As anyone who reads food blogs or has researched Italian cooking will know, this sauce is nothing new. In The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, the late Marcella Hazan outlines a recipe for what may be the most simplistic tomato sauce yet. Imagine a sauce made solely of simmered San Marzano tomatoes, butter, and onion—no olive oil, garlic, basil, or oregano to overpower the delicate tomatoes.
You’re probably skeptical at this point, as I was too. There’s no browning of aromatics, rounds of deglazing the pan with wine, or other steps that cooks typically use to build flavor in a long-simmered sauce. It goes against the grain of loud, theatrical recipes designed to wow dinner guests. Yet once you try this balanced, fully flavored sauce you’ll know that Marcella was right all along. It’s smooth on the palate without any jarring bits of minced garlic—or worse chopped carrot or celery—and goes wonderfully with a pot of pasta. It’s all you need for lunch, along with your appetite and a little bit of parmesan.
(You may be blanching at the significant amount of butter in the photo above, but I doubled the recipe for the sauce so that there was a stash in the freezer for future pasta nights when I’m on the other side of the country and Aidan’s at a loss for what to make for dinner. Besides, five tablespoons of butter for one batch of sauce is not an exorbitant amount, so trust the recipe and go with it—there’s still less fat in the recipe than in a batch of pesto.)
After 45 minutes of slow simmering, you’ll see that the sauce has reduced slightly, and that the butter has fully melted and rises to the top of the sauce. The onion has done its job, so it gets discarded, and a pinch of salt is added for seasoning.
I prefer a smoother sauce, so I used a food processor to break down the larger chunks of tomato, but you could absolutely leave it as is for a more textured sauce.
Toss the sauce with hot al dente pasta—I prefer a short, tubular shape like rigatoni but I’ve seen longer shapes like spaghetti used with great success—and serve it immediately. Toss the pasta with just enough sauce to coat the pasta without leaving a pool in the bottom of the bowl, which works out to be about 1 ½ cups per pound of pasta.
Add parmesan and serve immediately.
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
Makes enough sauce for 1-1 ½ lbs. of pasta
1, 28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
5 tablespoons salted butter
1 onion, peeled and halved
Salt, to taste
- Pour the can of tomatoes into a large pot or saucepan, then gently crush by hand. Add the butter and onion, then place the pot over medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, then simmer for 45-60 minutes, until the fat floats free on top of the sauce, crushing the tomatoes gently with a wooden spoon occasionally.
- Remove the onion from the sauce and discard.
- Adjust the salt according to your preferences. With the variety of salted butter that I used, I found I only needed 2 healthy pinches of salt, but add salt until the sauce tastes well-seasoned and like something you would like to eat.
- If you would like a smoother sauce, transfer the sauce to a food mill, blender, or food processor and process until it has reached your desired level of smoothness.
- Toss the sauce with hot, al dente pasta, about 1 ½ cups of sauce for every pound of cooked pasta. Serve immediately with parmesan cheese.