As someone with an Italian-sounding-but-very-Irish last name, I can understand why folks have said things to me like, "Your nonna must have some good spaghetti sauce recipes!" My family has no direct ties to the boot-shaped peninsula in the Mediteranean, but sit me down in a spaghetti house full of old-school charm and I'll feel right at home.
Sometimes big-city media types look to me, a chef who celebrates West Virginia foodways, for the quintessential Appalachian restaurant. I often let them down by recommending the kind of place where you'll find a slightly sweet red sauce, paper placemats, and little butter pats individually wrapped in foil.
"But that's Italian food, not Appalachian," they'll say.
Actually, it's both. I live in a part of West Virginia where Italian immigrants worked for low wages in deadly conditions to enrich coal barons and fuel an industrial revolution. They perished in the mines by the hundreds, then settled in the mountains by the thousands. But somehow they fail to meet a Brooklynite's superficial litmus test for Appalachian authenticity.
There are two traditional spaghetti houses in Charleston, close to where I grew up. One is the kind with linen tablecloths, dim ambient lighting and servers who wear tuxedo vests. If people I grew up with went to that place, it was probably only once, and, if so, it was most likely for prom. I've been there—once.
But there's also Leonoro's—a no-frills, working class joint my family's always prefered.
We felt guilty showing up so late to an otherwise empty dining room, but when greeted with, "Howdy-do, folks. Sit wherever you like," we felt at ease for the first time all day.
I last met my parents for lunch at Leonoro's in early March, when COVID-19 allegedly hadn't hit West Virginia yet, but there was plenty of news about spikes in other states, potential school closings, and shoppers circling toilet paper aisles like sharks in a frenzy.
"It's so hard to tell what's going to happen with all this," mom said over an iceberg lettuce salad doused in Leonoro's unique tomato-based house dressing.
Beyond time-honored recipes for pasta sauce and meatballs, Leonoro's has offered so much as a beacon of comfort in times of uncertainty. My family's never felt that more than we have over the past year.
It was late-August when mom sat in a windowside booth by herself during a Thursday lunchtime rush, moments after leaving the doctor's office. She ordered an extra meatball, something familiar to ease her scattered mind. Then she went home and called me with the news—she'd just been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
"We might say, 'I remember when we used to go to Leonoro's for spaghetti.' That's kind of sad, isn't it?"
It was mid-October when we arrived at Leonoro's within 30 minutes of closing time. We'd just left the hospital, where my dad had been on life support for almost a week. He'd suffered a massive heart attack, and it looked like he might not make it. We felt guilty showing up so late to an otherwise empty dining room, but when greeted with, "Howdy-do, folks. Sit wherever you like," we felt at ease for the first time all day.
It was mid-February, while my dad continued his miraculous, months-long recovery, when he held mom's arm and guided her through the front door, to a booth by the streetside window. Her energy level had dwindled and so had her appetite, after 16 weeks of chemotherapy. "It's good manicotti," she said, putting her fork down only two bites in. "I just can't eat any more."
It was late April when I called mom and she lamented the news of local restaurants closing for good. She wondered which of her favorites would be left standing when this is all over. "We might say, 'I remember when we used to go to Leonoro's for spaghetti.' That's kind of sad, isn't it?"
In May, about two months after the governor ordered restaurants closed for in-person service, I called mom and told her I'd been making a lot of pasta during my time in isolation. It was a time that called for Leonoro's, but phone calls and a simple, homemade tomato sauce seemed like the next-best thing.
Next Best Thing Spaghetti Sauce
1 pound ground beef
1 large can (28 oz) tomatoes, either whole San Marzano or crushed tomatoes
½ cup water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 medium sweet yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons fresh oregano, chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried oregano)
½ teaspoon red pepper flake
In a skillet over medium-high heat, saute the ground beef until it has browned and the fat has rendered out. Drain the fat, then set the beef aside.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Saute the onions and garlic until the onions are translucent.
Add the canned tomatoes and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. If using canned whole tomatoes, break them up with a wooden spoon.
Add the beef, water, tomato paste, salt, oregano, red pepper flake and the rest of the olive oil. Stir to combine.
Cover and simmer for 1 hour. Season to taste with additional salt, red pepper flake or oregano, if desired.