The Inside Scoop On The Sauce

What I love about pasta sauces in Italy is the freshness and simplicity. Unlike what is often the case at many restaurants here in America, especially the chain restaurants that claim to be Italian, but barely qualify as serving anything close to what is remotely considered as good Italian cooking, the pasta in Italy is not drowning in a heavy sauce.  Quite the opposite.  This is true even with the sauces that contain meat, which are more common in the northern part of the boot.  The portions are smaller and the flavor of both the pasta and the sauce come through.

Growing up in an Italian American household and marrying into another full blooded Italian American family, my husband Dominick and I, learned from some pretty amazing cooks. Our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and my father-in-law, all passed on some phenomenal recipes. The beauty of the recipes is the history and stories attached to them as well as the flavors that they brought from different regions of the motherland.

Our mothers’ roots can be traced back to the region of Campania, which is why when I met my in-laws, I noticed many of the same dishes being served.  My father’s side of the family is from the region of Calabria where you’ll find more spice and fish as part of many a meal. Dominick’s father, Anthony, was the sauce master in his home. His family was from the hills of the beautiful Abruzzo region near the Adriatic. My Mom, Rosie, was the sauce queen in our house, and so over the years Dom and I combined both recipes for what we think is a good basic tomato or marinara sauce that can be incorporated into a variety of dishes.  Make some extra batches of this and keep it on hand to use when you make say a lasagna, shrimp marinara, or a frutta di mare pasta with fruits of the sea. A little goes a long way to add a lot of depth and flavor.

Speaking of Campania, that is where you’ll find the best tasting tomatoes. So, for all my recipes that require tomatoes as an ingredient I grab those from the San Marzano area. They’re grown in the rich soil near Mt. Vesuvius and are full of sweetness and contain less acidity. Here’s another inside scoop about sauces; most, including this recipe, don’t require hours and hours of simmering on the stove. The longer cooking times are reserved for a more complex sauce that contains different meats. The longer cooking time helps incorporate the robustness of the meat.  But your basic garlic and oil sauce or tomato sauce recipes are quite simple and quick.  Buono appetito!


T’s Tomato (Marinara) Sauce

For one pound of pasta, serving 6-8 people as a first course.

  • One large 28 ounce can of crushed San Marzano tomatoes
  • One to two cups of water
  • One 14-15 ounce can of diced San Marzano tomatoes
  • One to two tablespoons of good olive oil
  • Splash of good red wine.
  • One small Vidalia onion diced (optional)
  • ¼ to ½ cup of a very good grated cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Locatelli. (The cheese adds flavor, depth, and seasoning as well as helps to thicken the sauce just a bit.)
  • Two cloves of garlic crushed or sliced very thinly
  • Tablespoon of dried parsley
  • Tablespoon dried basil
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper
  • Fresh basil chopped (for serving)
  • Grated Cheese (for serving)

In a large skillet heat the olive oil slowly.  Add the onion and cook until just transparent.

Add the garlic, also cooking until transparent, making sure the garlic doesn’t brown or burn.

Add the crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, cheese, garlic, parsley, basil, and red pepper and stir to combine ingredients.

Fill the crushed tomato can half-way with water (for a thicker sauce add less water.) Swirl the water around the can to remove the rest of the tomato bits and add to the sauce. Add the splash of red wine.

Simmer 20-30 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken slightly and the flavors to meld.

Add the chopped basil and serve. Grated cheese available for those who want it (and who wouldn’t!)


  • My mother and grandmother would buy whole tomatoes and then squeeze them by hand or run them through a mill. I find this to be too time consuming and labor intensive. The crushed and diced tomatoes work just as well.
  • For a wonderful shrimp marinara add cleaned, peeled, and uncooked shrimp to the sauce. Using fresh, uncooked shrimp will add a lot of great flavor.
  • For a frutta di mare, which is a very popular Christmas Eve dish in Italy, add cleaned mussels, clams, and shrimp.
  • For the best flavor, don’t just throw the sauce on top of the cooked pasta! Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce itself.

Please don’t over cook the pasta! It should be al dente or “to the teeth” with a bit of a bite to it.


Photo: Valeria Aksakova/