April 07, 2020
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A bottle of red, a bottle of right BDN tomato sauce contest inspires multitude of delicious entries

Last week, in the well-appointed kitchen of Bar Harbor chef Frank Pendola, history was made.

Three judges, two spouses, six burners, one enormous pasta pot, dozens of spoons, countless small bowls and 40 jars of homemade tomato sauce came together for a pressure cooker of an event. Never has the Bangor Daily News food page sparked such drama, such intrigue, such competition. On this day, a tomato sauce tasting of grand proportions was in the making.

The judges were all seasoned professionals, with varying but complementary credentials. Frank Pendola, our host and an Italian chef of much repute, brought expertise to the table. He runs a reservations-only restaurant, Nostrano, in the basement of his Bar Harbor home.

“In my neighborhood where I grew up, everyone made sauce on Sunday,” Pendola said as the first round of entries simmered on the stove. “So you’d always go to your friend’s house because you were used to your mother’s. But everybody claimed to make the best sauce.”

Our second judge, Sandra Oliver, is a food historian and cookbook author who writes the Bangor Daily News’ Saturday column “Taste Buds.” She joked that she is no expert when it comes to judging food cookoffs, but she’s an avid home cook who clearly knows her way around a kitchen.

I was the third judge. Though I’m known in many circles as a shopper, I’m first and foremost an eater. I’ve spent 31 years honing my palate, and I have an extremely fine-tuned – at times, too much so – sense of taste and smell. In my career as a food reporter, which is going on seven years, I can honestly say I’ve never seen, tasted or smelled anything like this.

Neither had the other judges. Going into this, we didn’t really know what to expect. I thought we’d get maybe a dozen entries, all fairly similar, with the usual ingredients: tomato, garlic, spices, olive oil. I also thought we’d have a few professional entries. Boy, was I wrong.

The day before the cookoff, sauce started showing up before I did. And I was at the office before 9. I felt like I spent the early part of the morning on a Stairmaster – running downstairs to pick up sauces and back upstairs to work at my desk. After a while, our receptionist decided to wait until she had a box full of jars before she called me.

By day’s end, we had 40 jars of sauce – all prepared by home cooks – crammed into the refrigerator in our canteen. They were anything but the usual suspects. One cook listed coffee among the ingredients. Another incorporated peanut butter. Still others used nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon. For the calorie-conscious in the crowd, one cook added Splenda.

Some entries, such as the Martini Marinara with vermouth and olives, won points for originality and flavor. Others were excellent interpretations of a classic Bolognese. There was at least one “meatless” sauce that clearly had meat in the mix at some point during the cooking process (like I said, with my sense of taste, I could tell if hamburger was within a 25-foot radius of the room at the time the sauce was cooked).

We did a blind tasting, but we could taste the unusual ingredients in an instant – coffee made it to Round 2. Peanut butter and Splenda did not – though one of our judges really loved the sweetness. We’re pretty sure one cheeky entrant sneaked in a bit of store-bought sauce just to test us. Let’s just say that one didn’t make the final cut.

It was clear that all of the entrants took great pride in their sauces – with good reason. Equally clear was the role of sauce on the family table. For our runner-up, Sharon Jordan of Hampden, her signature sauce is a staple.

“It’s the sauce that takes me through my lasagna, stuffed shells, I’ve even thrown in ground chicken,” Jordan said. “It’s really my sauce.”

The judges praised the fresh, bright flavor of the sauce and liked the way it clung to pasta, despite how chunky it was. Jordan used a combination of fresh tomatoes and Pastene Kitchen Ready Chunky Style tomatoes, and she swears by fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, and lots of it. Her sauce took the prize in the meatless division.

In the meat-sauce division, Dan Manzo of Brewer was the clear winner – in fact, his sauce also won best overall. During the tasting, the sauces were eaten alone on a spoon for Round 1, with bread in Round 2, and on pasta in Round 3. For Manzo’s entry, one of the judges wrote “AWESOME ON PASTA” in the tasting notes.

As it turns out, our winner shares a tradition with Pendola – for the last 21 years, since Manzo and his wife, Tandra, met, the couple have spent their Sundays making a big pot of pasta sauce. Now that their family has grown to include Danny, 15, Cody, 13, Randy, 11, Keely, 8, and Johnny, 4, everyone calls Manzo “Chef Daddy.”

Chef Daddy lets his sauce simmer for up to 14 hours, which gives the sauce a mellow, rich flavor that set it apart from the other entries. So, too, did the straightforward list of ingredients.

“Look at these ingredients,” Pendola’s wife, Janice, said after the results were tallied, holding up Manzo’s sauce jar and pointing to the label on the side. “It’s as simple as you can get.”

And, the judges agreed, as good as it gets.

But Manzo has another theory as to what makes his sauce so special:

“A lot of love,” he said. “A lot of love, and a lot of time.”

The Manzo Family Tomato Sauce

3 cans crushed tomatoes

1 can diced tomatoes

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium to large onion

1 medium to large green bell pepper

1 teaspoon garlic, chopped

1 tablespoon basil

1 tablespoon parsley

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1 pound steak tips or hamburger or other meat

1 dash sugar, to taste

Place olive oil in a large pot with chopped onion and green peppers. Add garlic and simmer until onions are caramelized. Add tomatoes and tomato paste. Add seasoning. Cook meat in a separate pan and then add to the sauce. Let simmer 6 to 10 hours (Manzo often simmers his as long as 14 hours). Then taste! Mmmmmmm!! Mama mia!

Sharon Jordan’s Tomato Sauce

2 (28-ounce) cans of Pastene Kitchen Ready Tomatoes (Chunky Style)

1 bunch flat leaf Italian-style parsley

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1/2 cup olive oil

2 small onions, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves finely chopped

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

In food processor blend tomatoes and parsley until almost smooth. Heat oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat.

Add onions and garlic and saute until very tender. Stir in tomato mixture, oregano, basil, sugar and red pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Decrease heat and continue simmering until sauce thickens. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook’s note: Jordan makes this sauce for lasagna, meatballs, stuffed shells – pretty much everything. The key to this sauce is you must use the Pastene Kitchen Ready Tomatoes. Jordan sometimes adds hot Italian sausage and ground beef. When you have fresh garden tomatoes, you can add those, as well. Just boil them and remove the seeds and skin.

We have a winner!

Best overall: Dan Manzo, (aka “Chef Daddy”) Brewer

Best meat sauce: Dan Manzo, Brewer

Best marinara-meatless sauce: Sharon Jordan, Hampden

Number of entries: 40

Number of home cooks: 40

Number of professional chefs: 0

Number of meat sauces: 18

Number of marinara sauces: 18

Number of sauces that defied categorization: 4

Judges: Frank Pendola, Sandra Oliver, Kristen Andresen

Assistant and overall lifesaver: Janice Pendola

Guest and interested observer: Jamie MacMillan

Start planning now! The inaugural tomato sauce cookoff was such an overwhelming success that the Bangor Daily News plans to make it an annual event. This year’s winners each will receive a custom-made apron, and the overall winner will receive dinner for two at Nostrano in Bar Harbor. But when it comes to pasta sauce, every cook knows, bragging rights are the real prize.

Correction: Quite a few readers have called the Bangor Daily News, wanting to make Dan Manzo’s now-famous tomato sauce. Unfortunately, we left out the can sizes for the tomatoes. The full recipes – with the correct measurements – follows.

The Manzo Family Tomato Sauce

3 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium to large onion
1 medium to large green bell pepper
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon basil
1 tablespoon parsley
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1 pound steak tips or hamburger or other meat
1 dash sugar, to taste

Place olive oil in a large pot with chopped onion and green peppers. Add garlic and simmer until onions are caramelized. Add tomatoes and tomato paste. Add seasoning. Cook meat in a separate pan and then add to the sauce. Let simmer 6 to 10 hours (Manzo often simmers his as long as 14 hours). Then taste! Mmmmmmm!! Mama mia!


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