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The Sauce Lady 

After 30 years of teaching, Tullia Barbanti was ready for a career in her kitchen.

click to enlarge Tullia Barbanti shows off jars of her eponymous product. - MIKE MCCALL
  • Mike McCall
  • Tullia Barbanti shows off jars of her eponymous product.

Every Sunday from 11:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening, a short, smiling, elderly woman with an Italian accent offers samples of her pasta sauce at Spokane-area grocery stores.

“Would you like to try? What do you think? Give me your opinion,” says Tullia Barbanti to the people who approach her.

No chair in sight, Barbanti stands at a card table, covered in a red-and-white-checkered cloth, at the Trading Company Store in Spokane Valley. She stirs Tullia’s Italian Meatless Pasta Sauce in a pot on a hot plate, and serves it over cut-up spaghetti noodles in tiny plastic sample cups when people stop by.

“Sometimes people like to talk, like I do. We talk about cooking. I tell them about using the sauce to bake a tasty dish of chicken, pork or other meat,” she says. “I enjoy it. I learn a lot about what people eat. We exchange ideas. I don’t like to sit. I don’t think you do the job if you sit.”

Thirty years of teaching social studies and languages at Sacajawea Middle School on Spokane’s South Hill got her accustomed to standing for long stretches. A lifetime of walking (she never learned how to drive) has helped keep her in shape.

When Barbanti retired from teaching in 1998, she was eager to find a new hobby. In her 60, she decided to write a cookbook (Al Dente: Italian Cooking Done Just Right), featuring 150 family recipes. And then she started making sauce.

STUFFED GREEN PEPPERS

From Al Dente: Italian Cooking Done Just Right, by Tullia Barbanti

Serves 6

6 medium green peppers, cut in half and cored, seeds removed
1 pound Italian plum tomatoes (or 1/2 jar Tullia’s Italian Meatless Pasta Sauce)
8 ounces mushrooms
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1/2 cup brown or white rice
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound ground lean beef
1 carrot, diced
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

Wash and core the peppers. Boil in water for 2 minutes. Drain and cool the peppers. In a skillet, saute the onion in olive oil. When tender, add the ground meat and brown it. Add salt and pepper, chopped celery, carrot, mushrooms and oregano. Saute until everything is tender. Cut the tomatoes into pieces and add to the mixture, or pour in pasta sauce. Saute for 10 more minutes. Cook the rice in salted, boiling water according to package directions, or until tender, then drain it. Stir the rice into the meat and vegetable mixture. Put the pepper halves in a casserole dish with a lid. Sprinkle the peppers with grated cheese and then fill them with the meat and rice mixture. Sprinkle more cheese on top. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

“One day I said to myself, ‘I should do something to thank grandma and mother.’ I saw so much sauce in the stores. I thought, ‘Let’s make mine,’” she says.

In a self-published memoir that comes out this fall, titled, Tomatoes Are My Tools Building a Life in a New Country, Barbanti writes about coming to the United States more than 50 years ago from the city of Fossombrone, in the Pesaro-Urbino province of north-central Italy. She describes the difficult transition to a new culture and a new language. Neither she nor her late husband, Terredo, knew a word of English when they arrived in Spokane.

They immigrated to the United States after World War II, fleeing unemployment and poverty in Italy. They became U.S. citizens and led successful lives, full of work and family. Terredo was an award-winning employee at the Wonder Bread Company for 30 years.

“It’s only with work that you can make something of yourself. Do something for somebody. Be useful. We grew up that way. In order to have something, you have to work for it,” she says. Barbanti describes her new book as an expression of gratitude for both America and her Italian roots.

“There is a well-known Italian proverb: ‘Impara l’arte e mettila da parte,’” she says, meaning, “Learn an art and put it aside; [it could be useful someday].”

“This is what happened to me. Each time I make my sauce, I thank my mother and grandmother for having taught me this art, the cooking which now keeps me busy and gives me so much joy,” she writes.

That same afternoon at the Trading Company Store, a customer tastes Barbanti’s sauce and says, “It has a little bit of a bite to it.”

“It’s black pepper,” replies Barbanti.

She doesn’t wear a name tag at her store demos. Nor does she mention that it’s her own product she’s handing out.

“She’s very modest,” says Marc Bjurstrom, the assistant manager at the Trading Company. “She’s a super-nice, down-toearth gal. All she wants to do is sell some sauce.”

“How much salt is in it?” asks a woman, as she tastes the sauce. “Less than one-quarter teaspoon per jar. It’s very healthy.

What do you think?” asks Barbanti.

“It’s good. I’ll take a jar,” the woman says.

That doesn’t surprise Bjurstrom.

“We get lots of customer requests for Tullia’s sauce,” he says. “That’s how she gets some of that precious shelf space. We don’t want customers to go somewhere else to get it, and we like to promote local people.”

For 20 years, Barbanti, who refuses to reveal her age, has been a quiet fixture on the Spokane food scene, cooking about 100 jars of Tullia’s Italian Meatless Pasta Sauce each week in the commercial kitchen in her modest “Sauce House,” as she calls it, in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.

Her son, Marco, delivers the sauce to Albertsons, Egger’s, Huckleberry’s, Rosauers, the Trading Company Stores and Yoke’s Fresh Markets.

For many years, Barbanti has taught Italian cooking classes through the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department’s Corbin Art Center programs. This fall and winter she has nine offerings, including classes for gnocchi, minestrone soup, pesto, and bread. She teaches private Italian, French and Latin lessons, too.

In a two-hour class on stuffed green peppers at the end of July, three students wash vegetables; chop onions, mushrooms and garlic; sautée ground meat, and boil rice. It’s uncomplicated, satisfying home cooking. Tullia says she’s made stuffed peppers for her family almost every week for 50 years.

“In Italy, we always have vegetables. This is a nice recipe because they’re stuffed, and then it’s a full meal,” she says.

When it’s time to fill the peppers and put them in the oven to bake, Tullia asks, “Did you taste the mixture? How’s the rice and sauce?” The classmates each do a taste test and give it a thumbs-up.

“When the sauce is good, all the rest is good,” Barbanti smiles.

Tullia’s Sauce House 1407 W. Mansfield Avenue 326-3087 or 328-1734 (message)

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