Make Sauce Like a Sicilian

August 27, 2012

I am willing to die for this sauce. Are you?

One day a few years ago, when I was feeling especially full of bravado (blame it on the Regusci ’05), I asked someone I know, a person whom I am neither identifying as a him nor a her for anonymity sake, a person of Sicilian origin, who will heretofore be referred to as simply ‘The Sicilian,” if they would teach me how to make sauce.

The Sicilian replied, “If I show you, I’ll have to kill you.”

Hahahaha! Soooo funny!

Well, y’know, it was one of those moments when you’re really not sure who’s joking and who’s not. In fact, I’m still not 100% sure. So if I end up, say, tethered to a cement block and floating somewhere in Jersey for posting the following instructions, you’ll know who to blame: a him or a her of Sicilian origin.

Tomato plants need intense root systems to flourish. I plant mine on their sides. I start ‘training’ them to their new ‘side-life’ by tipping them sideways in their pots.

Trim everything on the stem. Only their tippy tops should be showing.

The Sicilian’s instructions for sauce are as follows (the exact quantities were not revealed, so I guesstimate):

“Think of sauce as a ‘base’ ingredient: rustic and simple,” The Sicilian said to me – a lesson passed down to him (or her) for generations. “Sicilians don’t go for for a lot of extra flavors, herbs and whatnot. Just garlic, tomatoes, maybe a little basil, pepper and salt.” Think simple, I say. Think like an old Sicilian grandma. Wear all black while cooking. Speak with an accent.

“Sicilians DO NOT…” this point was emphatic, “add sugar to their sauce.” Sugar is cheating. I heartily agree.

Do not crush the garlic. It gets bitter. Instead slice it thin. (I use an inexpensive Japanese mandoline and try and get my thumb out of the way.) Saute a handful in some olive oil in a big pan. Don’t let it burn or even get toasty. Keep the flame very low.

Save the biggest and fattest of this year’s garlic for planting next year. I can never plant enough.

Slice, don’t crush, garlic for the sweetest flavor and authentic Sicilian-mama ‘look’.

Squish the tomatoes, one by one, skin and all, into the pan with the garlic. The Sicilian’s mother apparently grew fields of San Marzano tomatoes, basil and garlic in the old country. San Marzanos are my personal favorite for sauce although The Sicilian was not so regimented. “Whatever…” The Sicilian said nonchalantly. “Whatever kind of tomato is fine.” I like The Sicilian’s thinking here because it’s not too complicated. No skinning the tomatoes (which sucks the life out of the whole process) and no tomato prejudice – even yellow toms go in!

I don’t care what EVERY SINGLE nursery tells me, San Marzano tomatoes are the best for sauce.

This includes, BTW, canned tomatoes. I make this sauce when I have a gorgeous tomato haul from my garden or merely a humble can from the store. I’ve learned that this sauce is thicker and juicier when I squeeze out some of the water and seeds into a bowl before I put them into the pan. But there’s something to be said for the flavorful but thin sauce – it’s lovely on pasta or as the base for a lamb Osso Bucco.

Don’t cook the hell out of it. Great sauce still has a little hell left in.

Then cook this tomato mixture down, poking at it with a wooden spoon now and then. It should look like it’s transformed from sauteed tomatoes to a thick, saucy consistency. It doesn’t need to cook for hours – 30-45 minutes usually does the trick.

Toss in a finger full of salt, then a few grinds of pepper, then blow on a wooden spoonful of it and take a little taste. Although the following was not sanctioned by The Sicilian, I often take an immersion blender and whirl around the stuff that looks too chunky to me.

Adding a handful of sliced basil at the end of the cooking is fine but don’t add much else. When you’re preparing your tomato-sauce-based dish in the future, whatever it is, you can add further herbs and spices as necessary, but at this point, don’t get fenced it.

Be a Sicilian grandma! Wear black. Speak in an Italian accent!

I’ve ‘put up’ this sauce in canning jars, frozen it in Food Saver bags, and poured it into ice cube trays, frozen those, then stored the ‘sauce ice cubes’ in the freezer in sealed bags. Canning is probably my favorite way of storing sauce because it looks so adorable in the jars – the little specs of green peering out from the thickened sauce.

Try making The Sicilian’s sauce, will you? I need to know my life was worth something.

If you’re going to carb-out, you might as well go for the good stuff.

Take your boots off before you come in here!

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }


my favorite thing to do with the type of sauce is to ladle some over the top of bread OMG nothing gets in the way of the sauce. Cento is a brand here in USA that uses those tomatoes thank your Sicilian friend for I a German/English girl from NH will from now on only make it their way Much LOVE to you two Canned sauced be damned! lol

Thanks Jennifer



Jennifer Solow

Thanks for the note and the yummy sounding suggestion, German/English from NH Eunice. Yes, canned sauce is pretty intolerable to me now too. Making up your own batch with Cento is 1000 times better!



Tomorrow is Spaghetti Day in New England I must hit the store tonight for supplies 🙂


Jennifer Solow

Do try the thing with the garlic slices rather than pounding their little hearts out. I no longer crush garlic cloves for any dish – it makes a big difference in taste, I think.



I love sliced garlic and I agree no reason to clobber it 🙂
Paper thin to let the flavor out will be perfect!

Thanks again Jennifer you just never know who you will meet or what you will learn 🙂



Maria Rugolo

A nice pot of sauce on a Sunday. Fresh italian bread, rip off the heel, spoonge (otherwise known as dunk) and eat!



Great post / recipe. And we also plant the tomatoes on their sides- makes a huge difference in the early strength of the plant….


Jennifer Solow

I’m guessing you NorCal-ers probably already know Cynthia at Love Apple Farm in Santa Cruz, but I kind of think of her as my tomato-growing Guru. I do the whole fish-head-egg shells-aspirin thing she recommends and this year added worm castings and Texas Tomato Cages to my arsenal. It was the first year I avoided late blight (which all the neighbors got) and my plants were as big and juicy as Texas hair!

Here’s one of Cynthia’s many posts on growing tomatoes:

I HAVE to take a class down there someday!



I Also grow my own but mostly the type for sandwiches but I always plant mine on their sides too. Love Gardening must go in search of special seeds for next year 🙂



My mouth is watering…I’ll have to hit one of our farmers markets this week, we moved right before all my tomatoes ripened…big sigh. Here’s hoping your Sicilian leaves the cement blocks and rope at home. 🙂


Jennifer Solow

Good luck, Sleepy Cat. My personal technique for handling the tomato thing at the market is wait a little longer into the season and then ask your vendors about getting “seconds” or “over-ripes.” These are often offered at a big discount from the perfecto-tomatoes and the ripe-er the better for sauce. For a FURTHER discount wait until about 5 minutes before the market shuts down, THEN ask. Most are excited to get rid of the excess baggage of a box of over-ripes. I’ve gotten boxes for next to nothing, even free. I do the same with peaches – the softies are perfect for jam.

I even have a few great recipes from Sandor Katz’ fermentation books where fairly rotten-y tomatoes work just fine with a little trimming prep-work in the sink.
I’m a total sucker for getting free stuff and doing something lovely with it. Have fun!

In some ways, Sleepy, farmer’s market tomatoes are the BEST way to make sauce if you’re just a basic home gardener with less than a dozen plants. You have access to much more at once and can often get them way cheaper than growing them yourself. That said, I’ve traveled away just as my precious beauties are ripening and literally cried a river as the car pulled away.



Pasta is a staple in our house. Definitely going to try this one 🙂


Jennifer Solow

Good luck, Mono! You said you were garden-less this year; do you have a farmer’s market nearby. Or are you going to go the canned-tomato route?


Another Sicilian

Just here to substantiate the recipe. We have another secret in my family regarding how to incorporate the garlic (which would require termination of the recipient of such information) – but this recipe is very authentic and common.


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