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This Is What Heritage Chef Joe Sparatta Cooks to Remember His Mother

Joe Sparatta / Heritage

Something as simple as red sauce can trigger a flood of emotion.

By Linnea Crowther

Chef Joe Sparatta is the culinary genius behind the Richmond restaurant Heritage, which he owns and runs alongside his wife, Emilia. The menus the New Jersey native creates are full of innovation, but as the restaurant’s name suggests, he doesn’t turn his back on tradition. One of the recipes that frequently finds a place on Heritage’s menus is Sparatta’s mother’s red sauce. The woman who perfected that sauce is gone now, but her memory lives on every time Sparatta revisits her recipe — whether at Heritage or at home, whether he’s doing the cooking or leaving it to a loved one to pamper him with his favorite comfort food.

Sparatta, who also owns Richmond restaurant Southbound with Chef Lee Gregory, is acutely aware of the way food can bring out memories of loved ones — and bring joy as it does so. We talked to him about the creative spark that inspired his career, the things he loves about cooking, and the way one simple recipe has fed generations of his family. He shared his recipe, too, so you can make it for your own loved ones.

How did you first get interested in cooking?

Sparatta: My mom ran a bakery and my father is a chef as well. I grew up around it. I was not put into it by force… well, at first it was. It was like all right, you’re going to work. And then I grew to love it – it’s in my DNA. [The first major thing I cooked by myself] was probably some kind of big lasagna, with lots of vegetables, using my mom’s red sauce. I probably would have been 11 or 12. There are lots of pictures of me cooking early.

Do you know when you decided you were going to do it as your profession?

I think once I got into a restaurant called the Ryland Inn, which was a very serious restaurant in New Jersey. There was a great chef who was working there, Craig Shelton. He’s a James Beard Award winner, and he transformed the Ryland Inn into this palace of gastronomy. Chef Shelton switched my mind up about how to think about food. It was really cerebral – he went to Yale for molecular biophysics. He’s brilliant. It had this crazy organic garden, just a beautiful restaurant.

Once I got in there, it just shifted gears for me. Prior to that, I was working at my dad’s restaurants, kind of a neighborhood style, nothing too fancy or elaborate. So I was seeing a whole new world of food that opened my eyes completely. It was totally different from what I was used to, from being a line cook to looking at food in a completely different way. And being able to work with a garden — that was the main supplier of all our produce; we were growing everything. That really switched my thought process about the entire food system in general.

What do you think your favorite thing is about cooking?

Just having the opportunity to make people happy. That’s our main goal, I think, as restaurateurs or chefs or line cooks, front of the house, anybody. We have an opportunity to put people in a better mood, or to remind them of their past or their family members — food is so connected with so many different memories for people. When you hear people say, “That dish tasted like my grandmother made it, and that’s the highest compliment I could ever give,” that kind of stuff is super meaningful. You can make a connection with people that way, where it will bring them back to a different time and place. Not many people get to do that in their profession.

And you’re often cooking a recipe that brings back your own memories of a family member: your mom’s red sauce. Tell us about the recipe and what it means to you.

It’s really super simple, but I think that’s why it’s great. You’re just using really nice olive oil, sweating down a good amount of onions and garlic and some chili flakes, using San Marzano plum tomatoes, and allowing it to go super slow for just hours and hours. You add salt and pepper, and not much more — really that’s about it.

I just remember how much attention to detail went into ensuring it didn’t get burnt. We had a commercial range in our kitchen growing up; my dad got it from one of the restaurants, so we had a really nice stove, but it would absolutely burn a pan if you let it go. I remember my mom being very attentive to that, and trying to get us to monitor the sauce. It was a big deal, because the sauce would be turned into multiple meals after that.

I didn’t grow up super New Jersey Italian; I’m half Italian and half Irish, so it wasn’t like "Goodfellas" or something. My mom was actually Irish, and my dad’s Italian, but she made really great Italian food. She made great food in general. It always turned into a big lasagna production, and that was one of my favorite things growing up. That’s what I’d want as a meal on my birthday. Now my wife makes it, and that’s what I end up eating for comfort food now — if it’s my birthday, I’ll probably ask for it.

And this sauce is something you’re making really frequently for the restaurant, too, right?

Yeah, especially now that we’re going into tomato season, so this will be the time when I’ll have a really simple red sauce with housemade garganelli on the menu. We always have pasta on the menu at both restaurants, but I really like doing just a classic Pomodoro-style, a little bit of a spicy tomato sauce with burrata cheese and parmesan. Just super simple.

How often are you thinking of your mom when you’re making this recipe?

Pretty much every time I make it. I do enjoy making it, I enjoy monitoring it, and it definitely reminds me of my mom, which is always nice. It’s been over 10 years now since she passed away, so it’s a nice reminder of what got me into this world – literally, and into the food world. With such strong memories of food, it’s easy to just go right back and remember her. It was hard for a while. I didn’t want to make food that reminded me of her, for a while. But now I’m in a better place.

Do you know if there was a turning point for you to be able to make it, or did it just gradually become more comfortable to do again?

I think it was once I actually got my own restaurant. Doing that kind of stuff at other people’s restaurants, if I was just a sous chef or something, never felt quite right. I’d make the red sauce at home, but I’d never really apply it into the places I was running or working for. But once it turned into my own, I got a little more comfortable with it.

And your restaurant today is a family endeavor, so it makes sense to have your mom’s recipe be a part of that, even though she’s not still here, right?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a nice thing that I can pass down to my son — he’s 4, and he really enjoys cooking. He’s at the restaurant like I was when I was young, every day, just hanging out. Our daughter will be 1 in August, so she’s just figuring out food, but it’s something we can pass down in the future.

If this red sauce is the recipe that reminds you of your mom, what do you think will be the recipe that reminds your kids of you? Years and years from now, what will make them say, “That’s the recipe I associate with my dad?”

It’s probably going to be the red sauce. I use that sauce to make pizzas at home; I use it for everything. We’ll have pizza nights here, make dough and sauce and try to get them engaged, or we’ll make potato gnocchi at home and try to get him to use his hands and understand that this is how you make food. Red sauce, seemingly, is the catalyst for all those things.

Virginia has really wonderful tomatoes, so when we’re not using San Marzano I end up using a lot of tomatoes from Victory Farms. They have a fresh San Marzano, and we wound up using that a lot. It’s nice for them to be able to see that. They’ve been to farms and picked vegetables, and we have close relationships with our farmers. We grow tomatoes, too.

I want them to understand how food should work, as opposed to just convenience, and understand that good food takes time and effort and the energy of a lot of people. Hopefully they’ll get that message. I’m sure they will, because they’re going to be exposed to it. They’re literally surrounded by it every day.

We asked Joe to share the recipe with us, and he prepared a scaled-down version that doesn’t create the massive volume of sauce he typically makes for Heritage. It’s perfect to make at home and share with your own family.

Melinda Sparatta's Red Sauce

(Adapted by Chef Joe Sparatta of Heritage and Southbound)

• 3 pounds of whole organic peeled San Marzano tomatoes (canned)
• ½ cup of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
• ¼ teaspoon of chili flakes
• 2 large white onions (small diced)
• 8 cloves of organic garlic (sliced)
• 1 small bunch of fresh thyme (tied in a bundle)
• 1 fresh bay leaf
• 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
• 1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
• 1 bunch of fresh basil

1. In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil on medium heat.
2. Add chili flakes and toast for 30 seconds.
3. Add chopped onions, garlic, and sea salt, then cook on medium until the onion and garlic are translucent (sweating the onions and garlic).
4. Once the garlic and onions are soft and translucent, add the 3 cans of tomatoes.
5. Add thyme, bay leaf, and black pepper.
6. Reduce the heat to medium low.
7. Cook the mixture for 2-½ to 3 hours, stirring frequently (every 10 to 15 minutes) – this will prevent sticking/scorching.
8. Once most of the acidity has converted to sweetness, then add the fresh basil. Pull off the heat, mix the basil well into the sauce. Cover the sauce pan with a lid. Steep in basil for 30 minutes.
9. Uncover sauce and discard the bunch of basil, thyme and bay leaf.
10. Serve with pasta, use as pizza sauce, in lasagna, or anything that calls for red sauce.