The real authentic Italian tomato sauce – Make from scratch one of the best pasta sauces in the world with just 5 ingredients.
Homemade Italian tomato sauce is as tasty as it is easy to make, and it’s the foundation of so many traditional Italian dishes.
Loved by kids and grown-ups, this classic pasta sauce is actually one of the 5 mother sauces in the culinary arts, which are the bases for all the other sauces.
What the world calls pasta sauce, in Italian, it’s called salsa al pomodoro (which means tomato sauce).
Growing up in an Italian kitchen, with my mum cooking it at least 3-4 times a week, for me making this sauce is a no-brainer. But I’ve seen out there that the struggle is real.
Some people add a generous amount of sugar, others use tomato puree or passata, and I’ve actually seen a few friends adding ketchup (WHAT?!).
Believe me, if you’re looking for the authentic Italian tomato sauce recipe you don’t need any of the above.
Marinara sauce VS tomato sauce
First of all, let’s start by saying that there’s a huge difference between marinara sauce and tomato sauce.
Marinara sauce is not cooked, and dried oregano is usually added into the mix.
This sauce is often called pizza sauce, because, guess what, it’s used for making pizza.
Tomato sauce, on the other hand, is slowly simmered, and onion, basil leaves and a bay leaf are usually added in.
This sauce is used as a base for pasta, eggplant parmesan, meatballs, eggs in purgatory, and many other dishes.
Just 5 Ingredients
If you’re looking for the authentic Italian tomato pasta sauce, this is the right place.
All you need is just 5 ingredients:
- whole canned plum tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes)
- red onion
- basil leaves
- bay leaf (or a pinch of sugar)
- extra-virgin olive oil
Most Italian mammas and nonnas add a garlic clove. My Italian mum adds it, and I often do that as well.
But it’s totally optional, so if you’re not a garlic fan, simply omit it.
Using the right ingredients is crucial for making the best homemade pasta sauce.
Opt for organic ingredients whenever possible, don’t skip on the fresh basil leaves, and use high-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
Fresh Tomatoes or Canned Tomatoes?
If you’re using fresh tomatoes (which I highly recommend when they’re in season), you need to blanch the tomatoes in simmering water for a couple of minutes, then peel the skin off and proceed with the recipe.
This version of the recipe using fresh tomatoes is basically the famous Napoletana sauce.
The best fresh tomatoes for a classic Italian tomato sauce are:
- Roma tomatoes, meaty, easy to peel, and with very few seeds
- Cherry Tomatoes (ciliegino), are small, round and really sweet
- Datterino Tomatoes, are also very small and delicately sweet
It’s not easy to find super tasty tomatoes these days, especially if you don’t live in Italy. So I mostly use properly-good canned whole tomatoes.
If you’re opting for canned tomatoes, the best ones to look for is the San Marzano variety.
This variety grows in Italy, in the Campania region, and has been awarded the PDO (protected designation of origin) status.
San Marzano tomatoes have a long shape, bright red colour, easily peelable skin, meaty pulp, and very few seeds.
Their flavour is not too sweet and not too bitter, which makes them incredibly versatile, both for cooking and using them raw.
These are the very best tomatoes to use for making tomato sauce, or the classic marinara sauce for Neapolitan pizza.
How do you take the bitterness out of tomato sauce?
Let’s start by saying that what makes tomato sauce bitter is the tomato itself.
Canned tomatoes are usually more bitter than fresh ones, so here’s the little trick Italians use to take the bitterness out of the tomato sauce.
Simply add a pinch of sugar whilst cooking up your sauce. Even better, add a bay leaf, it will give your sauce the perfect sweetness balance.
Make sure you remove as many seeds as you can from the tomatoes, as they also add bitterness to the sauce.
How to make tomato sauce step-by-step
Classic Italian tomato sauce takes a little patience to make, but it’s definitely worth it.
The secret lies in slowly simmering the sauce for about 20-30 minutes.
It will slowly reach a creamy but still a bit chunky texture, and the right balance of sweetness and savoury.
Start by slicing in half your canned tomatoes lengthwise.
Remove as many seeds as possible, then chop the tomatoes into small chunks and set aside.
Don’t throw the juice in the cans away, as you will need it later.
Heat a large pan and stir-fry the onion and garlic in olive oil.
Then add chopped tomatoes, basil leaves and the bay leaf.
Season with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
Now, add into the pan the reserved tomato juices from the cans.
Fill one of the cans with 80 ml of water (1/3 cup) and pour it into the sauce.
Let your tomato sauce cook gently over low heat for about 20 minutes, then adjust seasoning if necessary.
In the meantime, you can cook the pasta, set the table and grate some awesome Parmigiano if you like.
Your authentic Italian meal will be ready in less than 30 minutes, with very little effort!
How long is tomato sauce good in the fridge?
Once ready, store your sauce in airtight jars in the fridge for up to 1 week, or freeze in freezer-friendly containers for up to 6 weeks.
A great base for so many dishes!
This is the only basic red sauce you’ll ever need in your life.
Use this classic tomato pasta sauce as a base for vegetarian or meaty sauces.
Serve it with meat/vegetarian/fish meatballs, lasagne or any other pasta you fancy.
Authentic Italian Tomato Sauce
- 2 cans organic whole plum tomatoes (400gr each)
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium-small red onion finely minced
- 1 garlic clove gently crushed (optional)
- 4 fresh basil leaves
- 1 bay leaf or a pinch of sugar
- sea salt and black pepper to taste
- Cut each whole canned tomato in half, remove seeds and juice, roughly chop into chunks, and set aside. Set aside any remaining sauce in the cans.
- Heat a medium pan with the extra-virgin olive oil and the garlic (if using) over medium-low heat.
- Add in the onion, and gently stir-fry it together with the garlic for about 5 minutes. Cook until the onion is translucent and the garlic golden, then add in the tomatoes. Depending on your taste, discard the clove at this stage or when the sauce is cooked.
- Add in a couple of basil leaves and a bay leaf (or a pinch of sugar), season with sea salt and freshly-cracked black pepper to taste, and gently cook all the ingredients for a further 5 minutes.
- Pour in the reserved juices from the cans. Add 1/3 cup (80 ml) of water in one of the cans, and pour it over the sauce.
- Cover the pan with a lid, and cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- The sauce is ready when it reaches a nice creamy but still chunky texture, and has just the right balance of sweetness and savoury when you taste it.
- Remove the sauce from the heat, add in the remaining fresh basil leaves, adjust seasoning if necessary, and serve with your favourite pasta.
***This recipe was originally posted in September 2017 and updated with more info***