The scent of spaghetti sauce hits you before you enter the Sons of Italy hall.
A friendly retired Italian woman took my $7.50, and, with Paul Kulik, chef and owner of Omaha's Boiler Room restaurant, I walked past the "Today it's Sausage!" sign into the dining room. We moved under the blinking, rainbow-colored rotating disco ball toward the line of red-aproned, sweating Italian men serving up the goods.
There's no better place to start my third Food Prowl —this time, about the best spaghetti in Omaha. Hundreds of Omahans flock to the hall each week for a plate of spaghetti. It's the epicenter.
Paul and I spent one afternoon with the Sons, and other afternoons in Omaha's Italian restaurants eating six pasta lunches. We met Italians with secret sauce recipes and strong opinions about food. I learned what "Sunday gravy" is.
And, after eating boatloads of sauce and heaps of pasta, the thing we ended up liking the best — the restaurant we're choosing as the best spot to eat spaghetti in Omaha — isn't what Omahans might expect.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
We met George Matuella at the Sons hall. He's been a volunteer there for more than 15 years. Today he's making salads. George is a hulking man with gray hair, glasses and a friendly grin. A retired meteorologist who worked for years in the Valley office of the National Weather Service, he introduced us to Sam, the guy who makes the sauce every week. Then he went back to work. We'd eat with him later — he's our other Food Prowl judge.
I asked Paul, a lifelong Omahan, if the spaghetti we ate at the Sons hall was the same he'd eaten here so many Thursdays in high school.
"Yes," he said. "It's just like I remembered."
Lots of the sauce we ate during our Prowl was what many Omahans will recognize as "Sunday gravy," a pot full of tomato, beef, pork, meat bones and seasonings such as parsley, oregano and garlic that cooks for a day or more and is spooned over a mound of any type of pasta and doused with cheese. It's what we sampled at the Sons spaghetti feed.
And it's what we enjoyed, at Lo Sole Mio, a south Omaha institution.
Paul came to that lunch armed with knowledge about Italy. Though his training is in French cuisine, he said he has become more and more enamored with Italian food.
He taught me the differences between northern and southern Italian cuisine (baked pasta dishes come from the north and red sauces come from the south), how to make homemade pasta and that different shapes of pasta require different dough.
"Before I went to Italy, I always thought Italian food was about that long-simmering Sunday sauce," he said. "But then, when I got there, I saw a whole side of freshness to Italian food that I hadn't known existed."
Our server at Lo Sole Mio split a bowl of pasta for us, giving us each a sizable dish.
We talked a bit about the size of the portion: Why always so big — enough for three meals?
"I think it has to do with making people feel welcome," Paul said. "I think it has to do with hospitality and generosity."
Paul inhaled the scent of his sauce deeply before taking a bite. I followed his lead.
The sauce tasted a touch sweet and to Paul, caramelized, with a molasses-like flavor. The orangey-red sauce, studded with medium-sized chunks of ground beef, had a sprinkling of fresh parsley studding the top. The rest of the seasonings looked and tasted dried.
What impressed most at Lo Sole Mio was the pasta itself. When George went there, he ordered the spaghettini, also called angel hair.
"It was terrific," he told me later. "It was cooked to my pleasure. Not mushy, not hard. Just right there."
The food writer, the 16-year Sons of Italy volunteer and the James Beard semifinalist chef all praised the perfectly cooked pasta.
George lives near Mangia Italiana, in Irvington, and so he and Paul and I ate lunch there. We tried Bolognese and marinara with a meatball, and while we ate, we chatted.
It turned out George's twin sons — two of his five children — graduated from Creighton Prep a year before Paul.
George told us about his Italian family. He's the second generation to live in the United States. Most of his family is from around Trento, a city in northern Italy not far from the Austrian border. He and his wife went to Italy two years ago for their 50th wedding anniversary.
Paul and George traded stories about the country and I furiously scribbled down notes between bites.
They talked about Lake Como, the friendliness of the people, the wine.
They talked about the freshness of the food in Italy, and about how much of the sauce they'd eaten there was different from Italian American sauces. Paul described the food again: light, balanced, bright.
George told us stories from his childhood: a grandfather who grew grapevines in his backyard, his mother's homemade pasta and how she made spaghetti sauce twice weekly, on Thursday and Sunday, but they never called it "gravy."
"That was a New York thing," he said.
George and Paul — who told me earlier he's not a fan of sweet sauces — agreed that Mangia's sauce was too sweet. Paul thought the flavor of dried herbs overwhelmed it. I wished the sauce and pasta had been mixed together better before being served.
We tried another old-school spot, Malara's on South 20th Street.
Sinatra crooned to us about New York in the nearly empty restaurant as we sampled the sauce and the homemade pasta — Malara's was one of only two places we visited that makes its own.
The pasta seemed curiously thick. The texture, too, seemed odd: more like a soft dumpling than a strip of al dente pasta. To Paul, it fell somewhere between an Asian noodle and a German dumpling.
The darker-hued sauce came mushroom-studded. A too-grainy meatball didn't taste great to me.
At Pasta Amore, in Rockbrook Village, the sauce was full of big, flavorful chunks of garlic. It wasn't sugary, didn't have dried herb flavor and was meaty but not overwhelmingly so.
"For me," Paul said, "this sauce tastes much fresher. It's nice not to have that tooth-clenching sweetness."
The sauce was one of the best we tried. But we had some gripes: The pasta was overcooked and the parmesan cheese was not freshly shaved.
Our final stop took us to West Omaha.
At Dante Pizzeria Napoletana, George struck up a conversation with chef and owner Nick Strawhecker.
They go to the same parish — St. James — and they know a lot of the same Italian guys. George tells Nick about his Creighton Prep connection with Paul.
They go deeper: "Remember the guy who started the St. James Melodrama 40 years ago or so? What a great man he was." They discuss the Santa Lucia Festival. They talk about Sons of Italy volunteers.
Paul and I lean back, out of the flow of conversation. This isn't our world, but man, it's fun to be a part of it for a few minutes.
Strawhecker brought us plates of papardelle bolognese, and it looked like nothing else we'd sampled.
The richly brown bolognese sauce is made with lots of meat, Strawhecker told me in an interview later. Chicken livers, ends of salami, pork and beef are all in there, along with a hint of tomato paste, herbs and no fewer than ten bottles of wine. It cooks down and mingles for 10 hours.
It's Strawhecker's own recipe, derived from his own cooking and recipes he made at two restaurants in Italy.
The sauce is rich and the deep flavor — chicken livers and wine and fresh green herbs — all come through in the first bite.
It has something Paul called "umami," a Japanese word that roughly translates to "savoryness."
"You have to have some knowledge to have all that going on," George said about the dish later. And he's right.
The sauce is evenly distributed through a pile of thick pappardelle pasta that's housemade using Strawhecker's favorite pasta recipe. The pasta is light in flavor, golden yellow in color and cooked al dente. A light sprinkling of freshly grated cheese decorated the dish.
Now it's decision time.
"I'd be a terrible critic," George chuckles. "But I know what I like."
He chooses Lo Sole Mio, for its tasty, tender meatballs, perfectly cooked pasta and the sauce that clung to the noodles. He said he loves the sauce at the Sons and picks the one most like it.
Paul and I come to our decision quickly: Dante. The delicious texture of the sauce and the savory, deep flavors overwhelmed me.
"The chicken liver and all the meat and the wine make for an intense base," Paul said. "It makes me crave more."
Dante's sauce is a mix of the familiar and the future, Sunday gravy for a modern palette.