweet sausage at this temple of transplanted red-booth nostalgia do the trick? Sure, if all you need is the food.
The focal point of any Italian dinner is the sauce. Sometimes called gravy, ragu, sugo or salsina, it's whatever you put on top of the pasta to give it a coat of flavor. On Sunday, the sauce is often called "gravy" because the typical red marinara gets filled with so many different kinds of brown meat that it's almost as protein-heavy as the stuff you pour on your mashed potatoes. This is not your average Bolognese, though; we're talking hand-pounded steak stuffed with breadcrumbs and parsley and garlic and rolled into fist-sized nuggets, meatballs as big as a baseball, fatty sausages with snappy pork casing and pork so tender that it falls apart when you nudge it with a fork.
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At Rao's, the Sunday gravy comes as a meat buffet on a single plate, topped with marinara sauce oily with fat and juice. On the side, you get a portion of ziti small enough to imply that the meat is the main focus here — not exactly the over-abundance you'd expect to find in an Italian home (where eating carbs to the point of explosion is an expectation). But this is not an Italian-American home, and, aside from what's on the plate, this is not an Italian Sunday dinner.
This is Rao's reconstructed in Hollywood's land of make believe on a side street amid production companies and small movie studios. And you are inside of it, ordering your experience off a menu, paying an exorbitant $40 per person for a shared plate of Sunday gravy (and a salad), doing your best to drink your $70 bottle of wine and keep up with the banter brought to your table by a cast of New-York-wise-guy characters as they whizz by in an act of scripted customer service. (It's hard to tell if the staff was flown in from New York for the gig or they just graduated from the acting school down the street.)
Either way, the Asian tourists and large suburban families who made the trek to Rao's with the hope of attaining a Italian-American culinary tradition don't seem to mind. And if all you're looking for is someone to say, "It's sweltering like a New Yawk summah, ain't it?" as you eat meatballs you never watched be hand-formed and eat pasta topped with sauce that simmered for half a day in an industrial kitchen while you went about your ordinary Sunday, then Rao's succeeds.
A bottle of Italian red can help ease the sting, but no amount of constructed nostalgia can redeem the Sunday Gravy experiences I'd been denied.