In the kitchen, there aren’t many things for which grandma, Nonna, has any steadfast rules. Tomato sauce, however, is one noteworthy exception. Here is an abridged, translated version of a recent conversation we had over the phone:
“Nonna, I made your sauce yesterday. Era buonissimo.”
“Did you put in the leek? And a bit of carrot? And celery?”
“Sì. Of course. Certo.”
“But not too much of each?”
“No, not too much of each.”
“And the butter? Il burro. Did you remember to put it in?”
“Ok, hai fatto bene. Brava. Good girl.”
I’ve made Nonna’s tomato sauce a hundred times over. Maybe even more, considering it was one of the very first things I learned to cook. Like all her recipes, the ones that I’ve been able to replicate with ease are like badges, tangible mementos of a culinary heritage – hers, mine, ours. It turns out that when you have Italian roots – even if it only makes up half of you – tomato sauce isn’t really just tomato sauce. It’s a birthright. You have to take special care to preserve it; to share it, but to safeguard it too.
Variations of sugo di pomodoro differ across Italy and across families – some might add aromatics, like basil; others sometimes add salt or a bit of sugar. It’s one of those great backbone recipes that’s slightly different from household to household. I think the key to Nonna’s recipe is poco poco, or “just a little bit”. You want just a little bit of leek, of onion, of carrot, of celery. These ingredients make up your base, your sofrito (or mirepoix in French); if you go overboard with any of them, the flavour won’t be balanced. That said, trust your judgement and your tastebuds – if you feel it needs more or less of anything, adjust it. As simple as it may be, this recipe gets better with practice. Keep making it, over and over, until you love it and think Nonna would too.
Nonna’s Tomato Sauce (sugo di pomodoro della Nonna)
- 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 small carrot, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
- 1 small celery stalk, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
- 1/2 small leek (white part only), chopped (about 1/3 cup)
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 heaped Tbsp tomato paste
- 800ml-1 L* canned or jarred tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
- olive oil (about 1/4 cup)
- a knob of butter
*a large standard can of tomatoes is usually 796ml; we use homemade jarred tomatoes, each Mason jar containing 1L.
- Unlike a lot of recipes out there, Nonna doesn’t add salt, sugar, pepper, chili flakes or aromatics to her tomato sauce. This isn’t bolognese, so no meat either.
- You might have leftover chopped vegetables (i.e one small carrot be a little more that 1/4 cup); you can freeze any leftovers for stock or double the recipe.
- The sauce will be more flavourful if you allow it to simmer for an hour or so. (Grandpa used to start his sauce at about 10am to serve at lunchtime, but he was hardcore about sauce-making.)
- You can also use this sauce to cook meatballs the old-fashioned way; see recipe here.
1) Heat olive oil and butter in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot (but not smoking), add the onion and sauté until softened. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Then add the leek, carrot, celery and sauté together until everything is softened and the onion and garlic are golden to golden-brown. Add the tomato paste and sauté for another minute or so.
2) Add the tomatoes and stir to combine; reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer, half-covered, for 30 minutes to an hour (depending on how much time you have). Remember to stir occasionally.
3) Remove sauce from the heat; blitz with a hand-blender until smooth, or leave as-is if you prefer a more rustic sauce. Serve on pasta, gnocchi, polenta, or pizza with a good sprinkling of parmesan. Alternately, you can freeze the sauce for up to 4 months.