I am Italian.
Let’s just get that out of the way right from the start.
I have passionate feelings about marinara sauce, as well I should.
When I go to an Italian restaurant, I have 3 criteria I use to determine legitimacy.
Those are, in no particular order:
1. The marinara sauce [key]
2. The bread [few things lend more of an air of suspicion for me at any restaurant, than bad bread]
3. House red wine [if you’re putting the house’s name on it, it should represent you well]
Marinara sauce – also known as ragu, or simply, red sauce – as DiFranco’s* here in Denver calls it – is a staple in Italian cooking and a go-to for many cooks, Italian or not.
Interestingly, the tomato isn’t indigenous to Italy, and in fact, wasn’t even introduced into Italian cuisine until its appearance in a cookbook in Naples in 1692.
That seems like a long time ago in America years, but in Europe years, it makes it a relative newcomer.
There are bad ingredients and techniques when making marinara, that result in a disappointing plate, but one of the worst things is not having drained the pasta well enough, so that too much of the pasta water gets into the sauce, making it runny, or worse, the noodles themselves are sitting in a pool of pasta water on the plate, when the sauce is added on top.
I get chills just thinking about how sad that is.
That said, a 1/4 cup or so of the starchy pasta water, adds body to the sauce, and gives it a smoother taste and texture.
When I make it at home, I start with a variation of sofritto – sofrito in Spanish, mirepoix in French, refogado in Portuguese – which traditionally is onions, garlic and celery, but I also add carrot, to lend sweetness.
And usually, just to gild the lily, a couple tablespoons of natural sugar.
I like my marinara, like my men, sweet.
Sautéed in olive oil and butter, I get the mixture soft, and then add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, seasonings of basil, oregano and dried shallots, red wine [on a good day] – which reduces to an incredible, rich flavor – salt and pepper.
I like to let it simmer all day if I’ll be at home – it’s good for the sauce, and for the soul.
Mixed with al dente pasta in the pan, so they can marry – I want them to have a real commitment to each other – before being plated, this is one go to meal I make in my house regularly.
*Ryan DiFranco, the owner, is an East Coaster, and claims Denver’s best red sauce.
Having won the nod from Westword this year for Best Italian Restaurant, he’s earned the chops to claim this.