making marinara magic

I will cook just about anything. That is, as long as I have a recipe to guide me. I am not one of those that can open my fridge or pantry and just whip up something tasty. The exception is marinara sauce. Or simply sauce as my family calls it (or Sunday gravy as many Italians will say).

Whatever we had to eat growing up, regardless of the main dish, you could almost guarantee my mom had a side of pasta with sauce. We’re Italian – it’s like water for us. And sauce was/is always homemade. There are no exceptions to this rule.

I learned how to make sauce from my mom and gram (my gram’s  sauce and meatballs will forever be my favorite). Ask 100 Italians how they make sauce and you’ll get 100 different recipes (and a lot of hand gestures). My family’s version is fairly simple: good-quality canned tomatoes (I prefer Cento), olive oil, garlic, salt, basil and a dash of sugar. It’s really pretty simple.

With the exception of all’amatriciana sauce, I’ve never made a tomato-based sauce from scratch. Until this summer thanks to the best crop of heirloom, plum and beefsteak tomatoes my garden has ever produced. Forget Sunday gravy – this past month it’s been Tuesday gravy, Thursday gravy…

Due to my overstock of tomatoes, I was  tempted to try something new and was intrigued by Cleveland native chef Andrew Carmellini’s recipe in his cookbook Urban Italian (Carmellini runs NYC’s Locanda Verde).

His version calls for adding an infused oil at the end. That’s it. Nothing else upfront (aside from the obvious).  I wasn’t familiar with this technique for sauce so I was eager to try. And since everything else I’ve made from his book was quite tasty, I was willing to experiment.

I might be breaking some Italian family code here, but I have to say, this might be my new go-to sauce. The taste is so fresh and satisfying. And each flavor is so prominent, which I didn’t think  would be coming from an oil. I haven’t tried this with canned tomatoes but plan to – and hope it’s just as enjoyable. It was also ridiculously easy to make, albeit messy. So easy that I can’t believe it has taken me this long to make sauce from scratch.

Andrew’s Sauce from Urban Italian

  • 12 ripe beefsteak tomatoes washed, cored & scored; or 10 cups good-quality Italian canned tomatoes, like San Marzano
  • 1 heaping tsp kosher salt
  • I head garlic
  • 1 ¼ cups extra-virgin olive oil (note: I didn’t use quite as much oil, found it to be too much the first time)
  • 1 packed cup basil leaves
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  2. Wash and core the tomatoes, then cut an X in the bottom of each so the skin loosens as it cooks.
  3. Plunge the tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 – 60 seconds. They are ready to come out when the skin starts to shrink and wrinkle. Remove the tomatoes and plunge in ice water to stop cooking process.
  4. Once the tomatoes have cooled, pull the skin off.
  5. Cut the tomatoes in half. Squeeze out the seeds and juice and discard. He says this is a crucial step as to preserve the flavor and bring sauce to right consistency, you need to remove as much of the liquid as possible.
  6. Roughly chop each tomato.
  7. Place tomatoes in large pot and top with salt (I used a bit more then he suggested).
  8. Turn the heat to medium and cook down to a lazy bubble, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Takes 45 mins to 1 ¼ hours; 30 mins for canned. As the tomatoes cook, use a ladle to remove excess water (amount can be anywhere from a cup to a quart depending on how ripe the tomatoes are. Sauce should be tomatoes and liquid, but not tomatoes floating in liquid. Smash tomatoes with wooden spoon as they cook.
  9. In the meantime, cut the top of the garlic so that the skin stays on but top of cloves are exposed. Combine garlic, oil, basil and pepper flakes in a small pot and bring to a simmer. Oil is done when you hear basil leaves crack like Rice Krispies. Take mixure off and reserve.
  10. When sauce is reduced by half to two thirds and is thick but still bright red, strain the oil into the pot and stir to combine.
  11. Cook the sauce for about 10 mins at a lazy bubble. When the oil and tomatoes have completely emulsified and the sauce looks whole, turn off the heat and stir with a masher or hand blender on low.
  12. Good in fridge for 3 days or so or freeze.



  1. cory
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    run the tomatoes and ingredients through a meat grinder for a quick and easy method, same mehtod can be used to make salsa or gazpacho….

  2. Claire
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    This is so easy and so good. It was my first attempt at making fresh sauce & it turned out great!