The secret family recipe – almost every family has one. As elusive as these recipes are, known by a select few and passed on with some critical reluctance, they become beloved staples at family gatherings. Every recipe has its story and the memories that accompany it.
For Pete Lombardi, owner of Rita’s Wooden Spoon, that story is about his mother’s pasta sauce.
Growing up just outside of Brooklyn, New York, in a big, Italian family, “with relatives I probably I haven’t even met yet,” Lombardi jokes, he remembers waking up every Sunday morning to the smell of freshly made marinara sauce. Rita (Sorrentino) Lombardi, “a little Italian lady, 4-foot nothing,” her son says, would start early in the morning making her Sunday Gravy. She didn’t use measurements, and the recipe was never written down, just passed on from her mother and her mother’s mother from Italy.
Today Lombardi carries on the tradition by selling his mom’s pasta sauce in her memory. Six years after Rita passed away from cancer in November 2010, Lombardi founded Rita’s Wooden Spoon in August 2016 with no prior business experience and little more than the inspiration of his mom.
“It started with just the dream and the marinara sauce,” he says, with his thick New York accent and a laugh.
His goal is to use the proceeds from sales to create a free-of-charge, meal delivery service for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
“To see your mom of all people suffering in a hamster wheel of medication…” Lombardi says, left him with the desire to help. “Sometimes the treatment is worse than the disease.”
Lombardi firmly believes that “food is medicine.” As his mother was undergoing chemotherapy, he researched ways to supplement her diet with cancer-fighting foods that would ease her side effects and improve her quality of life. “(Certain) foods are power-packed; they’re literally medicine.”
“A lot of people look at eating or cooking as a burden,” Lombardi says. But Rita taught him that you get out what you put into it. She took great pride in her cooking and enjoyed making others happy through a good meal. “It’s a way to show people you love them.”
While acknowledging that his sauce will never be the same as his mom’s, Lombardi admits he wouldn’t have started this business if it weren’t so personal.
“I took what I learned as a kid watching her,” he says.
With confident ease, Rita would make her sauce using canned tomatoes and a tablespoon here and a dash there of dried herbs. Lombardi, curious to know the exact recipe, would chime in “How much parsley did you add?” or “Wait…how much basil?” but she would just say he was in her way.
He eventually succeeded in writing down the recipe after years of experimenting and following his mom around the kitchen.
Rita’s Marinara Sauce was Lombardi’s first product, followed by the Fiery Fra Diavolo, meaning “from the Devil” – a spicy marinara with fresh oregano and chili peppers. He stepped up Rita’s recipe by using fresh herbs from his backyard garden and tomatoes from local farmer’s markets and grocery stores.
Lombardi, a teacher’s assistant at Belville Elementary School, devotes his weekends at home in Winnabow to making and jarring the sauce in his FDA-certified kitchen. The recipe is simple, but it’s the technique that takes practice. Cooking the sauce slowly and uncovered allows moisture to evaporate and creates concentrated flavors. From prep to finish, the process takes four to five hours and makes about 15 jars. “It’s a labor of love,” he says.
Lombardi sells his 8- and 16-ounce jars of sauce at local farmer’s markets, where he got his start, in downtown Wilmington, Wrightsville, and Poplar Grove, as well as The Cotton Exchange and the Carolina Country Store in Wilmington.
In addition to the two sauces, Lombardi makes wooden recipe book holders and soon will offer cutting boards. He also plans to add products like roasted red pepper marinara and fresh pasta, inspired by his father who would make it during the holidays.
Soon, Lombardi wants to build up his wholesale presence, at places like Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods, as well as possibly open a physical location on the Bellville Riverwalk.
But his mission to fund a food truck delivering medicinal meals and juices remains at the center of his focus. Lombardi wants others to know from his mom’s experience that in addition to chemotherapy there are nutritional options. “You have more control over this disease than you think you do,” he says. “I want to bring that option to other people.”
As Lombardi continues the story of his family recipe, on Sundays you’re sure to smell the pasta sauce cooking in his house, or you might find him dishing up a good meal to friends and neighbors. “That’s just my mom coming through,” he says fondly.