The first pasta sauce I ever cooked from scratch was one with tomatoes, garlic, and basil from Marcella Hazan’s benchmark book: The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I picked it because it was so familiar. It’s the kind of thing on every Italian-American restaurant menu. And I had had more than one meal at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. This sauce was what I thought Italian cooking was. For many Americans, it is the quintessential pasta sauce. It’s what I cooked for my college professor who came to dine with me and my then-girlfriend (the same professor who later tried to seduce said girlfriend. True story… but one for a different post).
The second sauce I ever cooked from scratch was another from Marcella: tomatoes with butter and onion. This one completely inverted the previous approach. Instead of the assertive garlic we had mellow onion. In place of the familiar duo of tomato and olive oil we had the more luxurious combo of tomatoes and butter. In place of the heady aroma of basil we had the rich complexity of parmigiano-reggiano. I took a bite and stopped cold. I can’t say it was love at first bite. It was so contrary in flavor and character to everything I thought I knew about Italian cooking, that I didn’t know what to make of it. Fortunately, I persevered. That sauce became beloved, as it has for so many countless others. It was the beginning of my true exploration of the cooking of Italy, so varied, so inexhaustible, and so different from Italian cooking in the US.
Over time perhaps I became a little snooty. Like the half-educated ass who reacts to the overuse of tomato by eliminating the tomato completely from his “Northern Italian” cooking, I began to look down upon that first sauce I had made, as if Italy were divided neatly into a “North” and “South” instead of a myriad of rich, diverse regions. Even though I had learned it from Marcella, the sauce with tomatoes, garlic, and basil came to represent Italian-American cooking to me. The Macaroni Grill. The Olive Garden. I stopped making it. I moved on to spaghetti alla carbonara, fresh pastas with butter-based sauces, true Bolognese lasagne made with spinach egg pasta but with neither ricotta nor mozzarella.
This was an important education. But it obscured the fact that pasta with tomatoes, garlic, and basil is truly Italian too, even if the Americanized version of it is a pale shadow of its true Italian nature. Marcella wrote that it’s one of countless Roman sauces called “alla carrettiera” (wagon-style), named for the wagons which brought down wine and produce to the city from the surrounding hillsides. It is improvisational and seasonal, as the best Italian cooking is. You cook not with recipes but with whatever looks best at market (or in the garden) on a given day.
What brought me back to the sauce in recent years was access to fresh, meaty tomatoes without seeds or juice. I love high-quality canned tomatoes and use them liberally, but on certain occasions a fresh tomato creates a subtly different flavor, color, and texture. This is one of those times. Many think that only plum tomatoes or “sauce tomatoes” are good for cooking, but the variety I’m growing this year is a large, ox-heart variety called Cauralina. It has firm flesh that nonetheless breaks down beautifully into the most succulent sauce. It’s inspiring to cook with.
Marcella gives the sauce a pretty long cook time, about 25 minutes, until the tomatoes are highly concentrated. She also uses an abundant amount of garlic (5 cloves), which is poached with the tomatoes but never browned for a more mild flavor. But one of the great joys of cooking is adapting a recipe to suit one’s style and personality. For me, the tomatoes should cook briefly, until breaking down but with still-recognizable pieces. It should be clear it was made with a fresh tomato.
This sauce represents the kind of cooking which is resistant to recipe writing. There are a dozen small details essential for the best result which just can’t be written down without excessive tediousness. The heat needs to be brisk but not so brisk that the tomatoes burn or become too dry. Sometimes a touch of water needs to be added to keep the sauce moist. Too much water dilutes the flavor and keeps the sauce from clinging properly to the pasta. The sauce needs to be salted correctly. But the salting needs to be done keeping in mind the amount of sauce you plan to dress the pasta with (the more moderate the dressing, the saltier the sauce should be). All of these decisions require observation and experience to draw on. I make the sauce much better today than I did 20 years ago. You would make it better cooking side by side with an experienced cook than reading a recipe (even this one!). Still, one must begin somewhere. This sauce is where I began, and it’s a sauce that I’m still happy to return to. When made well, there is no sauce which gives me greater pleasure.
Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Garlic & Basil (For two people)
Begin by bringing four quarts of well-salted water to a boil (1 to 2 tablespoons depending on the strength of the salt). Add about 100 grams of high-quality imported spaghetti.
In a medium saucepan, lightly saute some chopped or sliced garlic in a generous bit of high-quality olive oil until aromatic and very lightly colored. Add about a half pound of chopped, meaty fresh tomatoes from your garden or a good farmers market. Don’t bother peeling them or removing seeds, etc. Season with salt, ¼ to ½ teaspoon depending on the strength of the salt. Add freshly ground black pepper or dried hot pepper as you prefer.
Cook over lively heat for just a couple minutes until the tomatoes begin to break down. Add a little water here and there to keep everything moist. Add a few basil leaves if you like, keeping in mind that cooking reduces the aroma of basil significantly. When the sauce is mostly broken down with just a piece of tomato visible here and there, it is ready. Remove from the heat and check for salt. Keep in mind that the less sauce you use, the saltier the sauce should be.
When the pasta is ready it, return the sauce to lively heat and toss with the pasta with the sauce in the pan. Plate and garnish with fresh basil (whole leaves or chopped) and a drizzle of highest-quality olive oil.