Traditional Italian Tomato Sauce

When Americans think of Italian tomato sauce, they think “Marinara.” However, few know that in the country of Mamma Mia and Mandolino, marinara is not a plain tomato condiment, but rather a “marine” sauce (hence the name) which contains mussels as a main ingredient — making it therefore a specialized seafood dish rather than the universal basis for so much Italian cooking. 

In any case, neither marinaras is the real deal when it comes to traditional Italian, simple but delicious tomato sauce — the one that can be used on pasta dishes on its own or as the basis for more complex concoctions.  

So, without any further ado, here is the “real” Italian tomato sauce.

Ingredients for 4 people:

One half fresh onion (medium size)

400 gr. unseasoned tomato puree. The best is of course that obtained from straining real vine-ripened tomatoes, but there are some commercial brands that work well. My favorite ready-made puree is the Pomi’ brand–but make sure you get the tomato-only, without the garlic or other seasonings. Hunt’s or Contadina sauce also work OK.

4-5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Take the half onion, cut it in two quarters and break these into large pieces. Place in a saucepan with the olive oil and sautee over medium-low heat until golden brown, turning frequently with a wooden spoon. Then remove all the onion from the saucepan, after pressing each piece with the spoon against the inside of the pan to release its delicious humor. Discard the onion.

Add the tomato puree and three pinches of salt, stir and let simmer for approximately ten minutes. Ensure that the sauce does not become too thick by adding a few tablespoons of water if needed.  Add freshly-ground pepper if desired. 

The resulting sauce is a smooth, red creme, extremely light in taste and equally easy on the digestive system. The absence of garlic and other strong tastes makes it blend fantastically with most other flavors: you can enjoy it on pasta, rice, gnocchi, tortellini and ravioli with any filling — or even on a fresh ball of mozzarella with a pinch of oregano.

Italians take as much pride in the taste of their home-made pasta as they do in their sauces, and this simple tomato sauce is discrete enough not to overwhelm even the delicate taste of a good egg-noodle. Now, THAT’S real Italian cuisine philosophy.




10 comments on “Traditional Italian Tomato Sauce

  1. Chris says:

    Interesting. Would this sauce generally be eaten unmodified most of the time, or would it be more typically used as a base for variation? If so, what would typical variants be, and served with what?

    Katie and I are big fans of polenta and gnocchi. She likes pasta, though I’m pretty lukewarm on it (though I admit I like fresh egg pasta real well, but I rather despise the typical dry stuff)

    Any comment on the tomato/tuna sauces?

    Also, any thoughts on what Giada De Laurentiis does on “Everyday Italian”, other than look absolutely stunning?

    Great post – thanks for the contribution.

  2. Barbaresco says:


    This sauce is indeed eaten unmodified very often.

    Among some of the popular modifications are the addition of ground meat (which makes it ragu’), the addition of various spices and flavors such as garlic, rosemary or even mushrooms. Speaking of polenta, the addition of pre-sauteed or pre-boiled cubes of meat or chicken makes the renown Spezzatino, which is one of the absolute best accompaniments for polenta.

    I don’t have any experience with the tomato/tuna sauces, because the only thing I like coming out of the water is a modern-day Naiad in a cute bathing-suit. So, sorry, I am totally unqualified to comment on seafood.

    And I am not quite up to speed with Giada De Laurentiis’ program… I learned all my cooking from my mother and my maid–both fantastic cooks.

    I’ll post more of my favorites shortly.


  3. barbaresco says:


    Yes, this sauce is most often eaten unmodified. It’s the “sure thing” that everyone will like: 100% vegetarian, no strong flavors, super-lean, blends with justabout everything.

    Among the most popular (at least in my region of Italy) ways to modify it are the addition of various herbs and flavors in the sautee — including garlic, carrots, various kinds of mushrooms — and of course the addition of ground meat, which makes it ragu’.

    Speaking of polenta, if you preboil or pre-sautee some cubes of good meat or chicken and then simmer them in this sauce, you essentially make spezzatino, one of the most delicious accompaniments to the “piatto da re” (polenta is called a King’s Dish).

    Sorry I cannot be of help about your next two questions. The only thing I like coming out of the water is a modern-day Naiad in a well-fitting bathing-suit, so I don’t have an opinion about pasta with tuna. Also, it’s been so long since I’ve seen Giada’s show that I don’t have any real “intelligent” thoughts on it. 😉


  4. Chris says:


    For some unknown reason wordpress swallowed these comments and I just now discovered them in the wordpress spam-bin – so I’ve restored them both. Hopefully it won’t swallow them in the future. I was afraid if I didn’t restore both comments it might decide it was still spam, and swallow future comments.


    I can’t believe you don’t like seafood, living on the coast and all. I’ll trade you the coast for NW Kansas any day 🙂

    Now… about this sauce recipe. You say to discard the onion. Why? Is it about sauce consistency and wanting a smooth puree texture un-encumbered by chunks, or is there something else going on?

  5. Chris says:


    Just as an FYI – Katie and I made the sauce per your instructions on Saturday evening. We found the Pomi’ brand tomatos at World Market, a “Cost Plus” venture.. Anyway, they only had the chopped tomatos or the “marinara” sauce, so we bought the chopped and turned them into puree with the food processor.

    I love how this sauce really sticks to the pasta well (we mixed a bit of the pasta water into the sauce to thin it and make it grippy), and seemed to soak into the spaghetti a little as well. We made meatballs based on a Giada de Laurentiis recipe, and they were good, but something of a pain in the arse to make. We minced the cooked onion from the sauce and added it into the meatballs, which both helped the flavour and gave the a wonderful soft texture.

    I like the basic sauce, though I suspect I’d like it better with about 1/2 of the onion minced fine and added into the sauce, with a clove of garlic and a dash of oregano and parsley.

    The pomi’ tomatos are lovely, and don’t have any of the odd flavours I associate with some of the canned varieties.

    All in all though, it really was a very nice sauce that we’ll certainly be making again.

  6. barbaresco says:

    I’m glad you liked it. Sure, you can definitely add spices or flavors as you like–that’s the beauty of this basic sauce. Want to make a garlicky dish? Add garlic–but if the garlic was already there (or any other stronger flavor), you’d need to “deconstruct” it.

    If you don’t want to go through the same ordeal, I think that Hunt’s tomato sauce is a good substitute.

    Incidentally, if you ever take home a left-over filet from a restaurant and don’t want to reheat it plain, gently boil it in this sauce for about 15 minutes, adding plenty of oregano, and you have what we call a Pizzaiola steak. And if you have polenta, the better. 😉


  7. Chris says:

    Pizzaiola steak sounds interesting, though I’d probably end up doing it with sirloin or ribeye.. I don’t much care for filet – I’ve always found it a bit mushy and not all that tasty. That said, I’ve got a relative who raises cattle, and my parents used to buy a half or split half every couple years, and thus I got used to some of the less common cuts early on. (Things like shoulder/”flat iron” steaks, etc).

    Speaking of polenta, Katie and I made fried polenta sticks alla Giada last weekend – they were quite interesting, and as she says, way better than French Fries.

  8. barbaresco says:

    …and way healthier.

  9. Melina says:

    very interesting. i’m adding in RSS Reader

  10. Ned Benson says:’s done it once again. Amazing post.

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