Tomato Sauces

Here are some basics, such as how to make a tomato sauce, that you can refer to when you are in a hurry.

The Basics: Tomato Sauce or… Sugo di Pomodoro!

Nothing could be more basic than the classic sugo or salsa di pomodoro and no dish has more variations and subtle differences in taste and texture. My mother’s sugo is slightly differently from mine as well my sisters’, my cousin’s, my grandmothers’ and so it goes. Much of this variation has to do not only with the tomatoes, the olive oil or butter, but how long one cooks the sauce, a pinch of this or that, the love one lavishes upon its creation!

It is important to have a good go-to sugo di pomodoro that fits the need of whatever particular dish you are preparing. One type of sugo cannot be replaced with another type. For example, you cannot or should not substitute a sugo di pomodoro al burro (with butter) in a Pasta alla Norma that requires garlic and olive oil. It changes the nature and flavor of the dish. Believe it or not, some basic rules apply to the type of tomato sauces you create.

  1. Tomato sauces fall into two basic categories: One with garlic and olive oil, the other with onion, butter, and olive oil. The two are distinctive in flavor and purpose. Yes, I understand that sometimes garlic and onion can be cooked together in the same sauce and be delicious, but the end result does not complement the type of pasta or the other flavors in the dish. It’s confusing to the palate!
  2. Always remember the rule of three! That means three spices…and that includes salt and pepper. Simplicity is at the heart of a good sugo di pomodoro. Avoid overloading with too many conflicting flavors! Choose basil or oregano…but not both.
  3. Keep it light! Be careful not to overload with too much butter or oil. A little goes a long way, especially if you using the sauce in a dish that has other components like lasagne.
  4. Don’t overcook. Most sauces require 10-20 minutes at the most – or as long as it takes to get the pot of water boiling and the pasta cooked! Caramelization, the browning of the sugars in the sauce, gives the sauce its robustness and depth. You want to reduce the sauce until it browns a bit before you add more water to gain the right consistency. This is what gives my sauce a different flavor than my sister’s.
  5. Use good ingredients, yes. But that does not have to mean expensive or rare. Sometimes using canned tomatoes is preferable to fresh ones simply because you have more control over acidity, water content, flavor and texture. An heirloom tomato does not give much flavor because it has a high water content and it disintegrates into nothing. In fact, in Italy certain tomatoes are designated for cooking, such as a San Marzano (which has solid pulp), and others for insalata (generally unripe ones with green overtones), or eating in a salad. Lastly, avoid store-bought tomatoes altogether as they have no flavor at all.

Simplicity is the key point in making a good sauce that will complement whatever dish, pasta type, or other ingredients. Ok – having said all that, let’s have a go at all the different types of tomato sauces that form the basis of many dishes in Italian cuisine.

Prepping the Tomatoes

Before you start cooking, decide what kind of texture you desire, chunky or smooth. My husband doesn’t like the chunky texture, so I puree the tomatoes in my food processor ahead of time before adding them to the pan. If you are using fresh tomatoes, you may want to take the skins off when you are prepping your ingredients. Bring some water in a pan to boiling or almost boiling and turn off the heat. With a sharp knife make a small X on the bottom of the tomatoes and drop them in for 10-20 seconds or until you see the skin begin to peel back. Scoop the tomatoes out of the water and don’t allow them to cool. Work fast to core, peel, then cut the tomatoes in half. Gently squeeze the seeds and dice them finely or coarsely according to your need. Now you are ready to use them as you wish!

Aglio, Olio, e Pomodoro (Garlic, Oil, and Tomatoes)

Nothing can be simpler or faster (veloce) than this sauce for people on the go. In fact, the even simpler version to leave the tomatoes out completely (and so the sauce becomes aglio, olio e peperoncino!) fast that this is what Italians make with spaghetti for an impromptu feast at midnight with friends.


1-2 cloves garlic

2-3 Tablespoons olive oil, or enough to coat the bottom of the saucepan

1 8 oz can diced or finely diced tomatoes or 1-1 ½ Cups fresh

red pepper flakes (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

I like to use a wide-brimmed pan such as an 8-9 inch sauté pan with a 1-1 ½ inch side rather than a regular 2 quart sauce pan. I learned this from my mother who told me the sauce would cook faster and more evenly. I also like to drain the pasta slightly undercooked and throw it into the sauté pan to give it another minute or two of cooking with the sauce.


  1. Heat the pan and add the olive oil. Coat the bottom, 2-3 tablespoons – or how you like it. Optional: Add some red pepper flakes to unleash the favor. Let them sizzle slightly.
  1. Add the garlic. Now here is where Italians differ in their approach. If you like the taste of garlic, chop it finely and add it to the heated oil. Many Italians don’t like to taste the garlic so heavily and some dishes require no obvious presence of it. In this case, add the whole clove (or cloves), allow it to turn golden, squeeze it a bit with a fork to release its flavor, then discard it. Whatever you choose to do, don’t burn the garlic!
  1. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, about half a cup of water and cook at medium high heat for about 10-20 minutes. Stir occasionally and let it caramelize a bit, adding a little additional water if you see it drying out or if you need the sauce to cook a little more. The sauce is done when it has a fairly thick consistency, making sure there isn’t a watery residue. The resulting sauce should not look like it has been poured out of a can. And it should not be overcooked either by looking too dark and bitter tasting.

Serves 4-5 or 1 lb of pasta.

Well…What kind of pasta?

This is a good question. The garlic-based sugo originally came from the South of Italy where pasta was primarily made from durum wheat. Sauces are generally simple and sometimes spicy with the addition of the peperoncino. Generally speaking, the garlic-based tomato sauce works best with short and thin pastas like penne (but not rigatoni – too thick) or spaghetti. Egg-based pastas like tagliatelle or fettuccine all’uovo are not appropriate for this type of sauce. The aglio-olio-pomodoro sugo pairs well with vegetables, olives, light cheeses such as mozzarella and ricotta, and fish or shellfish, not heavy cheeses like gorgonzola and fontina (Northern cheeses) or beef.

Sugo Semplice – Burro, Cipolla e Pomodoro (Butter, Onion and Tomato)

The other classic tomato sauce- made with butter, onion, and tomato – is used as a foundation to so many dishes such as lasagne, pasta al forno, and so on. I never was more confused than when I came to the States and heard the term “marinara”. This means “having to do with the sea” or seafood….If you order Pasta alla Marinara in Italy, you will get a seafood pasta with shellfish. Here is another basic sauce, one that is so simple, versatile, and quick.


1 medium sized onion or ¾ Cup finely diced onion

2-3 Tablespoons olive oil

1-2 Tablespoons butter

1 8 oz can diced or finely diced tomatoes or 1-1 ½ Cups fresh

salt and pepper to taste

Optional: fresh or dried basil

  1. Heat the pan and add the olive oil. Coat the bottom, 2-3 tablespoons – or how you like it. Add the butter and melt quickly with a sizzle.
  1. Add the onions and sauté lightly until golden brown. Once the onions have become golden, add the tomatoes (diced or pureed), stir, add half a cup of water, salt and pepper. During the winter months, add dried basil if you like the taste. Lower the heat to medium low and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water if the sauce becomes too dry and needs more time to reduce. Optional: In the summer months, julienne some fresh basil and add it to the sauce once the cooking is completed, otherwise it will turn black and lose its flavor.

Serves 4-5 people or “condisce” (sauces) 1 lb of pasta.

Try this sugo with the following recipe which brings back all kinds of memories of eating this at home, at the beach on summer evenings, or coming home from school. with my family and children in general. It is called Pasta alla Nasona, “nasona” meaning big nose. I’m not quite sure why it is called this way except to think that because the cheese in this dish runs loose and stringy, well… you get the picture!

Pasta alla Nasona

1 lb pound of rigatoni

8 oz fresh mozzarella diced or shredded Monterey Jack

Optional: fresh basil

Bring a large pot of fresh water to boil. In the meantime, make the sauce. When the water begins to boil, add salt (be generous), and bring the water to a boil again before throwing in the pasta. Cook until “al dente”, drain the pasta retaining half a cup of the cooking water. Place in a large bowl, add the sauce and the cheese and stir until the cheese begins to melt. Add the water a little at a time as needed. Add basil if desired, give it one more stir, and serve. Pass the parmigiano around to those who want an extra zip to the dish!

The butter-based sugo di pomodoro is the heart and soul of many dishes such as Melanzane alla Parmigiana, but it is not the only way the sugo is prepared. Remember Anna’s sugo? Here it is!

 Sugo di Anna

1 medium sized onion or ¾ Cup finely diced onion

1 large carrot diced finely

1 celery diced finely

2-3 Tablespoons olive oil

1-2 Tablespoons butter

1 8 oz can diced or finely diced tomatoes or 1-1 ½ Cups fresh

salt and pepper to taste

  1. Begin as you would in the recipe with butter and onions, only add the carrots and celery once the onion is slightly golden. Proceed in the same way with the rest. The resulting sauce is sweet and buttery because of the carrots and celery. Delicious on thin spaghetti with plenty of grated parmigiano!

Here is a variation of the sauce above. This one is convenient when you have a bumper crop of fresh tomatoes. My cousin Marianna makes her sauce this way because it keeps well and contains practically no fat. It is always ready for all kinds of uses.

Salsa di Pomodoro

2 lbs of fresh tomatoes, unpeeled and cut into quarters

1 large carrot peeled and chopped in chunks

1 -2 stalks celery chopped

1 medium onion peeled and cut into chunks

a drizzle of olive oil


Take all the vegetables and put them all at once in a pot with tall sides, salt lightly, add half a cup of water, and drizzle with a little olive oil. Cook over medium heat until all the vegetables have softened and reduced, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. Cool until easy to manage. Pass the sauce through a sieve or food mill until smooth and silky. At this point you can add basil. Use the sauce with spaghetti or short pasta like rigatoni. Or you can use the sauce for other dishes – top spinach and ricotta-filled crepes, fried eggplant slices, zucchini boats…the list goes on!

Salsa Cruda

And lastly, one of my family’s favorite! This sauce made with fresh tomatoes has a rich history and has become popular with all sorts of variations in the United States. Spaghetti made with this sauce became known in my area as Spaghetti alla Petrolini after a famous Roman comedian who probably was the first to make this dish popular. In our family as I was growing up, it became known as Spaghetti alla Mondezzara, or “Garbage-style” as it was infamously dubbed by one of our family friends by the name of Gaetano, an incredibly thin doctor with a hilarious sense of humor. Eating raw tomatoes in pasta was something of a novelty back in the late sixties….the notion of putting raw tomatoes, basil, and olive oil together as a sauce probably struck Gaetano as a funny way to cook and serve spaghetti. But he loved it as we did! I don’t know how many kilos of pasta we ate in those days!


For this sauce, you must use only fresh tomatoes from the garden or farmer’s market. The tomatoes need to be ripe, a dark red, preferably firm.

1-2 lbs. tomatoes (5-6 medium)

3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

1-1 ½ cups olive oil

A handful of fresh basil, julienned

Salt and pepper

1 lb thick spaghetti

Ideally this sauce should be made early in the day so the flavors can blend and marinate. However, I have made it at the last moment and it works well as a last minute sauce. Quickly peel the tomatoes after you have put them in a bath of hot water and then gently squeeze out the seeds. Chop the tomatoes coarsely and put them in a large bowl. Add the garlic, basil, olive oil, salt, and pepper. When you add the olive oil, go easy, stirring the tomatoes, crushing them slightly. The olive oil should be enough to coat the pasta well, but not be too greasy (so you may not need as much as I stated above). Add plenty of salt (start with a teaspoon) and pepper. The tomatoes have a tendency to water down the flavor – so don’t be afraid to season the sauce well. Cover the bowl and let the ingredients marinate. Cook the spaghetti according to package instructions, drain well, and add to the bowl. Stir and serve!






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