Settle the Debate

Spaghetti: Side Dish or Main Course?

Photography by Stacey Greenberg

Is spaghetti a side dish or a main course? At first, I truly didn’t know the answer to this question.

So I did what any inquiring millennial would do. I called the aunties! 

My grandmother had nine children and was a cook at the Holiday Inn hotel from the 1970s to 2000s. Although she is not living now, she left us a cooking and food legacy.

When I asked my aunties if spaghetti was a main dish or a side dish, they replied, “It depends.” 

My Aunt Iris, who has lived in Florida for the past 44 years, says that spaghetti can be a main dish, but it really depends on the day of the week. “It’s really a side dish. It should be served with something else, like some fish or chicken. But if you cook it as a main dish, you gotta make sure that it’s a complete meal. You have to have the meat, veggies, pasta, and some Parmesan cheese. Plus, you have to serve it with a side salad and some garlic bread.” When I asked how spaghetti first became a side dish, she replied, “It’s always been this way.”

I also reached out to my eldest auntie, Aunt Phyliss. As a child, she often had to prepare food for the household. Her reply offered a little more insight. “Growing up, we always had spaghetti with something like fried chicken or fish. But if money was tight, we only had spaghetti, but still had ground beef in it. And if times were really hard, we had ‘Poor Man’s Spaghetti.’ Poor Man’s Spaghetti is spaghetti with no meat in it, just sauce and noodles,” she says.

I remember growing up and eating spaghetti with fried fish or fried chicken. And if times were tough and meals were meager, we simply ate spaghetti.

So for me, a good meal with spaghetti always included fried chicken or fish.

I was much, much older when I realized that people not only cooked spaghetti differently (that’s a whole ’nother topic right there), but they also served it on a naked plate, i.e., without any chicken or fish. At first, I just didn’t understand why someone would choose to eat spaghetti on a naked plate.

The Four Way, a restaurant that has been serving soul food since 1946, serves spaghetti as a side dish. You can get turkey and dressing with a side of spaghetti. You can also order fried or baked fish with a side of spaghetti. Another soul food restaurant, Alcenia’s, also serves spaghetti as a side dish; the daily lunch special includes a protein dish and two vegetables/sides. However, the Italian restaurant Tamboli’s Pasta & Pizza serves their bucatini and marinara as a main dish. 

Arman Arab, chef at Catherine and Mary’s, says, “Spaghetti can be both a side dish and a main dish. But if I have it as a side dish, I pair it with catfish.”

Chef Tam (of Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe), who is originally from Texas, says, “Most dishes are regional, so it really depends on where my feet land if spaghetti is a side dish or a main dish. In Texas it’s an entrée.” While growing up, Chef Tam ate fried fish every Friday, but it wasn’t served with spaghetti. It wasn’t until she landed in Memphis that she found out spaghetti and fried fish was a whole thing!

Dino’s Grill has been open for 50 years, and every Thursday they serve all-you-can-eat spaghetti for only $10!

“We’ve been serving all-you-can-eat spaghetti on Thursday nights for as long as I can remember,” recalls Chef Mario Gristani, who has a humble opinion when it comes to spaghetti.

“I have never thought of spaghetti as a side. Growing up, my mom would fix a big pot of spaghetti with bread. And we call it gravy, not sauce.”

The spaghetti at Dino’s Grill is made daily with fresh ingredients. Their gravy is simmered for three hours.

As for me and my house, spaghetti is typically served as a main dish. But what that meal looks like depends on the day of the week. If it’s on a school night, spaghetti is all you’re going to get. If we have spaghetti on a Friday or Saturday night, then I have a little more time to put together a salad and toast some garlic bread. But if we have spaghetti on a Sunday…baby…I’m serving it with some fried chicken, sweet potatoes, and greens!

Patricia’s Everyday Spaghetti
Everyone makes their spaghetti differently, but here’s my own recipe. Keep in mind that I’m a home chef! 

-1 pound spaghetti noodles
-1 pound ground beef
-Penzeys Tuscan Sunset seasoning
-Penzeys garlic powder
-Penzey’s parsley flakes
-Black pepper
-1 package McCormick Thick And Zesty Spaghetti Sauce Seasoning Mix
-1 yellow onion
-1 bell pepper
-1 zucchini
-Olive oil
-1 14.5-ounce can stewed tomatoes
-1 6-ounce can tomato paste
-2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
-Fresh parsley, for garnish

On the front left burner of the stove, I bring a pot of salted water to a boil and throw my spaghetti noodles in without breaking them. (If you start cooking on any of the back burners, I got questions and judgements.)

While that’s boiling, I brown my ground beef on the front right burner of the stove and season with Tuscan seasoning, garlic powder, parsley flakes, salt, black pepper (all to taste) and ½ pack of spaghetti sauce seasoning mix. Remember, if you ain’t sneezing, then it ain’t seasoned!

I dice up my onion, bell pepper, and zucchini and sauté them with seasonings in olive oil. After they’re soft, I add in stewed tomatoes and tomato paste and mix well. Then I add tomato sauce and the other ½ of the spaghetti sauce seasoning mix. Now, my sauce is done.

By this time, my spaghetti noodles are done and the meat is fully cooked. Because we have a vegetarian in our family (my son refused to eat meat after the age of 2 and I decided it wasn’t a necessary fight to make him eat meat), I set aside some sauce and noodles. Then I mix the remaining sauce, noodles, and meat together. Sprinkle a little parsley on top to be fancy and serve it up!

Patricia Lockhart is a native Memphian who loves to read, write, cook, and eat. Her days are filled with laughter with her four kids and charming husband. By day, she’s a school librarian and a writer, but by night—she’s asleep. @memphisismyboyfriend

Stacey Greenberg is the editor in chief of Edible Memphis. You can follow her at @nancy_jew.