The Secret To Mastering Italy’s Best Tomato Sauces
A question I’m often asked is how to make the best so-called “marinara.” It’s one that vexes me as much as the perennial hunt for the best pizza that makes good headlines. How could only one out of countless others be “best”? To begin with,”marinara” is a misnomer. While in America the term applies to a basic tomato sauce, the root word comes from the Latin mare, “sea,” thus a seafood sauce.
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THE GOLDEN RULES
» ASSUMING you don't live on the slopes of Vesuvius, it’s usually preferable to procure genuine bottled or canned San Marzano tomatoes over fresh tomatoes, even if your fresh ones look gorgeous (not a guarantee of flavor, nor of the meaty texture you need). Authentic San Marzano tomatoes, which are packed whole or in filets, are recognizable by the “D.O.P.” (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) emblem on the label, which identifies Italian food products protected by law. Many tomatoes branded "San Marzano," aren’t. Another trick is the teaser, "Italian-style," which is a dead giveaway of crafty packaging. The difference in the price between real and a fake may be a dollar more, but a can goes a long way toward superbly saucing a pound of pasta.
» ABSENT D.O.P. SAN MARZANOS, substitute another canned plum-type of tomato. Avoid canned round varieties, and crushed, diced, pureed, or "sauce" tomatoes, which may not be made from the best quality fruit.
» GOOD SAUCE TOMATOES are flame-red, elliptical, and thick walled with scant gelatin (technically, placenta fiber) around the seeds. They are muscular, not flabby, contain little water and few seeds.
» TOMATOES PACKED in their natural juices allow other sauce ingredients to stand out as separate elements while the sauce simmers. Those packed in thick puree may suffocate your sauce. A parsimonious addition of tomato paste instead adds body and is the best way to control the consistency and round out the flavor.
» NEVER USE TASTELESS vegetable oil. Flavorful extra virgin olive oil is the tomato’s best friend. Finish it with un filo, a thread, of oil at the end as the Italians do, to experience its raw flavor.
» OREGANO in your sauce (a Greek habit) can be a bitter marriage. Nowhere in Italy is it added to tomato sauce for pasta.
» NO SUGAR! Basta! (Unless you’re Sicilian.)
» COOK TOMATO SAUCE GENTLY and quickly. It takes anywhere from five to 55 minutes, never more, depending on the recipe and assuming about a 3-cup yield.
Recipes for sugo alla marinara typically include seafood, and perhaps tomato — or perhaps not. In Naples “marinara” (from marinare, to marinate) is a bath of fresh tomatoes, olive oil, olives, capers, anchovies and garlic, which might be called salsa puttanesca elsewhere. Perhaps the name derives from the simple tomato sauce that fishermen brought on their boats to anoint spaghetti, or in which to simmer their catch.
There are endless recipes for tomato sauces in Italy. In Puglia’s northern provinces they are usually infused with olive oil and garlic; in the southern parts, with onion. Sardinia likes to add mint, or to tint and flavor it with their revered saffron. Emilia-Romagna fortifies it with butter and wine (red or white, depending). Calabria zaps it with hot pepper. Sicily, while under the shoes of the Saracens for 400 years, inherited the Arab sweet tooth and has a penchant for adding sugar (an American habit probably bequeathed by the legions of Sicilian immigrants).
Tomato sauce from tomato paradise
Sunny Naples, where the tomato was reputedly first transported from Spain on horseback in the 16th century, is tomato paradise. The sauce in all its permutations is more prodigious in this city than anywhere. It is Naples, after all, that gave the tomato sauce to Italy.
To make a great tomato sauce, you first need a great tomato. It is no small happenstance that on the slopes of Vesuvius, which towers geographically and mythically over Naples, clime and volcanic ash conspire to grow the world’s best sauce tomato. This is the pomodoro San Marzano of the enchanted hills and plains between Naples and Salerno.
Algae-rich dirt, torrid heat, scant rain and a long growing season combine to incubate a fruit of haunting flavor: a perfect balance of baritone sweetness and engaging acidity. Bottled on site, the pelati, as conserved tomatoes are called, meaning simply, “peeled,” are a staple in every Italian kitchen.
Such tomatoes were once a dream outside of Italy, but no longer. The ancient cultivar is being preserved to protect it, and with the foreign palate awakened to real Italian flavors, producers have hopes of paving the roads to China with this red gold.
The mother of all Neapolitan tomato sauces is pummarola (literally, “tomato” in the vernacular), though not surprisingly in this most chaotic of places, no one agrees on the recipe. Some versions are as simple as a fast sauté of olive oil, garlic, pelati, and a scrap of basil — simple but heavenly with the Vesuvius tomatoes. The most aromatic sauce begins with a soffritto (sauté) of carrot, celery, onion and parsley. In season, fresh tomatoes rule. Otherwise, pelati are used gratefully. Bottled are preferred, but canned will do. On its own, this pummarola is fruity and fragrant — what spaghetti, linguine or other dried pasta shapes should wear. As a foundation for other sauces, it exalts whatever else it’s stirred with (seafood, for example). In all, it’s as fine an expression of Italian tomato sauce as you’ll find.
Fruity Neapolitan Tomato Sauce (Pummarola)
Makes approximately 2 cups, enough for 1 pound of pasta
Pummarola is well suited to the texture of dried pasta, both strand types and short cuts. Spaghetti and linguine are especially compatible with it. It has a pleasant chunky texture, or a rich silkiness when passed through a sieve or a food mill. When sieved, it can be used as a foundation for other sauces wherever a prepared tomato sauce is called for, or for salsa bolognese and the whole tribe of ragùs.
2½ cups (28 ounces) canned, peeled plum tomatoes in juice, seeded and chopped. (D.O.P San Marzanos are preferred.)
4 tablespoons high quality extra virgin olive oil, or more, to taste
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 small red or yellow onion, minced
1 medium celery stalk, including leaves, minced
1 small carrot minced
2 tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Small handful of chopped fresh basil
Scant ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly milled black or white pepper
1. Drain the tomatoes in a colander, reserving their juice; chop and set aside.
2. In an ample saucepan over medium-low heat, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Stir in the garlic, onion, celery, carrot and parsley, and sauté until the vegetables are completely soft, about 12 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir until it’s coppery-colored, about 3 minutes. Then add the tomatoes and their juice, cover partially, and simmer, stirring occasionally, gently until thickened, about 45 minutes. Stir in the basil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and blend in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, or more to taste.
Note: If a smooth sauce is desired, take the pan off the stove when it’s cooked and allow it to cool somewhat. Position a food mill over a clean saucepan and pass the sauce through it, being sure to press out as much of the pulp as possible. Place over medium heat just long enough to heat through, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining tablespoon olive oil.
Attention: Don’t purée the sauce in a food processor; we don’t want to break the seeds.
Ahead-of-time note: The sauce can be made 4 to 5 days in advance of use and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen for up to 3 months. Whether storing it in the refrigerator or freezer, leave out the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir it into the sauce after reheating.
Top photo: Harvesting the ancient tomatoes of Naples, San Marzano, Campania. Credit: Paolo Ruggiero, DaniCoop