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Cousins keep a family tradition fresh and fun

Canning tomato sauce (and lots of it) at summer’s end is their labor of love

Carmelina Buonopane (left) and Pina Pescatore have organized the annual production of their family recipe for 15 years. Carmelina Buonopane (left) and Pina Pescatore have organized the annual production of their family recipe for 15 years. (Jessey Dearing for The Boston Globe)
By Gillian O’Callaghan
Globe Staff / September 14, 2011

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TEWKSBURY - The call came in over the weekend: The goods would be ready for pickup on Wednesday. Team members were notified to clear their calendars for Thursday and meet at 8 a.m. in the garage on Compass Lane. Work was expected to go late into the night.

It was time to make tomato sauce and everyone was on notice. For the past 15 years, first cousins Carmelina Buonopane and Pina Pescatore have organized the annual production of their family recipe.

“I want my children to have this tradition like I did growing up,’’ explains Buonopane. “If we don’t carry this on, it will be lost forever.’’

The assembly line spills out of the Pescatores’ garage into the driveway on a quiet cul-de-sac. The women are first-generation Americans, whose fathers are brothers. The operation spans three generations and has expanded to include in-laws and neighbors. Canning tomato sauce at summer’s end means there’s enough to enjoy all year long, and everyone takes home some jars.

Pescatore’s husband, Matt, a financial planner, has a client who works at the Chelsea Produce Market. Each year he gives Pescatore the alert when the tomatoes are at their peak. This summer the family bought 35 bushels of plum tomatoes; those 1,400 pounds will make 420 2-quart jars of sauce.

Five years ago, Pescatore’s neighbors, Cheryl and Mike Cahill and their three children, joined the festivities. Pescatore’s father and stepmother, Pasquale and Josephine Pepe, round out the team.

The first order of business is to wash and slice the tomatoes, then transfer them to large pots balanced over propane-fueled burners set up in the driveway. Thirty minutes of heat and stirring with an oar-sized wooden spoon breaks down the tomatoes into a chunky sauce.

Stationed at the motorized crushing machine, Cheryl Cahill slowly guides the cooked fruits into the hopper. Two more trips through the machine transforms the tomatoes into a silky smooth sauce, which goes back to the heat for another 30 minutes. The only addition is salt during the last five minutes of simmering.

Before they fill the sterilized jars, they add fragrant basil leaves, picked minutes before by grandfather Pepe from the Pescatores’ garden. When the hot sauce is poured over the basil, the jars become filled with the essence of summer.

Buonopane’s mother, Gerardina Bonavita, typically helps supervise production, but has already left for her annual visit to her hometown of St. Gerard outside of Naples. Buonopane learned the family recipes by cooking alongside her mother, starting when she was just 5 years old. She shares her mother’s preference for home-cooked meals. “The last meal my mother ate out was Mother’s Day 1980,’’ says her daughter. “We stood in line at the Hilltop Steak House, and she said, ‘Why are we waiting in line for a baked potato?’ She hasn’t eaten in a restaurant since.’’

Matt Pescatore also loves dishes made from scratch, though he grew up in a restaurant. His grandparents owned Leone’s Sub and Pizza in Somerville, which is now run by an uncle of Matt’s. Though he is currently content supplying produce from his sprawling garden for nightly suppers, he muses that their next house will be a restaurant, and he and Pina will live upstairs. That restaurant would have a stellar wine list; off of the garage is a wine cellar lined with his homemade award-winning vintages. The Pescatore Merlot 2008 won first prize at the 2009 Topsfield Fair.

The Buonopane and Pescatore cousins add to the homemade provisions by making soppressata, a hard sausage, and taralle, pretzel-like cookies spiced with fennel or black pepper.

Everyone is working hard as the sun begins to set. Not one of the children is slowing down on the job. The Pescatores’ 11-year old son, Matt Jr., slices tomatoes alongside his cousins and neighbors. “I like cutting the tomatoes and then later on at night, my favorite thing is to eat a dish of the sauce we just made - with macaroni.’’ Matt describes how he hosts his hockey team for dinner after pickup games played on their backyard skating rink. “They say, ‘Oh, this is so good! What brand is it?’ It’s pretty cool that it is the sauce that we made ourselves.’’

Matt’s 7-year-old brother Alex, taking a short break from cutting tomatoes, puts an arm around his mother’s shoulders and asks, “Do we have any of our Petite Sirah for dinner tonight?’’

Gillian O’Callaghan can be reached at