Basic Tomato Sauce - Nonni's Way


Every morning, Nonni would wake up before the sun, put on a pot of coffee in her percolator and sit at the window to watch the birds as the dawn broke. Then she'd start the sauce. I guess she'd get busy when the birds did. I don't ever remember a time visiting her when there wasn't something cooking on her stovetop. I'd often drag an old milk crate across the floor and stand on it so I could see what was cooking. She made her sauce the Old Country way, caramelizing the tomato paste first. And this is how I make my sauce now, from what I remember.

(Nonni never measured anything when she cooked, and neither do I. But I'll try and approximate for the recipe. ) 

  • 1/4 C olive oil
  • 1/2 onion, finely diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 (6 oz) can of tomato paste
  • 3 (28 oz) cans of crushed tomatoes
  • splash of red wine
  • 1 small carrot, grated
  • handful of fresh basil
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/8 - 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/8 - 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil over low heat in a large heavy pot or a large electric skillet.  Add the diced onions and cook until they are soft. Add the minced garlic and tomato paste to the olive oil and onions. Keep stirring the paste around. It will incorporate all of the onions and oil into it as you stir. When the paste caramelizes it will become aromatic, and a bit darker red. Add a splash of wine to deglaze the pan and incorporate all the bits into the paste. Now stir in the three large cans of crushed tomatoes, the grated carrot, and herbs and spices. The sweetness of the carrot will balance the acidity of the tomatoes.

I usually swish about 1 cup of cold water into the large, empty cans to use up all of the tomatoes clinging there. Because, yes, I really am that frugal. Add that to the sauce, turn the heat to low, cover, and let it sit for an hour or two. Low and slow. Stir occasionally.

The longer you cook the sauce, the mellower it will become. It will lose a lot of the acidity and thicken as it cooks. Adjust the spices towards the end of cooking.

I prefer a smooth sauce, but if you like more of a chunky style, substitute cans of chopped or whole tomatoes for the crushed tomatoes and break the tomatoes up with your spoon as you cook. I use this recipe as a pizza sauce just as it is. If I create a tomato based pasta sauce, I saute sausage, vegetables, chicken, whatever else, and then add this sauce. I will sometimes double the recipe and freeze in batches for later use.

I don't get up with the birds and make this every morning. But when I do I think of Nonni, sitting by the window watching the birds, and I feel very connected to her. Connected not only to her, but to her Old Country, and to her old ways. 



cook's note:  I have an electric stove and find it really hard to get the heat high enough for my needs. I'm also limited to certain pans with small, flat bottoms. So I bought this large cuisinart electric skillet a couple of years ago. I've used it almost every day since I bought it. It's one of the best purchases I've ever made. This is not an ad, I just thought I'd share. It's what I used for this recipe.