I am Italian. I’m picky about my tomato sauces, but probably not in the way you think. I like them understated, balanced, bright and fresh even though I used canned tomatoes.
I make two kinds of tomato sauces. The basic sauce is plain and balanced, with no seeds, no pulp, nothing chunky, suitable for a manicotti or ravioli, the kind my Italian grandmother and my aunt’s made. It didn’t have to have meat, although it often did. This is the recipe I’m sharing here. It is the only tomato sauce that takes longer than 45 minutes. It’s the little black dress of many Italian dishes. Easy, authentic, homemade tomato sauce is what I grew up on nearly every Sunday, maybe made with meatballs and spaghetti, maybe made plain and used for stuffed shells.
If you’re looking for a sauce that has a lot of ingredients and spices and sits on the stove all day building up acid and later an attack to your stomach, this is not the sauce for you. I liken that kind of mutated tomato sauce to cheap, tacky dresses that never make a woman look good. No no no, this is the Audry Hepburn of sauces. Classy, classic, understated, hard to improve. In tomato sauce terms, bright, fresh, clean, as opposed to the heavy, overpowering, overcooked, over-seasoned sauce found in one of those restaurants with red checkered table cloths and Chianti bottles holding candles. (You shouldn’t eat at those places). That’s like thinking every Italian is in the Mafia or on Jersey Shore. They are not; it’s just that those stereotype train wrecks are just fun to watch.
In South Philly, where my family originated, this basic sauce was simply referred to as gravy.
If you really want to get into the head of Italian cooking, watch this scene from the Big Night. It’s hysterical, but it explains a lot.
Easy, Authentic, Homemade tomato sauce is almost as easy as opening up a jar, but better. In Italy, restraint for tomato sauce is understood. In America, the sauce reflects our culture and the way we are. We think more is more, more ingredients, more cooking time, giant portions. The only time more is more is true for Italian sauce is Bolognese sauce, which is not a tomato sauce, but a meat sauce with tomato. When I make classic spaghetti and meatballs, I like to use this basic sauce, maybe with some optional red chili flakes.
I usually make a sauce like this for lasagna, manicotti or stuffed shells. Today, I’m making my easy, authentic, tomato sauce for stuffed shells. It’s what we are having for Christmas Eve dinner.
I always start with San Marzano tomatoes. They cost twice as much as regular Italian plum tomatoes, but they are worth it. I get tempted often to go with a cheaper type, but then I’m sorry.
These tomatoes squish easily in your hand and are then taken through a food mill to make sure there is no pulp or seeds. I saute big chunks of onion with a few cloves of garlic olive oil, then add in the tomato puree. A little salt, pepper, parsley or fresh basil and that’s it. If I don’t happen to have San Marzano tomatoes, I add a carrot to the sauce to sweeten it up a bit. I cook it just to the point that I’m happy with the thickness. This sauce is strained to a puree, to make sure I get out all of the onion and herbs. I cook this sauce no longer than two hours on very low and that is just to reduce it down. It might be good enough at one hour and that all depends on the viscosity you desire. That’s just a fancy word for the flow or thickness of the sauce.
- 4 large 16 ounce can San Marzano Tomatoes
- olive oil
- 1 onion, quartered
- 1 carrot, peeled, left whole
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled left whole
- fresh herb such as fresh Italian parsley or fresh basil
- sea salt
- black pepper
- Squeeze all the juice out of the tomatoes. Either using a mesh collander or large food mill, separate the puree from the pulp and seeds. Set aside.
- Put enough olive oil in pan to cover the surface. Add in onion, garlic, saute for 2-3 minutes. Remove garlic.
- Add in tomato puree, and one can of water if it's extra thick. Some tomatoes are more watery. Skip the water if you think it's too liquidy.
- Add carrot. Remove at the end. It adds a little sweetness.
- Cook on low heat, semi-covered with lid, for two hours, stirring every twenty minutes. Adjust cooking time. If sauce thickens quickly, cut cooking time. Take out the onion and any herbs before serving.
You might want to go and make some homemade pasta to go with us.
This sauce is great in Manicotti
This sauce is perfect for my Spinach Lasagna.
To find out about some other great tomato sauces and one of the world’s legendary Italian cookbook authors, see the article I wrote here about cooking Italy with Marcella Hazan for a year.