The Secret To Mastering Italy’s Best Tomato Sauces

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in: Cooking w/recipe

Harvesting the ancient tomatoes of Naples, San Marzano, Campania. Credit: Paolo Ruggiero, DaniCoop

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.

Ingredients

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

Pummarola. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul."

Pummarola. Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton, from “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul.”

Small handful of chopped fresh basil

Scant ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly milled black or white pepper

Directions

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


Zester Daily contributor Julia della Croce is the author of "Veneto: Authentic Recipes from Venice and the Italian Northeast" (Chronicle Books), "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" (Kyle Books) and 12 other cookbooks.

 

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Comments

Maureen Lisi-MacReady
on: 7/2/13
Julia, As a former resident of Italy, an Italian American and a Chef Instructor I cannot applaud this piece loudly enough. You have captured the elusive butterfly on a pinhead! Your writings are always so informed without being superior. Reading your work is rather like spending the afternoon with a friend in the garden, in the kitchen or at a meal. I thank you!!!!!
Julia della Croce
on: 7/3/13
Such a lovely tribute, Maureen! Grazie--and stay tuned.
stuart itter
on: 7/5/13
I am surprised by the use of tomato paste, instead of more simmering of the tomatoes or simmering of more tomatoes.
Kathleen
on: 7/5/13
Thank you for such a simple and straight forward recipe. Basically the same I make but by memory, now I can pin it in my kitchen.
Dee Kaufman
on: 7/5/13
I enjoyed your article very much. Thank you. I wish more people would understand the importance of D.O.P. I am not Italian, nor do I have anything to do with any food company, however I do feel strongly that San Marzano tomatoes COME FROM San Marzano, Italy. For some reason I just hate the fact that people are buying tomatoes called San Marzano tomatoes and they come from California. I am an American. I love America. But that is why I don't like seeing our California tomato produces cheating on the labeling of their products. Americans buy labeling. They trust American looking labeling...like the clean white labels of the California substitute San Marzano tomotoes. But look on the back of the label in the tiny tiny 1 point type it says made in California. So why not call the San Mateo tomatoes? And when chefs on the Foodnetwork, hold up cans of California tomatoes while at the same time saying that they are special because they come from a special area of Italy, it gets me crazy. It is like saying we are Americans and we cheat for profit and that's okay. Even a pretty Italian girl is using bogus tomatoes. If it doesn't say proudly (in big letters)that it is a Product of Italy and D.O.P. on the label it is NOT a San Marzano tomato.
PtheElder
on: 7/5/13
Julia, I've made sauces similarly for years, but this piece is so compelling that I am literally going to get my car keys and drive to my local market forthwith to find some San Marzano D.O.P.'s and make some exactly from your recipe. What delicious sauce it will be! Thank you for such beautiful, informative writing.
Tim
on: 7/5/13
Loved, loved, loved, reading of the different customs of the regions for making what we simply call " spaghetti sauce." Well done!
pierino
on: 7/5/13
Indeed "alla marinara" does refer to "sailor sauce" so I always add some anchovy to it. Worth noting that San Marzano seeds are being exported to the US. However unless you have a volcano nearby the tomatoes won't have the same flavor. There is even a company that uses San Marzano as a brand on what really should be a DOC product. In this case the company happens to be in Arizona. Whenever I can find it I buy good tomato puree jarred and imported from Italy. It's a lot looser than what's typically sold here.
Barbara
on: 7/5/13
Thank you Julia, for your most informative piece. I learned many new facts, and got reinforcement on the parts that I knew. Graze mille!
Julia della Croce
on: 7/5/13
To answer Steward Itter about why not just reduce the sauce more rather than use tomato paste: The longer you reduce, i.e. evaporate the tomato sauce, the further away you are getting from the clear taste of the tomato. Just that bit of paste (preferably high quality, Italian tomato paste) adds body without you having to overcook the whole batch in order to thicken. Meatless tomato sauces such as this one are a different type and have different properties than ragù, meat sauces, which do have to cook for a long time to enable the meat to tenderize. Meatless tomato sauces are best cooked for a short time for the best true tomato flavor. Thanks for asking. JdC
Julia della Croce
on: 7/5/13
I'd like to address Dee Kaufman's note as well. In fact, any tomato that does not come from designated San Marzano terroire IS NOT "San Marzano" any more than "parmesan" made in Wisconsin or elsewhere is not parmigiano-reggiano. No matter what the label says, if it doesn't show the bright yellow and red "D.O.P" emblem it is simply not San Marzano tomatoes. Italian producers have been fighting this sort of identity theft for years, as the imitations both discredit the real thing, and confuse the consumer. The only Italian consortium that has attempted--and won--thus preventing others from using the name of the genuine product for fakes, is parmigiano-reggiano cheese. It was an enormously costly undertaking that most small producers and consortiums can't afford to do. Consequently, we have "San Marzano" brazenly written across red, white and green labels when, yes, they come from California, or a sly "certified" seal on the label that is designed to food the consumer into thinking they're the real thing. If you "google" D.O.P. seal on Google images, you'll see what it looks like and you'll know what to look for if you want to buy the genuine tomatoes. I didn't have enough room to explain all this in the article, so I'm very glad you asked! JdC
Judith Klinger
on: 7/6/13
"Baritone sweetness"...what a perfect & lovely description of a Napolitani San Marzno! Complimenti. Location matters, and tomatoes from that part of the world taste unique....tasting of sea breezes, strong sunshine and volcanic roots, you cannot find this flavor anywhere else. There is nothing 'wrong' with San Marzano's grown in Arizona or California, they just taste different. I've been in long kitchen debates with Italians that swear the San Marzano has been overbred and is not what it used to be. My personal bias is towards whatever is ripest in our garden at dinner time!
Julia della Croce
on: 7/6/13
I couldn't say it any better than that.
Barbara
on: 7/6/13
I agree with Judith. No matter how hard we try we can only get close to the same taste. The minerals in the ground and the climate in Italy is unique. I loved all the side bar info!! beautiful article - look forward to more from Julia!!!
Julia della Croce
on: 7/6/13
You're right that we can't reproduce the same flavor as the Vesuvius tomato (and by the way, the San Marzano consortium recognizes the problem of cross-breeding that has naturally occurred and has taken steps to protect the original cultivar). To Judith's point, few things taste better and make more sense than relying on the foods we can grown or produce locally. Besides, one must consider how much petroleum it takes to transport tomatoes from Naples abroad. No denying that genuine San Marzano tomatoes come with a high carbon footprint, just as other products do from faraway places. I make up for such indulgences by keeping them to a minimum, but the tomatoes (and estate-bottled Italian olive oil, and imported cheeses, etc.) are an addiction! Otherwise, I use locally grown and organically raised meats and produce whenever possible. Thank you all for adding so much to this conversation.
pierino
on: 7/6/13
Julia, here is where I will volunteer to mix metaphors and compare tomatoes and olives. I raised the point in this thread that the San Marzano deserves DOP status. However with regard to olive oil I'm not ashamed to suggest that California olive oils are superior to most that are coming from Italy. I know because I do seasonal work as a "sommelier" of olive oil. California olive oils are about where California wines were back in the 70's---winning competitions and international awards. And as a bonus, you get a lower carbon footprint. California standards as regulated by the COOC (California Olive Oil Council) are actually stricter than the IOC's. As I'm sure you know, "Italian" olive can be a blend of oils from Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece, N. Africa etc. But as long they are bottled in Italy they are allowed to say "Product of Italy" on the label. That's the exact flip side of "parmesan" issue. I live in an olive growing region so I have the opportunity to taste this stuff every day but especially when the first cold pressings start to arrive. Central Coast California has a perfect climate for olives. The growers are using cultivars from Spain (especially the arbequina) but also from Tuscany. And there's the detail that the "Mission" and Manzanilla have been cultivated here for more than 400 years. The great majority of olive ranchers here are small producers so the flavors can vary greatly from year to year. The larger ones will blend for a more consistant flavor. And please don't mention the word EVOO to me ever! It's my job to know this stuff.
Catherine Faris
on: 7/6/13
I loved your tour of Italian regional tomato sauces--absolutely right on point! It goes without saying that the residents of said regions are convinced that their version reigns supreme. Yet as with most things, diversity makes for a richer, more varied palate. Re. the comment that asserts the absolute superiority of California olives/olive oils, I would argue that there is room in the marketplace for outstanding representatives from a variety of origins.
Dee Kaufman
on: 7/7/13
Most people who cook and are interested with food, including myself, would always choose, whenever possible, fresh, local ingredients. This new "farm to table' is a bit silly...it was ALWAYS farm to table from the beginning of time! It is only in recent times with refrigerator trucks, airplanes, etc. that we would ship food long distances and so be able to have fresh strawberries in winter months in cold climates and so on. It has been advances in transportation and food storage that have allowed this. But in season and with very little time between picking or catching and serving, most things taste substantially better. True. Definitely the way to go. BUT if you are talking about canned tomatoes...I suspect that for a big market such as the east coast from Maine to Miami, the 'carbon footprint' for cans from California vs. cans from Naples, Italy is not at all significant. We are talking about roughly 3,000 miles vs. 4,400 miles. I don't think we need lose too much sleep over buying real San Marzano tomatoes with regard to the 'carbon footprint'.
Julia della Croce
on: 7/7/13
I'm talking out of of both sides of my mouth here, I know, but in light of what has brought about global warming (our petroleum-heavy lifestyles), I do think about what I buy in terms of carbon footprint. E.g. all that petroleum (related wars, all of it...) just to move suchlike as bottles of water around... But we are not moving around as many cans of tomatoes or wheels of cheese as bottles of water, are we?
pierino
on: 7/7/13
I believe Julia has more to say on the subject of California olive oils so, at her request I'm adding these further notes. I love the subject of California olive oils, in fact I'm almost messianic about it. Beginning with the larger producers I like California Olive Ranch. They consistantly deliver good flavor and they actually made the Saveur 100 last year. Pasolivo put my region on the map, again they are large enough that Zingerman's carries their stuff. Paso Robles is better known for its wines but there are some great small producers here. A personal favorite is Olio Nuevo. The guy who makes it has become kind of a friend and mentor. Art Kishiyama has only 10 acres and raises three types of olives. He does no mechanical harvesting and produces only 7,000 bottles. He has an amazing history. His family was interned during WWII and he was the first baby born at the LA County Fairground when it was used as an assembly center for the camps. I wrote this up for my blog http://eggsinpurgatory.blogspot.com/2012/09/terroir.html. The other local producer I like quite a lot is the Robbins family's label "Fandango". They do a number of styles. But I think the most popular and successful imported cultivar is arbequina. From up in Napa I like McEvoy and Talcott too. Not all California oil is great, some of it is pretty bland. I love that big punch in the mouth style. One of my best friends grew up in Rome and now lives in Assisi. He took me to an olive press out in the boonies of Umbria where the locals took their olives to be milled. The first thing that hits you is that overwhelming smell of ripe olive. It has stayed with me ever since. That's what I look for when I taste oils. I prefer strong and complex to wimpy. When you taste a really good oil there's a delayed reaction. Hopefully you get that pepper finish at the back of your palate after a second or two. It's very much like tasting good wine. Or wonderful tomatoes.
Deborah Dal Fovo
on: 7/11/13
Love your work Julia and thank you for tackling the misuse of the term 'marinara' to describe a simple tomato sauce head-on. As an Italian chef and cooking instructor, this is probably the biggest (and most puzzling) misconception about Italian food that seems to have stuck in the minds of most. Hopefully your well-written article will help to chip away at the problem. The recipe is lovely and your article informative. Grazie!
Julia della Croce
on: 7/11/13
You're welcome, Deborah. It's a pleasure, indeed.
Andy
on: 7/12/13
Thanks that was a neat article. I like the explanations for the different regions of Italy. Garlic vs onion, butter or no butter etc.
Caterina Shyne
on: 7/18/13
So fitting to read this amazing article on San Marzano tomatoes, Marinara sauce, and the simple pomodo sauce. Would love to talk to you further, about my passion. Would love share my idea by e-mail Looking forward for your response Grazie, Caterina
Julia della Croce
on: 7/18/13
With a name like yours, Caterina, I'm sure you have plenty to say about the topic and I would love to hear from you again. You can write to me here so that other readers can benefit from your experience. Thank you very much for writing to me. JdC
David W.
on: 8/1/13
I had the benefit of making this sauce, and I must recommend to all you readers: If you want to know what authentic Italian tastes like, you have to make this at home. Please, please try it out. It's a strange, happy thing when something that requires so little effort results in such a great dish. The outcome is a light, almost fruity, delicious, authentic Italian dish. The tomatoes are key, and they were very easy to find (I went to Whole Foods in Raleigh, NC). I tried a bit of them raw before I added them, and they really are qualitatively different than other tomatoes; please use them. I don't think I'll ever buy another tomato again if I don't have to. Buy them in the glass jar if you can; it makes a difference.
Dee Kaufman
on: 8/2/13
This is IT. This is the recipe I've always wanted and never had, not being blessed with an Italiangrandmother. I wanted one go-to recipe for Italian tomato sauce and this one is perfect. ("Perfect" meaning exactly the taste I was looking for as though it had come from the Italian grandmother I never had!) I made a double batch and served it two days running to two groups of friends (including one who did have an Italian grandmother) and everyone just loved it. And of course I used real San Marzano tomatoes! Thank you so much. I will go in my book of recipes to repeat.
paolo
on: 8/26/13
real san marzano tomatoes www.danicoop.com
Julia della Croce
on: 8/27/13
Thanks for writing with this link, Paolo. For readers' information, Paolo Ruggiero heads Danicoop, a cooperative for San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes, located in Salerno, the heart of the San Marzano tomato production area. The website is a terrific source of information about the San Marzano D.O.P. tomato, with an English translation.
Mohssen Farhat
on: 10/6/13
Nara in Arabic is a sweet fruit. Tomato was considered a fruit in europe ages ago. Thus Mare+nara= the fruit which could be taken to see for many uses.
Victoria Gimbel
on: 10/9/13
Can this recipe be doubled and if so what adjustments should be made to either the ingredients or the technique? I usually cook for both vegetarians and nonvegetarians, so two batches are needed!
Julia della Croce
on: 10/9/13
So interesting. The Arabs, of course, were the first to make dried pasta, in Sicily. Perhaps it was they, then, who named the iconic sauce and it became "marinara" ?
Toni Whitten
on: 2/14/14
Very interesting article. My mother always said marinara sauce is a "minute" sauce. We always saute onion, garlic, basil, oregano, a little crushed red, and black pepper. Add tomatoes and heat through. Simple and fantastic. Thank you for the good read.
Julia della Croce
on: 2/14/14
I think your mother's sauce is the classic salsa di pomodoro con basilica, made in minutes, yes, if you are using those splendid genuine Italian tomatoes. They hardly need any cooking.
SOOLMAZ
on: 2/25/14
i m looking for a company in Italy to buy some color food from. please help me in this case if you have ant information about it. my email address: soolmaz.emadi@yahoo.com
Dom
on: 5/18/14
After years of searching for the holy grail of Italian tomato sauces I believe I have just stumbled across it. I have just made this sauce today but using good quality tinned Spanish plum tomatoes as I live in Spain and can't get hold of the San Marzanos here. It's amazing!! The best tomato sauce I have ever made. The taste, texture and aroma is divine. I'm looking forward to splashing it over some pasta tonight for my dinner. Thank you so much for this recipe. I'm in heaven right now!
Julia della Croce
on: 6/17/14
I'm so happy to find your message, Dom. Yes, a good recipe is a great gift.
LP
on: 8/5/14
I've been looking for a traditional recipe to use with my homegrown Organic San Marzanos that we grow every year on our Iowa farm using an organic dry farming method. We actualyl grow all the ingredients on your recipe so it seems like the perfect fit. i'll let you know if it turns out as good at most here say it is!
Matt
on: 8/19/14
Hi Julia, I'm weird with textures, and I really love a very smooth tomato sauce. As such, I love to make my sauce in a food processor, to get everything mixed uniformly. I know you mention to not use a processor, but what do you think? Does it make a huge difference?

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