A World Famous Tomato Sauce Recipe

Fall harvest is upon us and so begins the mad dash to use up the tomatoes in the garden. Every year at this time, after we have gorged ourselves on tomato sandwiches, had enough panzanella and caprese salad—there is a point where I think I could never have my fill of panzanella and caprese salad— but we do , the nights turn colder and we want substantial dishes.  Pastas, risottos, something stick to your ribs, in place of a crisp white, we decant a burly red.

Standing in the garden, all the fruit heavy on the vine, we see the culmination of all our efforts, the fruits of our labor. The buckets and bowls runneth over and the time has come to cook the remainders in sauce. There is no better pot of sauce than the one made with fresh summer tomatoes. If you haven’t had the experience this I implore you, try it or ingratiate yourself to a friend that practices this lovely ritual.

You will be the better because of it.

I always make two pots:  my Dad’s Marinara and Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. Much has been written about Marcella’s recipe, about its lusciousness, about the butters’ ability to tame the rowdy acid in the tomatoes, its rather racy, sultry quality and all of it true. It is the most blogged about, talked about tomato sauce recipe and it is one that I enjoy with unabashed pleasure.

Marcella introduced Americans to regional Italian cooking.  Her book the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is acclaimed as one of the best and most authentic Italian cookbooks and this recipe has the finesse of someone that has spent their life in the kitchen. No crazy gimmicks here, the recipe allows the star ingredient to dazzle. Tomato sauce in Italy is made with olive oil, yes but also lard and butter. This I learned from Marcella. Butter and cream is used typically in the North and I imagine it is there that you would find the roots of this recipe.

So to begin with you must seize the moment.  For it is only in this short window of time —when the tomato harvest is at its zenith —that you can make this sauce the way that it is intended. Gather the best tomatoes. If you have a garden in the back, those are the ones to use preferably plucked, and into to the pot in one fell swoop. If you buy the tomatoes at the farmers market you will need to use your instinct. Be sure to ask if they have been refrigerated, you do not want those. Refrigeration zaps the flavor. You want a tomato still warm and sweet from the sun.  Stick your nose in; it should have a wonderful fruity smell. Avoid at all costs the hot house charlatans, these imposters are peddled at the Farmers market too and are sorely lacking in flavor. I bought these beauties from the local farmer, I typically use all plum tomatoes but he suggested a variety of his best. I was game.

It is a simple recipe adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. It involves only a few simple ingredients including tomatoes, butter onion, bay leaves and salt. The only real work involved here is peeling the tomatoes. There are many methods to this madness, don’t over think it. Food52 has some great suggestions for peeling. Once peeled, chop them coarsely, drop in the onion, butter and bay leaves and a little salt then put the sauce on a quiet fire to bubble away.  Spaghetti is the classic choice but Marcella also empathically recommends potato gnocchi. Serve with grated parmigiano.

When saucing your pasta Marcella says to always finish with some cold butter or really good extra virgin olive oil. In this case be consistent, use butter. Montecare, as the Italians say finishing with fat provides sheen and you will see how the sauce lovingly clings. This bowl of pasta is round, rich and profoundly satisfying.  A summer tomato is a marvel of nature, of earth and sun and this sauce captures that essence. It is a culinary ode.  This is one to whip up when you want to ask for something, a new Vespa, propose a gap year in Casablanca, yielding the powers of this dish you will find—

beauty is a persuasive thing.

It brings to mind a statement made by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, “the Catholic Church is opposed to cloning, but an exception might be made in the case of Sophia Loren.” Case and point, beauty is a persuasive thing.