Tomato Sauce 101

FrankCampania, pasta, primi piatti, reference, sauces, Toscana57 Comments

Tomato Sauce 101

  I’m all for convenience when it actually makes life simpler. But it’s always been a mystery to me why people buy those jars of wretched “spaghetti sauce” that line our supermarket shelves, when you can make real tomato sauce with only a tiny bit more time and effort.

I suspect that many people are simply confused. When you mention tomato sauce, they automatically think of that Sunday sauceragù—that takes elaborate preparation and hours of simmering on the stove. But an everyday tomato sauce—sugo di pomodoro—can be ready in as little as 15 minutes. That’s less time than it will probably take to bring water to the boil and cook your pasta. And, for the simplest sauces, all you need are canned or fresh tomatoes, olive oil and a clove of garlic.

There are countless variations of sugo di pomodoro in Italian cuisine, but there is a standard technique. You start by making a simple flavor base or  soffritto by sautéing aromatic vegetables in olive oil, add tomato, salt and (if you like) a pinch of pepper, and simmer for 20-30 minutes. That’s it. Mostly the variations lie in the ingredients you choose for your soffritto and how long you let the sauce simmer.

So, without further ado, here are three “mother” sauces, together with two interesting recipes suggested by well-known Italian gastronomes, that you can use any time you feel like a nice bowl of pasta:

Standard sugo di pomodoro

This is probably the most common basic recipe in most of central and northern Italy, featured by Ada Boni in her classic Il Talismano della felicità and in countless other cookbooks:


(makes enough sauce to dress 4-6 servings of pasta)

For the soffritto:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Olive oil, quanto basta (q.b.) or according to taste (see Notes)

800g (28 oz.) tomatoes (see Notes)

Chopped parsley and/or basil


Sauté the soffritto ingredients in olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper, being careful not to brown the onions. (You can add a spoonful water from time to time to prevent browning and speed the cooking process.) When the vegetables are nice and soft, add the tomatoes and simmer gently for 20-30 minutes, until the sauce is well reduced and you can see the the oil and tomato have separated. If you like a smooth textured sauce, pass through a food mill. If you like it “chunky”, just use as is.


There are a good number of variations on this basic recipe, some of which are famous enough in their own right to merit their own names:

For a ‘sweeter’ tasting sauce, use butter instead of, or in combination with, the olive oil.

For a low-calorie version of this recipe, add the soffritto ingredients, raw, to the tomato without oil. Simmer together for 30 minutes and then pass through a food mill. Add a spoonful or two of olive oil at the end.

Sugo scappato (also known as sugo finto, from Tuscany): Add a sprig of fresh parsley, sage and rosemary to the soffritto. Add red wine and, if you like, beef broth to the soffritto before adding the tomatoes, letting each evaporate before adding the next. (This sauce is called sugo scappato, because it is made just like a sugo di carne, or meat sauce, without the meat which, as the name says, has ‘escaped’ (‘scappare‘ in Italian).

Pommarola: Use fresh tomatoes, raw aromatics in large pieces, and a good handful of basil leaves; simmer together for an hour or more, then pass through a food mill. (In some recipes, the olive oil is added to the pot, others will tell to leave it out, and only add raw oil to the pasta.)

Marinara Sauce

Here is probably the standard southern Italian tomato sauce, the one that Angelina and countless other southern Italian grandmothers made. This sauce is near and dear to the hearts of Italian-Americans, but all too often poorly made these days.


For the soffritto:
1-2 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed
A few basil leaves and/or chopped parsley (optional)
Olive oil, q.b. (see Notes)

800g (28 oz.) tomatoes (see Notes)


Sauté the garlic clove(s) in olive oil until just lightly browned. Remove the clove and add the tomato, salt and pepper. Simmer until done to your liking, as little as 10 minutes for a lightly cooked sauce, although 20-30 is standard. Add the basil leaves or chopped parsley, if using, towards the end of the simmering time added during cooking.


Put all the ingredients in together raw and simmer until done, removing the garlic before using. (This was Angelina’s technique.)

Use a tiny pinch of oregano instead of the parsley.

Chop the garlic instead of using it whole. In this variation, the garlic browns very quickly, so be ready to add the tomatoes right away. Burnt garlic is awfully bitter!

Make a soffritto by chopping the garlic together with the parsley and sautéing in olive oil; proceed from there.

Salsa di pomodoro alla napoletana (aka co’ ‘a pummarola)

This is the Neapolitan tomato sauce par excellence:


For the soffritto:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Olive oil (or lard), q.b. (see Notes)

800g (28 oz.) tomatoes (see Notes)
A few basil leaves


Sauté the onion in the olive oil (or lard) with salt and pepper. When the onion is soft and translucent, add the garlic and sauté for just a few moments. Then add the tomato and simmer for 20-30 minutes. Add the basil leaves a few minutes before the sauce is done.


Add some chopped parsley at the end.

The use of lard is typical of old-style cooking in the Campania region of Italy, of which Naples is the capital. Olive oil is not native to the region and was too expensive for most people. This sauce is typically served with spaghetti or vermicelli.

Giuliano Bugialli’s Fresh Tomato Sauce

Simmer fresh tomatoes with nothing at all for a good hour until well reduced. Pass through a food mill, then add a bunch of basil and simmer for a few minutes more. Remove the basil and serve. Add butter or olive oil to the pasta along with the sauce. Bugialli says this simplest of all tomato sauces is typical of Tuscany.

Artusi’s Maccheroni alla napoletana

Cut an onion into wedges, sauté in a mixture of olive oil and butter until very soft and beginning to fall apart. Remove the onion and add the tomatoes, together with some shredded basil leaves, salt and pepper. Add, together with more butter and grated parmesan cheese, to pasta (either long or short will do). [NB: Despite the name that Artusi gave to this dish, I very much doubt it is Neapolitan in origin.]


Of course, tomato sauce would be nothing without tomatoes. For an everyday use, especially when tomatoes are out of season, I use a large can of peeled tomatoes. (800g in the standard size is Italy, 28 oz. in the US). I take a handful of tomatoes out of the can and crush them with my fingers as I plop them in the saucepan. You can also just add them whole, and crush the tomatoes with the side of a wooden spoon as they cook.

For a smoother sauce, you can also use an equal amount of homemade or store-bought passata di pomodoro, or strained tomatoes or, indeed, the ‘crushed’ tomatoes that are much easier to find in the States, or you can pass canned tomatoes through a food mill into the pot.

Finally, in Naples, for making Sauce #3 they are fond of using concentrato di pomodoro (tomato paste) diluted in water. I’ve never tried this last option, as I am not much of a fan of tomato paste. Whichever option you choose, make sure to use the best quality you can find, preferably imported from Italy, and check the ingredient list on the can to make sure it does not contain calcium chloride. And if you can find tomatoes packed in juice rather than purée, all the better. For details, see my post Buying Canned Tomatoes.

Using fresh tomatoes

When tomatoes are at the peak of their season, you can (and should!) use fresh. Italians use a special kind of tomato that are called, appropriately enough, pomodori da sugo, or tomatoes for sauce. In  the US, use plum or Roma tomatoes—but be sure they are truly tasty or your sauce will suffer. Farmers markets are, of course, a god-send, although the very best insurance of quality is to grow them yourself.

The simplest way to use fresh tomatoes for sauce is to cut them up into chunks and let them ‘melt’ as they cook. You should pass the sauce through a food mill when it’s done to remove the skin and seeds. In the alternative, you can use homemade passata di pomodoro.  A bit more work, you can also peel the tomatoes beforehand; boiling them every so briefly loosens the skin and make the job infinitely easier. For a more intense flavor, instead of boiling, par-roast the tomatoes by briefly grilling or broiling them, or simply holding them over a gas flame with a fork until the skin begins to blister. Then cut the tomatoes open and remove the seeds with your fingers or a spoon before adding them to the saucepan.

Olive oil

The amount of olive oil is really up to you. Most recipes vary between 1/4 and 1/2 cup (50-100 ml) of oil for a large can of tomatoes, depending on how rich or light you like your sauce. Many people don’t measure at all, but just add as much olive oil as looks right, typically enough to cover the bottom of your saucepan.

The beauty of these simple tomato sauces is that they can dress just about any kind or shape of pasta. Of course, the southern sauces go best with factory-made pasta secca like spaghetti or penne, while the more delicate sauces go well with egg pastas like tagliatelle. But it’s fine to improvise.


Grated cheese, either parmesan or pecorino, is de rigueur as a topping for pasta with tomato sauce. But there are some people who will say that cheese does not belong on top of any dish that is based on garlic and oil. A nice variation, if you don’t care for cheese, is a bit of chopped parsley.

Other sauces

Of course, this little tutorial only begins the scratch the surface of the universe of tomato-based sauces in Italian cuisine. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve concentrated here on “pure”, cooked tomato sauces. Add some more ingredients, however, and you can go in many different directions. For example, if you start with a marinara sauce and add some hot pepper, you can make penne all’arrabbiata, add some anchovies and a few capers and you’ll have a puttanesca; add some canned tunafish and you’ll have a pasta al tonno. And so on, ad infinitum

57 Comments on “Tomato Sauce 101”

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  7. For a quick fresh tomato sauce I sometimes slice a few plum tomatoes lengthwise in half through the stem end, remove as many seeds as I can and grate them on a box grater using the medium holes on the side. Of course, the remaining skins are disposed of. Even the supermarket tomatoes one finds in winter taste pretty good using this method.

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  9. Invece in Campania esiste il sugo alle “vongole fujute”, invenzione del grande Eduardo De Filippo 🙂 in pratica è un sugo con pomodori, olio, aglio e prezzemolo che ha il sapore degli spaghetti alle vongole…ma senza vongole!
    Riguardo Artusi, hai ragione: il burro qui proprio no! 😀 la ricetta è giusta ma assolutamente niente burro nei piatti tradizionali di qui! pure il lardo però…chi lo usa più ormai?! Io sono napoletana e nella mia famiglia si usa solo olio extravergine di oliva. Tra l’altro, sempre nella mia famiglia, aglio per gli spaghetti e cipolla per la pasta corta…a volte insieme, ma dipende sempre dalla qualità dei pomodori, dal sapore!
    Comunque complimenti…bei piatti!
    Un saluto dall’Italia

    1. Mi piace tantissimo l’idea del sugo alle “vongole fujute”. Proverò a farlo… Grazie per il commento e per i preziosi consigli, Giusy! 🙂

  10. My grandmother was from Naples and we always made our sauce with pork fatback, never olive oil.

  11. Just curious if you use the juice that the whole tomatoes are in? I found some nice Italian tomatoes (Yay! for living in Germany!), and I made a sauce with the whole tomatoes. I added the juice that was in the can. I have searched for an answer and I can’t find one. Thanks!

  12. Hi there! An inexperienced cook just wondering what temperature I should cook everything at eg low heat high heat or full heat? Thanks!

    1. Whenver you see the words “simmer gently”, start with low heat. The sauce should bubble ever so gently—if not, raise the heat just a bit. It all depends on how strong a flame your stove/cooker has.

  13. Great posts – Q: How do you get the sauces that amazingly nice bright red – tried fresh, romas and only ever used Italian canned toms, tried paste etc …. never seems to get that bright deep result!

      1. I’ve never tried but I suppose you could— it’s so quick and easy, though, I’m not sure there would be any point, unless you were out to make it in bulk and sell it…

    1. There are so many possible variables that go into the ultimate color of a sauce. One thought: are you using a generous amount of olive oil? That’s a very common ‘mistake’ in making tomato sauce is skimping on the oil. The sauce will never turn out quite right otherwise. If you’re wary of the calories, you can always skim off excess oil when you’re done.

    1. Well, you might be surprised that garlic is not quite as ubiquitous in Italian cooking as many people believe! On the other hand, the standard southern sugo, which we call marinara, does have garlic. And that’s the one Americans know best…

  14. I personally have never used jar sauce and I can tell you one thing that would make me do that. There are cultures here were we live that love Ragu in a jar. If you make homemade they hate it and its insulting there fore if I had to do another pot luck here it would be jarred as they wished! I just saw this on G+ and just had to comment Happy New Year Frank!

  15. Rachel,

    Sorry for the late reply–this one slipped through the proverbial cracks! Anyway, a blender is fine if that's what you have on hand. I would recommend, though, that you get a food mill one of these days. They're not expensive at all and they provide a more interesting texture–not chunky, which I don't much like either, but not entirely smooth either. A sauce like that also does a better job of clinging to the pasta.

  16. I'm embarrassed that as much Italian cooking as I attempt (as a non-Italian), I had no idea a bona fide marinara was that simple. For jarred pasta sauce, I've found Amy's Organic Family Marinara has become my favorite…But at $7/jar, it's a bit expensive! I can spend half that for some decent canned tomatoes! I would ask, as one who doesn't own a food mill (yet) and who's not a fan of chunky sauces, when using fresh tomatoes, would it be okay to puree the sauce in a blender for a smoother texture, or try and pass through a sieve?

  17. I totally agree, making your own sauce is so quick and easy and tastes ten times better than those supermarket bought jars full of salt and sugar. Whether using fresh tomatoes in season or canned tomatoes in the winter.

  18. Back in my college days I dated an Italian man and he taught me how to make pasta sauce. It was so good and we would let it simmer overnight. Never in my life had I made such an incredible sauce. Somehow I've forgotten about that sauce until reading your post. I'm going to have to try and figure out how I made that again.

    However, I love all your variations. I'm definitely printing this off and saving it to use when making other recipes. Thank you for all the details. Each one sounds delicious!

  19. I'm not surprised. Kids these days can be such picky eaters, but I blame the parents more than I do the kids themselves. If you expose them to a variety of different foods their natural curiosity will do the rest.

  20. I'll have to try Hunt's one of these days, since it's a brand you can find just about anywhere in the US and I'm sure many readers would want to use that brand. The main issue—as you know—is the calcium chloride they put into the whole tomatoes, which prevents them from “melting” in the proper way. But the crushed might do fine.

    The amount of oil is a matter of personal taste but I love my sauce nice and rich!

  21. Absolutely. I like to vary my sauces depending on my mood. And everyone's sauce is a little bit different. That's one of the things that I love about home-cooking, it's personal!

  22. That reminds me of the time that I was in Moscow and made some fettuccine al doppio burro for some Russian friends, who proceeded to smother it in ketchup. Apparently a Russian custom…

  23. May I apply to be an honorary Italian? That marinara is my go-to pasta sauce. Though I love all of these variations … I think I need to mix it up a bit sometimes! Yum, yum, and yum.

  24. This is great, Frank. The world of sauce is deliciously broad! I just taught a sauce class to a group of high school kids in DC–we made simple tomato sauce, sauce with meatballs, mushroom “ragu” and tuna-tomato sauce. I wanted them to see how easy it is to make sauce from scratch, and how many different sauces are out there beyond “Sunday gravy” (wincing at that term). Guess which one they liked best–the one with tuna, capers, and anchovies! Which just goes to show you that kids DO have adventurous palates. Thanks for taking the time to explain the wonders of sauce. P.S. I share your distaste for most commercially canned tomato paste and use it sparingly–and never in tomato sauce. 🙂

  25. Oh Frank, thank you so much for posting this. I always make my own pasta sauces but have so much to learn. Your article is one I'll keep referring back to over and over again. Can't wait to start trying the sauces out. Grazie mille !

  26. this is so much for me to digest in one sitting (old age and sitter's cramp) but a valuable lesson and I thank you for taking the time to instruct… after reading your post a couple years back, I started buying Cento canned products, Momma always told us Hunt's had the best 'fresh' taste and so that is what I used to buy… it sure looks a rich red and in her recipes, I still use it, hey, I'm loyal to family, what can I say…
    interesting of the amount of oil, I do not use anywhere near that amount but will give it a go next time… thanks again Frank…

  27. A great explanation of all the variations Frank. Both my mother and my mother-in-law (native Italians) made terrific tomato sauces, but very different from each other. There are times and dishes that require either one or other and it's good to have a repertoire in your culinary warehouse.

  28. Franco, on behalf of Italians everywhere: Thank you. Don't forget to add the Roman soffritto: garlic, anchovies and hot pepper – yum!

    Next, de-bunking “pizza sauce”?!? Fine cooks everywhere: There is NO pizza sauce. It's just puree'd tomatoes no need to add extra cra.. er.. stuff. That's what the toppings are for!! Anyway, I'm sure you can make it sound much more academic and instructive. ; )



  29. My sister dated someone who announced at our Sunday dinner table that the secret to his tomato sauce was ketchup. That relationship did not last! I love the variations and have done most of them – depending on what is in the house. The soffritto makes all the difference. People must be returning to it because I have noted that minced onion and celery are now sold in packages in the produce aisle … for a price. But if it's Sunday, I'm all for simmering ragu for the day. It's not a lot of work – just a lot of simmering time.

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