Some call it sauce, and those that call it gravy are wrong. I’ll get some flack for taking a position in this Italian-American debate, but that’s what I grew up calling it.
In Italy, it’s called ragu (for a meat sauce) and salsa (for a simple tomato sauce without the meat) or even sugo, which is sometimes a meat sauce and sometimes a sauce made with tomatoes (no meat). Confused? Don’t worry about it. The important thing is that you make a delicious sauce and that it complements the dish you are making.
Here are three authentic Italian tomato sauce recipes that I’ve acquired over the years. I’ve put them here in reverse chronological order.
- Sauce For Modern Italians: First is the one from my cousins in Italy who still make this today. I call this the one from modern Italians. It contains no meat and is made with carrots, celery, some tomato paste and a splash of wine. It’s a light sauce that’s good on most anything, particularly pasta or in dishes where you’re trying to cut calories but not flavor.
- Sauce For Italian-Americans: The second one is my mother’s recipe. I call this one the one from Italian-Americans. This is my basic sauce recipe. It’s a hearty sauce made with sausage and it too, is good on just about anything, especially chicken/eggplant/veal/beef parmigiano.
- Sauce From the Ancient World: And the third one is from the 19th century classic Italian cookbook, referred to as the Artusi. I call this recipe the one from the ancient world because Pellegrino Artusi travelled all over Italy collecting recipes that had been handed down from Nona to Nona over generations. It’s a very light sauce, that uses no meat, that is simple and quick to make. The biggest hassle with making this dish is peeling and de-seeding the tomatoes. It too can be used on just about anything, from macaroni to lasagna to esoteric dishes (more about that later).
1.) Carrot Sauce For Modern Italians
This is a red Italian sauce made with carrots that was one of my father’s favorites. He got the recipe from our cousins who live near the walled city of Lucca in Italy. It’s very low in calories, but I can assure you that none of them use this sauce in their favorite dishes because they are watching their weight.
I like to use this for my eggplant parmigiana light. My father used to make large batches of this and then freeze them in the refrigerator so they’d be handy to use when he needed them.
The carrots make this sauce naturally sweet so there’s no need to add sugar.
Carrot Sauce For Modern Italians
This is easier and faster to make if you use a food processor to chop up the carrots and celery. Below, the sauce on eggplant parmigiana light.
- 1 garlic clove (lightly crushed but kept whole)
- 1 onion (chopped fine in a food processor or by hand)
- 4 carrots (chopped fine in a food processor or by hand)
- 2 celery stalks (chopped fine in a food processor or by hand)
- 1-2 tablespoons of fresh chopped parsley
- 1/2 can of tomato paste
- 3 cups of water
- 1/2 cup of red wine
- 1/4 teaspoon of dried basil
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil
- Step 1 Heat olive oil in a sauce pan. Add garlic and onion and cook until translucent.
- Step 2 Add chopped carrots, celery, and parsley. Saute until soft, stirring often for about 15 minutes.
- Step 3 Add tomato paste and enough water to turn sauce orange (about 3 cups). Cook until water is reduced and sauce becomes thick (about 15 minutes). Stir often.
- Step 4 Add wine and cook for about another 10 minutes, stirring often. Add salt and pepper to taste, and basil.
This is my mother’s sauce recipe, altered slightly by me over the years with a nod to my cousin’s carrot recipe (above). However, I couldn’t tell you where her sauce ends and mine begins.
You can use this on just about anything but it’s especially good on chicken, veal, beef, or eggplant parmigiana. In fact, I credit the raves I get from my chicken parm with using this sauce.
Making a good tomato sauce is an art, not a science. You have to continuously taste it while it cooks and then decide if it needs a little more of this or little more of that. Sometimes it may need only a tsp. of basil, other times, it may need more than twice that. So what follows is a good guide, but follow your taste buds and have fun.
Tomato Sauce (Basic Recipe)
It's not difficult to make this sauce, but you do need to think about it and pay attention to the flavors by continuously tasting it.
- Large onion (1, chopped fine)
- Carrots (2, chopped fine) (optional)
- Celery (2 stalks, chopped fine) (optional)
- Italian sausages (2, sweet, not hot)
- Kitchen Ready Tomatoes (1 28 oz. can)
- Tomato Paste (1/2 – 1 small can, plus 1 small can of cold water)
- Olive oil (2-3 tbsp.)
- Salt, pepper, basil, oregano to taste. A shot of tabasco (optional)
- Splash of red wine (optional, about 1/4 cup)
- Sugar (optional, about 1/2 tsp.)
- Butter (1-2 tbsp)
- Nutmeg (just a speck, about 1/8th of a teaspoon.)
- Step 1 In a medium to large pot, cook the onions over medium-high heat in olive oil until translucent (not brown).
- Step 2 If desired, add the carrots and celery and cook until tender.
- Step 3 Crumble and add the sausages. Cook until brown.
- Step 4 Add the can of tomatoes. Stir, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides.
- Step 5 Add tomato paste and one can of water. Stir, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides.
- Step 6 Add spices and tabasco (if desired). Stir, making sure to scrape the bottom and sides.
- Step 7 Cook for about 20 minutes to 1/2 hour on low heat, partially covered, stirring occasionally.
- Step 8 Taste periodically and add more spices if necessary, but remember, the longer you cook it, the stronger the flavor of the spices will be.
- Step 9 Add the splash of red wine (optional) and stir. Cook for another 20 minutes to 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and if you like, you can add a 1/2 tsp. of sugar.
- Step 10 Turn the heat off and add the butter. Add the nutmeg and gently stir until the butter melts. Cover the pot and let it sit until you’re ready to use it.
This is sauce on a very minimalist level.
Just three ingredients: tomatoes, salt and pepper.
The recipe comes from the classic nineteenth-century Italian cookbook, the Artusi. Although it’s a bit more complicated and time-consuming than opening up a jar of sauce, it’s still pretty simple and quick to make. Most of the work is in peeling an de-seeding the tomatoes, but once that’s done, it’s a quick cinch. And it’s definitely worth the effort as it creates a very plain, simple tomato sauce that you can use in a variety of dishes.
I like to use it in this recipe that I picked from a restaurant in the south of France: Patata Ball in Tomato Sauce.
Sauce From the Ancient World (Quick Tomato Sauce)
It doesn't get any more authentic than this. From a classic nineteenth-century Italian cookbook. It's easy to make and worth the effort.
- Tomatoes (About 1 1/2 pounds, preferably Roma or plum tomatoes)
- Salt and pepper (Just a dash, to taste)
- Step 1 Blanch the tomatoes: that means drop them in boiling water for about a minute. This makes it easier to peel them.
- Step 2 Peel, de-seed and chop them.
- Step 3 Drop the tomatoes into a pot with just enough water to keep them from sticking to the bottom.
- Step 4 Simmer the tomatoes until done (About 20 minutes. No more than 30 minutes). Stir occasionally. And add salt and pepper.
- Step 5 STEP 5 Puree the tomatoes in a blender or food processor.
Bonus Sauce Recipe
And here’s a bonus sauce recipe, also from the Artusi (and similar to one above). It’s feature in a pasta dish called, “Neapolitan-Style Macaroni II”, but I simply call it “Easy Weeknight Pasta From the 19th Century”.