San Marzano tomatoes from my Farmers' Market today
My grandmother “Noni” lived to be 100 and was a wonderful cook. She didn’t cook many different things–but the ones she did prepare were works of art. She was born in Florence, Italy and grew up about 20 minutes west of Florence, in a little village off the road between Florence and Lucca. She came to San Francisco when she was in her early 20s.
Noni in San Francisco, about 1920
She made a delicious tomato sauce for pasta–always from fresh tomatoes or tomatoes she grew and canned herself. She actually called her tomato sauce “gravy.” (I have heard other Italians call it “gravy,” too!) Sometimes she would make fresh pasta to put it on–but she usually cooked dry pasta. When she did make fresh pasta, she always cut 1″ wide noodles that she called “lasagna”–even though she never once in her life made the casserole dish we know as “lasagna.” “Lasagna” just described the shape and size of the noodle. She was most famous for her gnocchi–a delicate little potato pasta–topped with her delicious tomato sauce–but made it only for special occasions.
Gnocchi that have been rolled over the tines of a fork--and ready to cook
She had three ways she could make her gravy–just “plain” with tomatoes, garlic, salt and pepper or sometimes she would add sweet Italian sausage (“sweet” meant it did not contain dried chili pepper flakes) and sometimes she added dried and rehydrated porcini mushrooms (Boletus edulis) or used fresh porcini when available. When it was porcini season where she lived in Northern California, she and her experienced mushroom hunting Italian friends would hunt for and pick fresh porcini. (Do not hunt for or eat any mushrooms that you think are safe unless you have been trained to pick wild mushrooms. A person can die from eating look-alike mushrooms if they turn out to be poisonous mushrooms.) I remember they were very big, about 4-5″ tall with very thick, large stems. They were creamy in color with areas of dark brown. When just picked she would fry them and we’d eat them as antipasto. She would also use them in her pasta gravy, too. She would also dry them for use later in the year.
Fresh porcini mushrooms growing, Boletus edulis
Dried sliced porcini mushrooms
She always added salt and freshly ground pepper. Even though she had a lush garden and was from Tuscany, she never grew or used basil. But she did grow and can her own tomatoes (the Ace variety.) She started the sauce with Star olive oil–which she bought in a tall gallon tin can!
Let’s talk about the garlic. She grew her own and liked “red” or “purple striped” hard-necked garlic–which has a slight red color in the white papery skin covering the cloves. My grandmother would cringe today if she could she how people smash and chop or “press” garlic now! Her whole approach with garlic was completely different–she wanted it to impart a subtle flavor influence–not an overly dominant flavor. My grandmother would slice garlic, never chop it–and she’d use a sharp knife to minimize the crushing of the garlic. She would even go so far as to remove the garlic pieces before she served the pasta! She called the garlic cloves “toes.”
When garlic is cut, smashed or pressed, the enzymes from the ruptured cells are released and they start to change the smell and taste of the garlic. The sulfur compound allicin is produced in the crushed fresh garlic, and then it turns into other sulfur compounds like ajoene and allyl sulfides–which give garlic its characteristic smell or “stink” and pungent, fiery flavor. Cooking the garlic immediately after it is cut, however, minimizes the overproduction of these pungent compounds. From generations of experience, without knowing the chemistry, my grandmother knew this was the way to handle garlic to achieve a pleasant taste.
Two large cloves ("toes") of garlic
Two cloves of garlic, sliced into large pieces
To top the pasta off, she would sprinkle grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and on special occasions she would use grated Romano cheese–which was saltier. Sometimes she would use dry Monterey Jack cheese (with the black rind) on the pasta. She would ask us to “scratch” the cheese–to grate it– for her. And she always used salted Challenge butter to “finish” the pasta.
My grandmother did not put a lot of sauce on her pasta. As a child I always wanted more sauce! The pasta was only lightly coated with the tomato sauce. We also never ate just pasta for a meal. A small portion of pasta was served as one course in a meal, which also had other courses with lots of vegetables and some protein.
I hope you get a chance to try this recipe–and that you enjoy it–either with fresh tomatoes or canned ripe tomatoes. Tomato sauces made in Northern Italy are usually cooked quickly like this one is. In the United States, however, when Italians came here from Italy in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they often made sauces that cooked for longer times than this recipe. And, the recipes may have had different tomato ingredients, like tomato paste or tomato puree. Originally this may have been because of the lack of availability of the fresh ingredients that they preferred to use–so they made do with what tomato products they could find. As that became the way it was regularly made, descendents continued to make it that way–because that was how it had always been made–by their Italian relatives in this country. Some Americans are surprised when they go to Italy and cannot find the tomato sauces that their grandmothers and aunts made for them–because the sauce evolved into a different tasting food with American ingredients. For some reason, my grandmother remained true to her Florentine way of making her gravy and never used tomato sauce or tomato paste.
I was lucky one day when I walked into my hotel in Florence and was hit with the exact aroma of my grandmother’s sauce cooking. It made me feel like I was really “home.” Nowhere else in Italy had I smelled that exact smell, that magical mixture of garlic, olive oil and tomatoes! The owner of the small hotel was making her lunch–and I felt like I was walking into my grandmother’s kitchen! I knew then that my grandmother really was from Florence!
I used San Marzano tomatoes in the photos for this recipe because I was lucky enough to find them at my Farmers’ Market today. San Marzano tomatoes have more pulp and fewer seeds and are less acidic than other tomatoes–which makes this sauce cook really quickly. Usually I use Early Girl, Big Beef, Mortgage Lifter or Brandywine varieties of tomatoes to make my sauce. I also don’t remove the seeds from my tomatoes–recent studies have shown that tomato seeds impart some important flavors to the finished sauce–so we like to leave the seeds in the sauce.
This sauce recipe is gluten-free. If you put this sauce on conventional pastas that are made from wheat or semolina flour, however, those pastas do contain gluten. This sauce would work very well on any gluten-free pasta, also, especially the “Pasta Joy” brand of gluten-free pastas.
Disclaimer: I am a Registered Dietitian by profession, but my writing of this recipe is not an example of a low-fat recipe! I am just trying to be true to my Noni’s pasta gravy recipe and write it as she made it for us.
This recipe makes enough pasta sauce for 8-10 ounces of dry pasta, cooked–if dressed as my grandmother did. If you like more sauce on your pasta, it may cover 6-8 ounces of dry pasta, cooked, depending on the pasta shape.
This recipe is very easy to make. Below, you will see it has a lot of steps because I have explained every step in detail. That makes it look more complicated than it is. The steps are very simple. The ingredients list is very short. From start to finish, you can make perfect tomato sauce, ready to eat, and have pasta cooked, all in 20-30 minutes.
Noni’s Tomato Sauce for Pasta
Made with Fresh Tomatoes
- Optional: Dried porcini mushroom pieces, 1 ounce dry, soaked/rehydrated
- Ripe tomatoes, about 3 pounds
- Olive oil, 3-4 Tablespoons
- Garlic cloves, 2-4, sliced in large pieces just before cooking
- Black Pepper, freshly ground
- Butter, 4 Tablespoons total, used 2 Tablespoons at a time
- Grated cheese, 1/2 cup, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Romano or dry Monterey Jack cheese
Here is how my Noni made her tomato gravy from fresh tomatoes:
- Optional: Place the dried porcini mushrooms in a bowl and cover with about 1 cup of hot (not boiling) water, cover and let it sit for 15-30 minutes. (I didn’t use porcini in this batch I am showing today)
- To peel the tomatoes, trim the stem scar away and blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for about 1 minute and then remove the skins from them.
- Dice the peeled tomatoes into large chunks and set aside.
- In a 2-4 quart heavy-bottomed sauce pan pour in enough olive oil to cover the bottom and heat on medium-high. The larger the diameter of the pan, the more quickly the water in the tomatoes will evaporate away–which is what you want.
- Cut the garlic cloves into large pieces, 3-6 pieces per clove, depending on their sizes (and count the number of pieces–for later!)
- Immediately after cutting, place the cut garlic into the hot olive oil, stir and watch and do not let it overly brown or burn! (If it burns, throw the oil and garlic away and start over)
- When the garlic starts to brown, add the chopped tomatoes, stirring and mixing well (this will keep the garlic from burning, too)
- Remove the rehydrating porcini mushrooms from their water, being careful not to disturb the bottom of the dish–where sand and dirt from the mushrooms will fall.
- Cut the bigger porcini mushroom pieces into smaller pieces, but generally leave the pieces about 1/2″ long. My grandmother did not use the porcini soaking water, but some cooks do–just be careful not to include the sand and dirt from the bottom of the dish.
- Add the porcini mushrooms to the cooking tomatoes.
- Stir the tomato sauce frequently so that it does not scorch or burn on the bottom of the pan. The goal is to cook away the water and to make the tomatoes fall apart into a sauce consistency. Cook on medium-high heat. With San Marzano tomatoes, this may only take 5-10 minutes. With Ace tomatoes or other varieties, it can take up to 20-30 minutes.
- Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
- Cook your pasta while the sauce is cooking.
- When the tomato sauce has thickened to the consistency you think will cling to pasta, it is done. I use the sound of it to decide it is done. That moment before it starts to scorch is when I think it is done (that’s why you need to stand there and stir it.) Most of the tomato pieces should have fallen apart. Turn off the heat.
- Important step: remove all the pieces of garlic–which you counted earlier!
- Stir in 2 of the Tablespoons of butter until melted.
- When the pasta and the sauce are done, here is how my grandmother plated it: She placed about 1 cup of tomato sauce on a platter and placed 2 Tablespoons of butter into the hot tomato sauce. She sprinkled about 1/3 of the grated cheese on it. Then she placed the cooked and drained pasta on top of the sauce. She then added more sauce on the top of the pasta. She gently tossed and stirred the pasta and sauce–just enough to mix–and then sprinkled the rest of the grated cheese onto top of it all and brought the platter to the table.
(Note: If using sweet Italian sausage, she would heat the oil in step #4. Then she would remove and discard the sausage casing from the sausage and then pull chunks of sausage off, about 1 Tablespoon or less per chunk, placing them in the hot oil. She would cook them partially, then resume the recipe at step #5)
Illustrations of some of the important steps:
Blanching tomatoes in boiling water
Tomatoes pulled from blanching water with split skins
Garlic lightly browned with some of the peeled, chopped fresh tomato added. With these San Marzano tomatoes, this only took 10 minutes of cooking to become pasta sauce!
Finished tomato sauce on cooked pasta--before it is tossed and before the cheese is added--so you can see the thick consistency of the sauce
The finished pasta sauce tossed with the cooked pasta and topped with grated cheese
© 2011 Ann M. Del Tredici, MS, RD, CDE