Once, when Jerry Rosi was making his family’s famous Bimbo’s Italian meat sauce at Stadium Thriftway, he noticed prying eyes watching his every move as he cooked in the store’s open kitchen.
For two days. That guy watched.
Did the stranger crack Rosi’s family’s decades-old meat sauce recipe?
“He probably figured out part of it, but I had my secret ingredients with me,” said Rosi (pronounced “rosy”) by phone.
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“That guy” is one reason why Rosi travels with pre-measured “secret” ingredients when he makes the Bimbo’s sauce for others. Since 2013, he’s been cooking his sauce every Saturday for Stadium Thriftway. The jars of sauce are for sale at the deli.
Through the month of February, Rosi is making his famous Bimbo’s sauce at Engine House No. 9 for the Tacoma restaurant’s Italian-themed menu.
First, a little history. Bimbo’s Italian restaurant operated in downtown Tacoma for about 80 years. Jerry Rosi’s great uncle, Vittorio “Bimbo” Perniconi, was the founder. He passed the restaurant to Rosi’s father, Reno, and Jerry Rosi took it over in 1969. At one point, Jerry Rosi sold Bimbo’s, opened another restaurant at James Center, but then reclaimed the downtown Bimbo’s a handful of years later after it began to fail. He was the final owner of Bimbo’s.
It was bought out by the city in 2001 to make way for the convention center, which was never built there. A Marriott hotel now stands where Bimbo’s once did.
As a result of the buyout, the city became the owner of the recipes and restaurant name.
Those recipes sat dormant until about five years ago when Rosi bought back the recipe for Bimbo’s meat sauce — and the Bimbo’s name — from the city.
Rosi toyed with opening another restaurant, but couldn’t find the right spot — or the heart — to do it all again.
But he’ll make the sauce in other people’s kitchens.
Fast forward to Bimbo’s at Engine House No. 9. Rosi will be in the kitchen through February making the meat sauce, which is being served over spaghetti with garlic bread and as a dipping sauce with meatballs. A burger also features the sauce.
Joel Mertens, executive chef of X Group Restaurants, which owns Engine House No. 9, described Rosi’s beef-based sauce as “complex” with layers of acidity and deep, caramelized tones.
Mertens said while the restaurant supplies the main ingredients, Rosi, of course, “brought his own spices.”
That secret batch of spices is something Rosi won’t talk about, but he did divulge one ingredient responsible for some of the distinctive flavor that countless have tried to duplicate.
It’s lemon peel. “Don’t put it in too early and don’t put a lot in,” said Rosi. “If you put it in too early, it cooks out.” What happens if you put in too much? “That flavor overbears everything,” he said.
I bit into E9’s spaghetti ($14.99) with Bimbo’s sauce and found a tangle of al dente pasta topped with that deeply flavored meat sauce in a stunning shade of red — the kind of deep red you don’t easily forget. It tasted familiar, like the long-simmered sauce known as Sunday gravy or Sunday sauce (meaning it takes a whole Sunday to make), but with an overt sharpness. Tangy acidity was tempered by those deep, caramelized notes Mertens described.
The burger was an epic monstrosity ($12.99), a hand-formed patty with a slap of Bimbo’s sauce, Mama Lil’s peppers, melted provolone, mushrooms and fresh arugula. It will appeal to anyone’s inner-burger glutton, just be sure to order it with the fried tots.
Rosi described the sauce as his very own labor of love. “It’s not difficult sauce to make, it just takes all your time.”
It’s also a sauce drenched in Tacoma history. “People tell me, ‘I met my wife down there at Bimbo’s.’ Or, ‘We went down there every year for our anniversary.’ Or, ‘My kids grew up eating it.’ I’ve heard lots of good stuff about our sauce,” Rosi said.
Is there anything he wants Tacomans to know about his family’s famous sauce today?
“I want them to know we’re still around.”