The real classic 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 ones.
What the world calls pasta sauce, in Italian, we call it "salsa al pomodoro" or "sugo al pomodoro".
Growing up in an Italian kitchen, my mum would prepare it at least 3-4 times a week, so for me making this sauce is a no-brainer. But I know it's not the case for a lot of people out there.
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 recipe you don't need any of the above.
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 sauce.
Opt for organic ingredients whenever possible, don't skip on the fresh basil leaves, and use high-quality extra-virgin olive oil.
Marinara VS Tomato Sauce
First of all, let's start by saying that there's a huge difference between these two famous sauces.
Marinara sauce is not cooked, and dried oregano is usually added into the mix.
It's 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.
It's used as a base for pasta, eggplant parmesan, meatballs, eggs in purgatory, and many other dishes.
Fresh or Canned Tomatoes?
If you're using fresh tomatoes (which I highly recommend when they're in season), there are a couple of extra steps to make.
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 to use 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.
Ok, let's cook it!
This recipe takes a pinch of patience to make, but it's definitely worth it.
The secret lies in slowly simmering the ingredients for about 20-30 minutes.
They will slowly turn into a rich, creamy tomato sauce but with still a bit of chunky texture, and the right balance of sweetness and savoury.
Step. 1 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.
Step 2. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan ( alternatively, you can opt for a cast-iron pot too).
Add in the onion and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes.
Then add chopped tomatoes, basil leaves and the bay leaf.
Step 3. Now, add into the pan the reserved tomato juices from the cans.
Fill one of the cans with 80 ml of water (⅓ cup) and pour it into the sauce.
Step 4. Let it cook gently over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
Once it's ready, season with sea salt and freshly-cracked black pepper to taste.
Now, cook some pasta, set the table and grate some awesome Parmigiano. Fold the pasta into the sauce, serve, top with cheese and enjoy every single bite!
How do you take the bitterness out?
Let's start by saying that what makes the sauce bitter is the tomato itself.
Canned tomatoes are usually more bitter than fresh ones, so here are a couple of tricks Italian nonnas use to take the bitterness out.
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 store leftovers
Once ready, use it up straight away, and store the leftover sauce in an airtight jar, 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.
It's conveniently vegetarian, dairy-free, vegan and gluten-free, and a great base for so many Italian dishes (including my favourite Sicilian eggplant spaghetti sandwiches and my famous Sicilian Pasta alla Norma).
It's an amazing base for vegetarian or meaty sauces. And you can 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 ⅓ 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.
The information shown is an estimate provided by an online nutrition calculator. It should not be considered a substitute for a professional nutritionist’s advice.
***This recipe was originally posted in September 2017 and updated with more info***