Tomato Sauce (PART 1)

I dove into the Tomato Sauce post and it got large fast. I have broken this down to a 3 part blog series. If you enjoy this first dissertation, subscribe here to be the first to know when the next two parts are released. 

The upcoming posts will expand on the uses of the Classic Tomato Sauce using the below recipe as a foundation to make other dishes. 

Thank you and without further ado: 

As an Italian American I always took for granted that tomato sauce was part of our diet. Depending on where you live in the USA it may go by other names: gravy, red sauce, marinara. Definitions range on these sauces and the correct application of them. 

Two pivotal things made me reevaluate the humble tomato sauce. 

The first pivotal exploration of tomato sauce was culinary school. Tomato sauce is actually one of the base sauces you learn, called Mother Sauces. There are 5 Mother Sauces in total: Bechamel, Veloute, Espangole, Hollandaise, and Tomato. When French cuisine was formalized these five sauces were the foundation of cooking. Every culinary student, and very ambitious home cooks, learn to master these sauces so that they can be modified to create more complex sauces to compliment the final dish. 

Tomato sauce is often overlooked from its more prominent Bechamel and Hollandaise. It lacks the heavy cream, eggs, butter, and/or roux associated with French cuisine and is always placed last in the memory of students.  Tomato sauce is in good company being a foundational base sauce and I will give three recipes/instructions on how to utilize tomato sauce in the next 2 parts of this series.

My second real look at tomato sauce was during my travels to Italy.  Of course when you step foot on the land of the Romans you anticipate eating past and red sauce. We did, of course, at restaurants but it wasn't until we were welcomed into the home of a bona fide Italian grandmother that we learned how Italians make it. Americans use a lot of garlic and herbs in their sauce. The Italians use very limited amounts of garlic, onion and herbs. The tomatoes are cooked in season, and when possible, preserved at peek season and prepared simply with a half of an onion and a sprinkle of garlic. 

When I spoke to first or second generation Italian Americans it made more sense why there was a disconnect between Italians and Italian American on this staple recipe. Italians  came over to the US as immigrants fleeing from a crumbling economic system surrounded by violent corruption. When they arrived, they had nothing but the clothes on their back and started out working low level jobs. As their foothold grew and they became more prosperous, Italians started displaying this higher status in their cooking by using more spice and a heavier hand with items that normally would have been stretched further a generation past. 

Let's touch on a few terms as I understand them from both culinary school and travel:

Marinara is a plain tomato sauce and should be served WITH seafood. Serving marinara sauce with mozzarella sticks would be a technical no-no in Italy. The "red" clams that people are a fan of is the perfect example of correct usage of the marinara sauce - cook your clams in a classic tomato sauce and serve with the fish. I would not turn down a dippy chunky marinara for my mozzarella stick guilty pleasure, but this is not what it is intended for. 

Gravy or Sunday Sauce in the USA is typically a meat centric sauce cooked all day over the stove. In central PA where I am now this is often a mix of beef and pork but can also have sausages simmered in it.  Where I grew up in Northeast Ohio, my grandmother simmered spare ribs and meatballs in her sauce. Both families will remove the meat and serve it on the side. Since my grandmother is first generation Italian American, this is a very common choice of meat because spare ribs were an inexpensive cut and creates a beautiful flavor. However, in Italy, there is very little to be found in the stew-like meals that Italian Americans are accustomed to. The closest thing I can correlate is the very regional Bolognese sauce. Ground meat is cooked down with finely chopped onion, celery, and carrot with a touch of chopped tomatoes and simmered for hours. This classic sauce makes sense to how Italian Americans developed the "Sunday Sauce" here. The meat was found as reasonably as possible and simmered all day just like Bolognese, but the canned tomatoes are more abundant and therefore bulk up this meal much more than the original version. Both are great sauces but they have split a bit to make their own names. 

Come back from the rabbit hole.....

Below is my Basic Tomato Sauce recipe. This is something that is made in 30 minutes or so in a large saute pan. It is meatless and can make 6-8 servings depending on your application. 


3 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion - chopped

2 garlic cloves - smashed

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes 

3 sprigs of thyme

salt to taste

28 oz can crushed tomatoes

1tsp red wine vinegar 


1. Heat your oil in a large saute pan

2. Add your onions and allow to start to sweat, put your garlic on top of the cooking onions to prevent it from burning

3. Add your red pepper flakes, thyme, and a generous sprinkle of salt. Let this cook down until the onions are soft and translucent. Mind your heat, we are not trying to overly brown anything. 

4. Add your crushed tomatoes and vinegar. Allow to reduce and merry flavors for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally and turn the heat down if it boils out at you. 

5. Taste for seasoning, adjust as needed. 

~at this point you can keep a chunky/rustic tomato sauce~

6. If you want a smooth sauce, place the sauce in a blender and puree down to smooth. Add a tablespoon of olive oil if you want to help develop a velvety texture. 

7. Use this as a sauce itself on pasta or as an ingredient as I will explain in more detail in the next two posts about tomato sauce. 

I hope you found this interesting and if you haven't made a tomato sauce at home you will give it a try.

Alternatively, if you want sauce but not the work, Di Rosco Arrosticini sells it as a provision that can be kept on hand. Contact us to place a pre-order. 

#italianamerican #centralpa #tomatosauce #sundaysauce #moltobene

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