Portable Chef Blog: Tasty Licks

The Godfather-Goodfellas Pasta Sauce Smackdown

I’m gonna go make the pasta, make the pasta

Of this there is no doubt: The Godfather and Goodfellas are the two best mob movies of all time. (NOTE: By The Godfather I mean the Godfather Parts I and II, which are parts of the same story and are both derived from the original Mario Puzo novel; the DVD of Part III, which I had to buy in order to get the first two films, is useful only for its present function: preventing the condensation emanating from my drink from ruining the table as I write).

But which of the two is top dog is a subject of much debate. Mainstream America has cast its vote: the user poll at the Internet Movie Database has Godfather as the #2 movie of all-time, with Goodfellasat #14. The #1 movie ever, as determined by us, the Internet-using public, made me do a double-take and I’ll bet it will make you do the same. Actually, take a second right now to guess what the best film of all-time is before clicking through to see it. America says you’re wrong.

Goodfellas actually has a long and storied tradition of being shafted by the mainstream; in fact, Goodfellascan claim some responsibility for helping the Oscars lose their last shred of credibility when the Academy voted Kevin “Tatanka” Costner over Martin Scorsese as 1990’s Best Director (Costner’s acceptance speech for Best Picture that year, vaguely retarded yet at the same time strangely charming, tells you everything you need to know about the guy and his career). Goodfellas also only ranked #92 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films list, behind Forrest Gump and Titanic (Godfather was #2 here as well).

The debate’s still worthy, though. By the time Goodfellas came out, Godfather was already permanently ensconced in the public’s mind as The Greatest Mafia Movie Ever Made, and it’s difficult to dislodge anything from the top spot that has the kind of emotional hold that Godfather does. Ask any film fan too young to have seen Godfather in the theater and the balance of power tips markedly toward Goodfellas.

Personally, I’m undecided; I lean a bit toward Goodfellasbut it’s a testament to both films that my favorite of the two tends to be the one I’ve seen the most recently.

The movies match up very evenly: both were directed by Italian-Americans who came into prominence in the 1970s. Both movies are very long (Fellasruns 2 hours and 25 minutes; Fatherweighs in at a hefty 2:55) but zip by as you watch them. Both movies are exceptionally quotable. In both movies, the hothead (Caan, Pesci) gets tricked into going out alone and shot with intent not only to kill, but to prevent an open-casket funeral. One movie has the A-list cast di tutti A-list casts (Brando, Pacino, Duvall, Caan, and Diane Keaton, with De Niro waiting in the wings for pt. II? Yikes); the other movie has less star power but gets performances of a lifetime from nearly everyone (Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco, and Pesci were never better anywhere, and the character actors absolutely nailed it across the board).

And (RELEVANCE ALERT) both movies feature painstakingly-described onscreen recipes for pasta sauce.

In the NFL, when two teams tie for a playoff spot, the league uses a system of 12 tiebreaking procedures, each becoming less significant than the previous one (head-to-head record, strength of the opponents you played, the most touchdowns you scored) until finally, if teams match up perfectly on the first eleven, the 12th is a coin toss.

The way I see it, we’re at the eleventh tiebreaker right now – the Goodfellas/Godfather question is so close to call that we’re fast approaching coin-flip territory. So I decided to do what any cook in my position would do: make film history.

By recreating the pasta sauce that Clemenza taught Michael to make in the Godfather, and pitting it against the sauce that Paulie and Vinnie made while in the slammer in Goodfellas, I could once and for all determine which pasta sauce was better and, by extension, which was the superior film. Here’s Clemenza:

And here’s the Goodfellas crew:

The first step was to capture the recipes. A ton of information is given out onscreen and in the dialogue, but it takes some digging to get at it. We see two cans each of tomatoes and tomato paste on the counter in Godfather;we hear Vinnie talk about putting two cans of tomatoes and three onions in the sauce. Vinnie says he puts veal, beef, and pork in the meatballs, and we also see him putting some bone-in meat into the sauce; Clemenza shoves in a plate of sausages and meatballs that would be easy to recreate. I went over the video like it was the Zapruder film; no detail escaped my eye.

The sauces are actually very similar in many respects: canned tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, meatballs, and sausage are all involved prominently. There are six main differences:

  1. Paulie slices the garlic paper-thin with a razor “so that it would liquefy in the pan with very little oil”; we don’t see Clemenza’s garlic, but are left to assumed that he chops it like the rest of us.
  2. Vinnie puts browned meat (some of it bone-in) into the sauce, then separately talks of meatballs (meatballs AND meat? Hmm. I’m intrigued; for my take I’m using a pig’s foot and some beef stew meat, and will remove the pig’s foot when all’s said and done). Clemenza just puts in sausage and meatballs.
  3. Clemenza puts in a lot of tomato paste (two six-ounce cans). While we don’t hear any mention of how much, if any, tomato paste goes into the Goodfellas sauce, towards the end of the prison scene we see Vinnie pour some of the sauce from pot to bowl, and we get a look at its viscosity. It’s definitely not two cans-viscous. Let’s go with one can.
  4. Clemenza puts in a splash of wine and a little bit of sugar; to our knowledge, none of either goes into the Goodfellas sauce.
  5. The meatballs Clemenza puts into the sauce have already been browned in a pan. When Vinnie is shown putting browned meat into the sauce, none of the pieces are meatballs. The strong implication here is that the meatballs are not pre-browned, but are formed and plopped right into the sauce to cook.
  6. We know that the Goodfellas meatballs contain veal, beef, and pork; we get no info about the Godballs. I think the difference in cooking methods is significant enough, so I’ll go with identical ingredients: the same veal/beef/pork combo, with standard salt, pepper, Parmesan, and breadcrumbs in the mix.

So. Armed with fact and pretty solid assumptions, I derived the following recipes:


Both sauces were very simple to make. The hardest part by far was the slicing of the garlic – it’s harder to do than Paulie makes it look, and done properly it took an eternity. Does it liquefy in the pan? Yeah, kind of, but not nearly as satisfyingly as I thought it would. It’s a marginal improvement that takes forever to achieve – the perfect preparation method for the pokey but not for those of us on the outside.

I’m a recent convert to the merits of boiling meat in a flavorful sauce, and the Goodfellas-style meatballs seemed to work very well. Moist and flavorful, they appeared every bit the equal of the fry-first Clemenza method.

Meatballs cooked Godfather- and Goodfellas-style
Meatballs cooked Godfather- and Goodfellas-style

Next up, the tasting. To keep the integrity of the experiment intact none of the judges knew which pasta was which; we didn’t watch the scenes beforehand, and I didn’t share anything of the recipes above. The Godfather pasta was served on a plate; the Goodfellas in a bowl. For the entire evening, the Godfather pasta was referred to as “plate” or “flat;” Goodfellas went by “bowl.” The Goodfellas recipe was so much more complicated and refined, and had so much more meat in it, that I felt that any sharing this information would unnaturally tip the balance toward Goodfellas and that knowing this information myself made me completely unfit to decide – I would recuse myself from the voting. A week before, I had tried to do this taste-off but without the same dedication to an unbiased experiment, which muddied the results and they had to be discarded (sorry Phil and Yuu, but you’ve been left on the cutting room floor this time around. I blame myself. I’ll get you into another column soon).

The Godfather sauce (left) has a slightly redder appearance and was markedly thicker than the Goodfellas sauce (right)
The Godfather sauce (left) has a slightly redder appearance and was markedly thicker than the Goodfellas sauce (right)

Finally, to eliminate any sort of peer pressure bias, decisions were rendered by secret ballot: one vote for the sauce, and then – the 11 1/2th tiebreaker – one for the meatballs.

maria tasting pasta-filtered

Both were delicious, in their own way – the Godfather had a tanginess from the tomato paste that was strong

without being excessive; it had actually picked up a refinement that belied the simplicity of the recipe and the canned-ness of the ingredients. The Goodfellas sauce had a subtler flavor but still reeked (in a good way) of the old country. The pastas both had the ability to take me back to a time and place – each bite made me want to shoot Moe Greene in the eye.


The four voting members (Mom, Dad, Glen, and Maria) were given secret ballot. They gave each pasta careful and diligent consideration; with each bite they were etching their likenesses on the Mount Rushmore of film critics, and they knew it. And after careful consideration they cast their votes, and I tabulated them.


One vote for the plate (Godfather): sauce and meatballs.

One vote for the bowl (Goodfellas): sauce and meatballs.

One vote for the Goodfellas sauce, the Godfather meatballs.

And one vote for both sauce and meatballs for the winner, and the best mafia movie of all-time…

The Godfather.

So we can finally put this baby to rest. It was close – a split decision that came down to the final tiebreaker, the meatballs – which seems the only fitting way to end things.

My most heartfelt congratulations to the Francis Ford Coppola, who I am sure has been awaiting this day for some time.

And Marty… I love your work. But go get your fucking shinebox.


4 Responses

  1. This should catch on as a standard go-to dinner party american cultural thing, like the kentucky derby.
    By what methology was the ostensible number 1 film chosen, I wonder? That threw me for a loop. My vote would have been for Seven Samurai.

  2. Hey!
    As a lifelong gf watcher (that’s both!), and a Sicilian-American, I will tell you that bone in meat is generally hocks & neckbones. You brown them, then put them in the sauce, then take them out before you serve. So on the table you basically have: pasta tossed with a LITTLE sauce in a bowl, a side bowl of sauce, a side bowl of neckbones, a side bowl of meatballs. You have to brown meatballs first and if you leave them too long in the sauce they might fall apart. Some people put them in right before they serve, but they don’t impart taste to the sauce, so we’ve always left them out.
    Sugar is kind of heresy in some households (that’s what tomato paste and carrots & marsala are for).
    The real missing element here for me though is anchovy or anchovy paste. and onions/celery

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