Cocktail Recipes, Spirits, and Local Bars

Old Salt Teams with Greg Higgins for the Descendants DInner

Old Salt Teams with Greg Higgins for the Descendants DInner


If your a bit of a foodie like me then you probably know famous Portland farm-to-table restaurant Higgins and you may even be familiar with the relatively new Old Salt Marketplace, both have their craft beer ties. As part of a "Descendents Dinner Series" the team at Old Salt that includes Chef Ben Meyer (of Ned Ludd and Grain & Gristle) and Alex Ganum (Upright Brewing) has invited granpappys of the portland farm-to-table chefs to build a menu with Old Salt chef's, and find stellar pairings. This Monday March 31st, Greg Higgins is the featured old master pairing up with Ben Meyer for a charcuterie heavy dinner with beer, cider and wine pairings.
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Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


Spaghetti and meatballs - 'It's Italian'

1 of 20 Christopher Columbus Society volunteers, from left, Ralph Paglia, Jim Mezzetti, and Richard Bertani, organize the meatballs into fryer baskets before they are cooked during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

2 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

4 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

5 of 20 Bob Corbo stirs a large vat of spaghetti sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

7 of 20 Dry spices used in the sauce include oregano, basil, salt, red pepper black pepper, and, of course, secret ingredients during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

8 of 20 Uncle Louis Pantusa, who has been volunteering at the dinners since 1945, separates pork and beef ribs from sauce during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

10 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

11 of 20 Elder women sit around a long table chatting and shaping pre measured scoops of meatball mix during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

13 of 20 Trays of meatballs go from the shapers to the fryer basket organizers during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. About 400 lbs of meat turns into 6000 meatballs. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

14 of 20 Janice Granieri Hobbs, who has been volunteering for the spaghetti dinners her entire life, does quality control on a tray of meatballs waiting for the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. "You gotta keep the traditions going," she explained, "but its getting harder and harder." (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

16 of 20 10 year fryer veteran, Anthony Scire, left, and kitchen newbie Michael Mangiapane work the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

17 of 20 Meatballs moving in and out of the fryer during preparations for the spaghetti dinner at Christopher Columbus Hall, Saturday, September 10, 2011. (Jennifer Whitney/ Special to the San Antonio Express-News) Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

A pile of finished meatballs cool on paper.

Jennifer Whitney/special to the Express-News Show More Show Less

Just let a restaurant try to serve spaghetti and meatballs that rival those of the Christopher Columbus Society.

It would be too expensive to prepare a sauce that requires several days to prepare &mdash one that begins with the browning of rib bones and includes plenty of simmering. Then imagine the cost of a small battalion of assistants rolling meatballs for a morning, and other helpers cooking them.

Even if that were possible, there's no way for a restaurant to infuse the ineffable ingredients of history, tradition and lifetimes of love into every dish. Those ingredients are priceless and come only from Italian mothers and grandmothers, passed through generations.

&ldquoThis is our family dinner,&rdquo Cathy Ruffo-Aguirre said recently, while rolling meatballs. &ldquoWe're all very committed to this church because our grandparents built this church. They didn't do it with loans. They did it brick by brick.&rdquo

The society holds these fundraising dinners five times each year. Two of them benefit neighboring St. Anthony de Padua Catholic Church, two the Christopher Columbus Society and one the 100 Club, which raises money for the families of law enforcement officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

The dinners date back to a time in the 1900s, when different populations had their own churches.

German immigrants attended St. Joseph (now better known as St. Joske's) St. Michael's was the Polish church Belgians attended St. John Berchmans Lebanese went to St. George Maronite and St. Peter Claver (which now holds the Healy-Murphy Learning Center) was the first African American church.

In that environment, Italians wanted their own church. A group of immigrants from Calabria pooled their money and founded their own church, San Francesco di Paola, in 1927. The Sunday dinners go back to 1938, Pantusa said. Church members began serving lasagna for special dinners to raise money and the events evolved to spaghetti and meatballs.

The founders came from the village of Spezzano, and many of the current volunteers want visitors to know that they're keeping alive the memories and spirit of those founders.

&ldquoThese are our grandparents' recipes,&rdquo said Rozanna Corbo, &ldquoIt's just a tradition that we're trying to keep going.&rdquo

The cooking process begins with 91-year-old Louis Pantusa, a volunteer since 1975. On a Thursday evening, Uncle Louis (as he's known here) takes several pounds of beef and pork ribs and browns the meat, &ldquojust enough to seal in the juices.&rdquo

Once the bones are browned, Pantusa stores them in the refrigerator to use on Saturday.

&ldquoI'll be here as long as I'm able,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI'll help the church and hall.&rdquo

That tradition continues with the sauce after roasting the bones, several large batches of onions, garlic, celery, bell peppers and carrots are sautéed until soft, then puréed. Those go into the refrigerator until Saturday morning.

The day before the Sunday dinner, volunteers arrive to put everything together. For the sauce, Sam Guido empties cans of tomato paste, water and tomato sauce into a pair of 30-gallon steam kettles. Before there were steam kettles, volunteers cooked the sauce in large pots atop a stove and stirred frequently. In those days, if somebody didn't stir often enough, it meant a burned batch of sauce. Now, the steam kettles can't burn. Guido empties a couple of saucepans of vegetable purée and a few spoonfuls of dried spice blend into the tomato mixture and lets those cook for a couple of hours.

&ldquoI started stirring pasta when I was 12,&rdquo Guido said, now 54. &ldquoI was baptized in that church, was an altar boy. As I got older, I had to start coming on Saturdays to help.&rdquo

Some of the sauce and vegetables go upstairs to cook slowly in several large stockpots with the browned bones. That sauce takes on the flavor, aroma and body from the bones.

Pantusa removes some of the bones and their meat with some sauce as a lunch reward for the volunteers who came in on Saturday morning. And the sauce, thickened from the bones with some meat, is indeed a treat.

Other volunteers separate the meat from the bones, purée it and return it to the tomato sauce. Then that meaty, bone-rich sauce goes into several other pots with the rest of the tomato sauce, so all of it has the same goodness. Then the approximately 100 gallons of sauce are ready for Sunday morning.

As for the meatballs, volunteers used to mix the spices into ground beef, pork and veal, all by hand. Now, the Columbus Society gives the recipe to Bolner's Meat Market to mix. By Saturday morning, 400 pounds of meatball mixture is ready for volunteers to roll.

A few volunteers use a 3-ounce ice cream scoop to measure out some 60 balls on individual cafeteria trays. Thirty to 40 other volunteers assembled in rows at a long cafeteria table roll the meatballs in the basement of Columbus Hall.

The correct rolling technique is a matter of debate. Some insist that the correct meatballs must be perfect spheres others say they should be oval. Some say that a dab of vegetable oil on the hands makes everything go more smoothly others argue that it's not necessary. When somebody has a strong position with either of these techniques, it's best not to argue.

After volunteers finish their trays, they're ready to reload and do it again, until all the meat is in balls and ready for frying.

This is something else that has changed with technology and the sheer number of volunteers. Years ago, the meatballs were sautéed in oil on the stovetop. Now, there's a deep fryer set up on top of the stove, with thermometers in the oil and fry baskets, so that a couple of men can handle about 250 meatballs at a time. They cook for about 8-12 minutes at 275 degrees. Michelangelo Mangiapane, who came to San Antonio about a year ago from Phoenix, said the meatballs will turn just the right shade of golden brown when they're ready.

&ldquoIt's a color thing,&rdquo he said. &ldquoIt's Italian.&rdquo

Only a few years ago, volunteers worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. to get everything ready, said Sam Greco, a 25-year veteran of the dinner who's now in charge of it. His father helped with this dinner, and his own connection with the church includes being married there 51 years ago.

In the early days of San Francesco di Paola, the lives of most families revolved around the church. Men would go to Mass with their families, return home for a good long lunch and come to Columbus Hall to play cards and drink wine.

The old Italian neighborhood is long gone. The combination of urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 35 forced many residents to move. The church, however, remained intact.

On the day of the dinner, it's time to boil the pasta, and that takes several huge pots of water, well-salted, of course. Then it's time for a smaller crew of volunteers to handle tickets, take money, serve plates to the waves of people who pack the basement tables to eat there, or assemble to-go plates.

One thing changed this year: The society supplies its own disposable to-go containers, eliminating the long line of to-go orders.

Today's parish is more diverse and the descendants of the founders have to drive for a while to come back to the church. Getting younger people to help to pass the traditions to a new generation is an issue that's looming, even as the society prepares to celebrate the church's 85th anniversary next year.

In the meantime, the volunteers show up to nurture their traditions and friendships and continue the work of their ancestors by helping the church they built.

&ldquoEverybody does it a little different, but the main thing is it gets done,&rdquo Greco said as the dinner wound down. &ldquoAs long as the ladies keep coming and everything, we're doing fine.&rdquo

The accompanying recipes are from a Christopher Columbus Society cookbook and approximate the sauce and meatballs served at their dinners.


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