Cooking

Better Off Red

5 delicious takes on classic red sauce, plus advice from tomato sauce experts
Photo: Michelle Sun/Tasting Table
Pasta with Red Sauce
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The roots of red sauce go way beyond the borders of red-and-white-checkered tablecloths at Jersey-Italian restaurants (not that we don't love a good Sunday gravy). In Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (in which she showcases no less than 10 variations of the classic sauce), she reminds us, "There is nothing inherently crude about tomato sauce."

Red sauce can be romantic in its simplicity—delicate, versatile and comforting. And all of which can be accomplished with one 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes. With that in mind, we spoke to our favorite red sauce experts to bring you tips, plus five variations to make at home.

Be sentimental. It's classic for a reason, and for some chefs, it pulls on nostalgic heartstrings. Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli ("The Franks") are the chefs and co-owners of New York City's Frankies Spuntino Group, which includes neighborhood restaurants Prime Meats, Frankies 457 Spuntino and Frankies 570 Spuntino. "From the time I remember life, I remember smelling tomato sauce . . . [it] reminds me of family," Castronovo recollects. He's referring to the classic marinara sauce recipe used by his grandparents, which is the same recipe that's been used at Frankies 457 Spuntino since they opened their doors in 2004. Falcinelli explains, "The Frankies sauce is the classic, time-honored marinara sauce. It hasn't changed, and we don't expect it to change."

Quality ingredients are key. Yeah, we know this sounds like a broken record cooking mantra, but given that the list of ingredients can be as minimal as three items here (and that's including the pasta itself), live a little and spend the extra time and money on sourcing ingredients. Castronovo harps, "The sauce only has a few ingredients, so it's important they are the best quality. Use good olive oil, fresh garlic and San Marzano tomatoes. That's all it is."

Master the basics. The addition of butter can be a point of contention, but at its core, a quality red sauce will always be tomatoes and olive oil. Vetri alum Adam Leonti, currently at Brooklyn Bread Lab, explains, "For me, it's tomato and spaghetti and getting closer and closer to less and less ingredients. It's become more and more about just tomato and spaghetti and olive oil." Don't let the simplicity of the ingredients and steps fool you. Falcinelli reminds us, "Follow the recipe. Stir often. Simmer slowly. And don't burn the sauce!"

Go beyond the noodle. Tomato sauce can wear many different hats when tossed with your favorite noodle. Leonti will add garam coloratura, a Sicilian fish sauce, to make a dish particularly savory. Once you've mastered the red sauce basics, look past pasta as a vehicle. At Frankies 457 Spuntino and Frankies 570 Spuntino, the Frankies' mother sauce is used all across the menu: the classic gnocchi, eggplant Parmesan and meatballs. While Falcinelli loves using tomato sauce as a finishing touch to many dishes, Castronovo will also incorporate it from the start of a recipe: "I love how tomato sauce can act as an amazing braising liquid and the way it takes on the flavors of fish, meat or vegetables. It is the best vehicle."

Now that you've conquered the basics, here are five recipes to get saucy over.

—Make It Classic—

For our classic tomato sauce and its variations, we splashed in some red wine vinegar, not only to add brightness but to also create a layer of depth and to round out the flavors of the other ingredients. Tough decisions had to be made, and we bypassed the addition of butter for this one (sorry, Hazan), sticking to olive oil only. For this basic sauce, Leonti suggests to look for "tomatoes that have been preserved in their own juices." As in, go for the stuff left whole, not crushed, diced or with garlic and spices already added in, as the results will be better if the ingredients are less processed.

¼ c olive oil + 1 finely chopped medium onion + 6 thinly sliced garlic cloves + pinch red pepper flakes + 1 basil sprig, plus extra for garnish + one 28-oz can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand + 3 tsp red wine vinegar + kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper + cooked spaghetti, for serving

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the basil, tomatoes and vinegar, and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium low and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 25 minutes. Remove the basil sprig and, using an immersion blender, blend the sauce until slightly smooth while retaining some texture. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with cooked spaghetti and garnish with basil.

—Make It Spicy—

This Roman preparation of tomato sauce, all'amatriciana, brings the heat (ciao, red pepper flakes) and extra comfort (buongiorno, pancetta). As for its perfect pasta pairing, Hazan reminds us in her book, "It's impossible to say 'all'amatriciana' without thinking bucatini. The two are as indivisible as Romeo and Juliet." But if you don't have access to bucatini, any other hollowed-out pasta shapes, such as penne or rigatoni, work just fine.

3 tbsp olive oil + 4 oz thinly sliced pancetta, cut into ½-inch pieces + 1 finely chopped medium onion + ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes + one 28-oz can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand + 2 tsp red wine vinegar + kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper + cooked bucatini, for serving + grated Parmesan, for garnish

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until slightly crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the onion and crushed red pepper flakes, and cook, stirring often, until softened, 8 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the vinegar, and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium low and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 25 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with cooked bucatini and garnish with Parmesan.

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—Make It Briny—

Though traditionally served with spaghetti, we paired the southern Italian preparation known as puttanesca with penne due to all of its moving parts. Don't be afraid to go low and slow with this sauce—it takes time for all of the flavors to get to know each other. And because of the brininess of everything that goes into this dish, make the effort to taste for salt at each step.

3 tbsp olive oil + 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves + 6 anchovy fillets + one 28-oz can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand + 2 tsp red wine vinegar + 1 c pitted and crushed kalamata olives + 3 tbsp capers, rinsed + pepper + cooked penne, for serving + finely chopped parsley, for garnish

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and anchovy fillets, and cook until the anchovies have melted and the garlic has softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the vinegar, and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium low and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 25 minutes. Stir in the olives and capers, then season with pepper. Serve with cooked penne and garnish with parsley.

—Make It Creamy—

Don't you dare roll your eyes at vodka sauce. A combination of vodka, cream and butter is perfect for those nights when you want something a little heartier. It's the ideal accompaniment to stuffed pastas, such as tortellini, or other baked pasta shell recipes.

3 tbsp butter + 3 tbsp olive oil + 1 finely chopped medium onion + 6 thinly sliced garlic cloves + pinch crushed red pepper flakes + 1 basil sprig + one 28-oz can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand + 3 tsp red wine vinegar + 3 tbsp vodka + ½ c heavy cream + salt and pepper + cooked tortellini, for serving

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the basil, tomatoes, vinegar and vodka, and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium low and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 30 minutes. Remove the basil sprig and, using an immersion blender, blend the sauce until slightly smooth while retaining some texture. Stir in the heavy cream and season with salt and pepper. Serve with cooked tortellini.

—Make It Smoky—

TT food editor Jake Cohen adapted a short rib sugo recipe from a real-life Italian grandmother, Jacqueline Rubano. Patience is a virtue, and though you're in it for the long haul with this variation, the payoff is a sauce that perfectly balances the right amount of smoke with subtlety from the tomato.

¼ c olive oil + 1 lb (3 small) beef short ribs + kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper + 1 finely chopped medium onion + 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves + 4 c chicken stock + one 8-oz ham hock + one 28-oz can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand + 2 tsp red wine vinegar + 1 tsp dried oregano + 1 small basil sprig + cooked fusilli, for serving + grated Pecorino Romano, for garnish

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Season the short ribs with salt and pepper, then sear until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer the ribs to a platter and set aside. Add the onion and garlic, and cook over medium heat until softened, 8 minutes. Add the reserved short ribs, chicken stock, ham hock, tomatoes, vinegar, oregano and basil. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender, 3 hours. Transfer the short ribs and ham hock to a plate and, using an immersion blender, blend the sauce until slightly smooth while retaining some texture. Once cool enough to handle, shred the meat, discarding any skin or bones, then stir back into the sauce. Serve with cooked fusilli and garnish with grated Pecorino Romano.

Find Prime Meats here, or in our DINE app.
Find Frankies 457 Spuntino here, or in our DINE app.
Find Frankies 570 Spuntino here, or in our DINE app.

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