I'm not an expert in store-bought pasta sauce; fact, I rarely eat it.
My first experience with the stuff didn't go so well. I was but an adolescent meatball, and my mother (sometimes referred to as "my sainted mother" but not always) tried to pawn off a jar on my two brothers and me.
I was on to her in a flash.
"What kinda gravy's this Ma?" (To my people it is gravy, not sauce.)
Nothing. Perhaps she no hear.
"Ma. The gravy. I said..."
"The gravy. It's different. It ain't..."
Oh, no. The second taste nailed it. For sure.
"It ain't yours!"
She was three feet away, and yet my mother could not look at her dearest son. (Not this dearest son anyway; the other two dearest sons she seemed fine with.)
"Oofah! Eat your pizza, would you? It'll get cold."
We were in fact eating my mother's homemade pie, usually so delicious, a real treat. Joseph and Michael were plowing through the blackened round pans, as if nothing were horribly amiss (Joe could be forgiven this, as he was maybe ten; Mike, the eldest, cannot be). My brothers wouldn't look at me either; they were too busy scarfing up slices while I was occupied.
"Why won't you look at me, Ma?"
This time I laughed, and after a moment so did she.
"Madonna mia! You're such a pain in the ass, you know that. I should make you go hungry."
Which is when I got up from the table, went to the trash and did a terrible thing: I embarrassed my poor sainted (the designation is warranted here) mother. A woman who cooked fabulously flavorful meals -- always from scratch and in abundance -- practically every day of her life, and not only for her own family but for others as well. A woman who decided, for some reason this day, to cheat a little -- just this once -- and let somebody else help out for a change.
I can only imagine how hard it must have been, picking a jar off the grocery store shelf. It was a tortuous choice for an Old World woman like Ma. I'm sure of it.
And yet there I was. Calling her out. Picking from the trash her dark red secret, an empty glass jar of (ugh!) Ragu. (Recycling wasn't around back then, so don't have a heart attack, okay.)
To this day I am haunted by my dreadful treatment of that wonderful woman.
Which brings me to the point of why we are (marginally) here. (We are still here, yes?)
See, I was at Micucci grabbing a slice the other day and as usual started poking around the store. There's no good reason for me to do this, of course; I know every inch of the place, likely as well as anybody whose name is Micucci, and so discovering a new item is unlikely. (Note to those who do not live here in Portland: Micucci is a Maine version of an Italian salumeria. It is a well-meaning family-operated establishment; I shall leave it at that.) Anyway, not long ago they introduced their own line of pasta sauces, concocted by "our own celebrity chef and baker, Stephen Lanzalotta." Said chef is one fine baker of breads and pastries, and his pizza is a beacon is our small town. (Were he a pizzaiolo in Brooklyn, land of my people, he would surely be a star; I am sure of this.)
The sauces were merely a curiousity to me, but on this day, ever in search of blog-worthy topics, I picked up a jar of the puttanesca. Oddly making certain that no witnesses were about to see me -- perhaps as Ma did that fateful day so long ago.
There are, it appears, many ways to connect with those we have lost.
Anyways, no sooner was the jar in hand than the notion of a competition rose up (a shameless attempt to boost local readership, no doubt). And so here's what I did: I picked three other sauces, all puttanesca. Since Micucci is local, I chose one other local shop, Pemberton's, out of Gorham. Then I threw in a Massachusetts outfit, the oft-seen Scarpetta. And then, to make things interesting, I added my brother Joe's favorite store-bought sauce, Rao's, of New York.
And this is how it went down.
4th Place. The Pemberton's label states that they "have created a new twist" to puttanesca by using flavorful Calamata olives rather than black olives. The twist is not so new; three of the four sauces did same. The taste seemed kind of murky, but the sauce is loaded with salient ingredients. And the Gorham folks gets extra points for using chick peas in the recipe.
3rd Place. My plastic container of Scarpetta's "fresh pasta sauce" had a freshness date of January 30, 2011, so food manufacturers' interpretation of "fresh" may be different from yours and mine. In any event, you best LOVE capers; otherwise, don't go near this stuff. It's got a bright tomato flavor and lots of chunks of goodness inside; it's just not for me.
2nd Place. I can't look at the Rao's label without getting grumpy over the fact that I will likely never have a meal at the oh-so-exclusive, no-outsiders-allowed original restaurant in New York. Nevertheless, the Rao's sauce was the freshest tasting of the lot, by far, but was a bit lacking in complexity. (Did I just say "lacking in complexity"? What is happening to me?) This one's the best of the bunch if used as a cooking sauce, like over chicken or other meats.
1st Place. Micucci is lucky indeed to have hooked up with Lanzalotta (I know, I sound like I'm in the tank for this guy, but the truth is that I've never actually met the man). This is one very concentrated, complex flavor profile you got here, folks, loaded with good stuff, and plenty of tasty olives. If you're looking for a jar of sauce to pour over pasta that needs no doctoring whatsoever, this is it.
I think Ma might have liked it too.