I don’t remember my first taste of red sauce. Likely, it was offered on a finger long before I could slurp down my first noodle, but it’s always been there—a character in my life as constant and cherished as the members of my family. The noodles change with the occasion, but the sauce is the centerpiece, and when it’s served, it means people are gathering. This is what I love most about the holidays, and why I can’t wait to return to a table full of family after a year of social distancing.

My grandparents were Menardis and Gelminis, second-generation Italian-Americans whose families settled in Trinidad. From them I inherited a protruding nose, a vowel at the end of my maiden name, and a deep love of Italian flavors. On Christmas Eve, my family eats traditional bagna cauda (though we pronounce it “caulda”), a communal, piping hot skillet of butter, garlic, and anchovies into which we dip bread, celery, and cabbage. This year, the festivities are taking place at Casa Morrison, where I am hosting a family holiday for the first time and carrying on the tradition. On Christmas day, Grandma’s red sauce is slathered over heaping piles of homemade ravioli—painstakingly hand-crafted pasta that all the women in my family have made en masse at least once. In the spring we eat Easter pie—a savory brunch dish made with ham, hard-boiled eggs, and mozzarella (which we also gluttonously smother with red sauce). The red, slurp-worthy accoutrement also comes out for birthdays, graduations, visits from out-of-towners, and Sunday suppers—the cherry on top of any special occasion.

Women in my family have passed down their sauces for generations. When I smell a batch on the stove—the long-simmered tomatoes, onions, herbs, and garlic—I can imagine its tendrils reaching back to the 18th-century northern Italy, as far back as my genealogically curious grandmother can trace our family. The recipes are not written, but they manifest themselves consistently every time. My grandma tweaked my great-grandmother’s recipe to her liking, and my mom made grandma’s recipe her own. They’re distinctly different: a dash of sugar, some sausage, or an extra palm-full of chile flakes separating one from the other.

My own recipe is still evolving, but without a doubt, it’s my family’s cooking that dragged me into the world of food. Since I began exploring Colorado’s culinary landscape as 5280’s assistant food editor in July, it’s no surprise I’ve been drawn to mom-and-pop restaurants serving big, bold flavors. I love a good sauce—whether it’s a house marinara, a fiery green chile, or a decadent consommé, broth, or curry—and, even better, chefs who innovate upon recipes from the past.

Luckily, Denver is overflowing with food pros doing just that. As I taste my way around the city, I’ll be sure to share my favorite finds with you, and I’m excited to hear about your go-to spots. Connect with me at dining@5280.com or on Instagram (@riane__eats), where you can catch sneak peeks of what’s on my plate before those meals, and their stories, end up on 5280.com or in the pages of this magazine. In the meantime, here’s to (safely) gathering around whatever makes your holiday spread complete and completely yours.

Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane is 5280’s former digital strategy editor and assistant food editor. She writes food and culture content. Follow her at @riane__eats.