In Martin Scorsese’s 1974 documentary Italianamerican, the legendary director turns the camera on his own parents – Charles and Catherine Scorsese – first generation Italian-Americans living in New York City. While Charles holds court on his career as a presser in the garment industry, it’s Catherine who captivates as she bustles around the kitchen preparing her signature spaghetti and meatballs.
Catherine was no stranger to being in front of the camera, having appeared in many of her son’s films including Goodfellas, Cape Fear and Casino. But in Italianamerican, she is relaxed and unguarded – the perfect on-screen guide to her family’s food traditions.
Born in 1912 to Domenica and Martin Cappa, Catherine’s upbringing in a crowded Manhattan apartment was a tapestry of familial and culinary experiences that shaped her into a skilled cook.
Her journey in the kitchen began in earnest after her marriage to Charles Scorsese in 1933. Catherine’s cooking philosophy, steeped in observation and tradition, was a blend of her own mother’s techniques and those gleaned from her mother-in-law and other family members.
One of the most memorable segments of “Italianamerican” is Catherine’s demonstration of making spaghetti and meatballs. The secret, she reveals, lies in the sauce. A rich, velvety ragu, simmered slowly to perfection, is what makes her meatballs exceptionally tender and flavorful. The documentary delves into the nuances of her cooking, highlighting the importance of quality ingredients like fresh basil leaves sourced from her sister’s garden.
Catherine’s mastery of the ragu plays a memorable role in Goodfellas. In the famous prison dinner scene, Henry Hill and his fellow wiseguys cook up a feast complete with fine wine, garlic bread and pasta with Catherine’s signature sauce.
Interestingly, it is Charles Scorsese who plays the cook in this scene, showing he also learned a thing or two from Catherine about making her delicious ragu. As the gang revels in the homely meal behind bars, Catherine’s rich, long-simmered ragu provides a sensory bridge to the outside world.
For enthusiasts eager to recreate Catherine Scorsese’s iconic sauce, the documentary generously shares her recipe.
Singe an onion & a pinch of garlic in oil.
Throw in a piece of veal, a piece of beef,
some pork sausage & a lamb neck bone,
Add a basil leaf.
When the meat is brown take it out,
& put it on a plate.
Put in a can of tomato paste & some water.
Pass a can of packed whole tomatoes
through a blender & pour it in.
Let it boil.
Add salt, pepper & a pinch of sugar.
Let it cook for awhile.
Throw the meat back in.
Cook for 1 hour
Now make the meatballs.
Put a slice of bread, without crust,
2 eggs, & a drop of milk, into a bowl of
ground veal and beef.
Add salt, pepper, some cheese &
a few spoons of sauce.
Bit it with your hands,
Roll them up, throw them in.
Let it cook for another hour.