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The Walks That Started It All: Cindy Litterini-Smith's Marinara Sauce

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

West Park— not to be confused with the West End was known for a few things- it’s great firemen’s fair/parade, the now defunct West Park Pop 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 at Cersosimo’s or Mazzotta’s. Blue Eagle Market was for everything else.

Growing up in this part of the turn of the century community of Stowe Township, we walked everywhere. We found shortcuts to get us to 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 a few times. 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. 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 the 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 recipe).

Without further ado, distinguished guests, I give you

Cindy Litterini's Marinara Sauce


•3 cans whole plum tomatoes (San Marzano* or San Marzano style*)

•3 cloves garlic, smashed

•1 C. fresh basil**** chiffonade (I’ll explain below- save the dried basil for meatballs)

•1 C. Pecorino Romano** cheese, grated

•2T. Extra Virgin Olive Oil*** •Salt to taste

What To Do

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

1b. Crush the garlic with back of knife. Remove and discard skin. The large pieces can be removed after cooking if desired.

2. In a large sauce pan 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.

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

4. 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 chiffonades of 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 it’s bitter, add 1T 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. Laddle 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.

Things To Consider

The most important part of this sauce is the ingredients. Since there are only 5 ingredients, the flavors can’t hide behind layers - and buying the best quality is key to a very good tasting sauce.

*San Marzano Tomatoes

Buying the best San Marzano (or San Marzano style) tomatoes your budget can afford is of utmost importance. I tend to buy canned whole tomatoes. Certified San Marzano tomatoes imported can be pricey and the San Marzano style are usually half the price. Their integrity still in tack, you can crush in blender for a smoother sauce or squish in your hand for a more rustic, chunkier sauce. If I don’t have time to do the crushing, I’ll buy already crushed tomatoes, but you never know what else has been crushed in the process.

**Pecorino Romano Cheese

Splurging for a good imported Pecorino Romano cheese goes a long way. The pungent yet sweet butter tasting sheep’s milk cheese grates beautifully. My favorite brand is Locatelli; I usually buy the block of cheese and grate myself. In a pinch I’ll buy already grated pecorino, but again, you never know what else has been crushed (or grated) in the process. ***Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Everyone has their favorite brand- I use several. Some for cooking and some for anointing as a finishing touch. I save the expensive stuff for anointing. The uncooked raw, unfiltered EVOO is more rich in taste, aroma and pure fruit flavor. It gives that extra oomph! and unique flavor to your food. The main thing about buying olive oil is the quality. EXTRA VIRGIN- don’t buy any other kind, you’re wasting your money.

It’s best to get authentic, high quality oils without filtration or preservatives. Buzz words like “first press” “cold pressed” “unfiltered” are important as they tell you how the oil was produced. You want first press- that yields you the most flavor. You want cold pressed, that means the pressing process did not use heat that will alter the flavor. You want unfilitered- talking from the health perspective, unfiltered olive oil is rich in anti-inflammatory antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and zero dietary cholesterol. From a cooking standpoint it has a high smoke point at 400 degrees. It won’t burn when you cook with it much like butter will. (sometimes when I cook with butter — which is often- I’ll add EVOO to bring the smoking point of the butter up- it helps the butter not to burn)

****Fresh Basil And Garlic

Another flavor enhancer for this 5 ingredient sauce is fresh basil(and garlic). Fresh is important because it gives the sauce an herbaceous fresh quality you don’t get from dry basil. Some of you may read this and say I’m full of crap, and that your grandma never used it in her sauce, but I’m telling you—if your grandma had fresh basil available to her, she would have used it. Her mother would have used it if she lived in the southern Italian climate that allowed for constant growth and her mother would’ve used it, too. Same goes for fresh garlic…. So please do yourself a ‘flavor‘ and don’t skimp! 😉

This Mariana can be the base for every other “Red” in Italian cooking.

  • Ragu alla Bolognese

  • Salsa di Pomodoro

  • Sugo alla Norma

  • Sugo all'Arrabbiata

  • Vodka sauce

  • Puttanesca

  • Lasagna

Please share your creations Don‘t forget to hashtag #carolofmoon in any of your posts!!

🙏🏼 special thanks to Mark Singo for consulting with the article and Jason Minear for the photographs of McKees Rocks

Much appreciated🙂

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mark singo
mark singo
Dec 05, 2021

Carol, thanks for the great backstory on this recipe!! I watched Cindy make this sauce hundreds of times and I still can't get it right, even tried the cigarette Thank you for honoring Cindy and those fabulous traditions... Mark Singo

Dec 05, 2021
Replying to

Love you Mark!😘


Dec 03, 2021

Is the meatball recipe on deck? Love this so much.

Dec 03, 2021
Replying to

On deck… 🙂

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