Pasta & Noodles | Recipes

Italian Red Sauce

Written by Danielle Oteri

Good old fashioned red sauce is the dish most people will ask me about, assuming that because I’m Italian-American, I know how to do it right.

And it’s true: if there’s one thing I am supremely confident about, it’s my ability to make a delicious red sauce. It’s my go-to comfort food, the thing I make on chilly nights, and what I’ll cook for company on Sunday afternoons.

Most of all, I love the process. It all begins by slowly sautéing garlic in extra virgin olive oil, which perfumes the house and draws people into the kitchen to see what’s cooking.

Italian red sauce recipes vary based on family traditions: this one uses sausage to add richness.
Photo: Casey Barber

Red pepper flakes go in next, and then the crushed tomatoes. I put it on a slow simmer while browning sausages in a separate pan. When they are just barely seared, they are dumped into the sauce to slowly cook.

Then I curl up on the couch to read a magazine or watch a movie I’ve seen before, periodically getting up to stir the sauce, taste it, add a bit more salt or oregano.

I know when it’s done when dark lines appear on the surface. I only know that because I’ve made it about a hundred times.

Growing up, Sundays were reserved for pasta and red sauce, which we called gravy.

Cotenne, or pork skin braciole, is a traditional Southern Italian addition to tomato ragu. A rolled-up pork skin is browned and simmered in sauce.
Photo: Casey Barber

Many are puzzled by why it’s often referred to this way, but I can only assume it’s because it was far more than just a sauce, but a great stew of meatballs, sausage, and braciole, which were then served as a second course.

I have always thought that the quintessential Italian-American experience was sneaking over to the gravy pot, slathering a piece of sliced white bread with sauce, and burning your tongue every time.

The trouble with red sauce is that it’s impossible to determine the perfect recipe. I once observed a friend who is a professional chef making red sauce the way he was taught in culinary school. I was horrified.

There was something so mechanical about the way he measured all the dried herbs and I angrily protested the way he added grated carrots directly to the pureed tomatoes. “This is the way Mario Batali does it,” he said defending himself.

I’ve seen carrots added to the chopped onions and garlic that start a sauce, but that’s not the way my grandparents did it, so I never will.

Italian red sauce simmered with various cuts of pork and beef, is a traditional Sunday dinner tradition.
Photo: Casey Barber

I asked Erica De Mane, a woman who grew up with gravy on the stove, but also a professional chef and expert on Southern Italian cuisine, about her red sauce. She writes:

“My mother and grandmother always made a fairly classic Sunday sauce, with braciole, sausages, chunks of pork, sometimes meatballs, very Campanian style.

As much as I loved this, I find I never make this anymore. It’s not the work required, but more a reflection of how my tastes in Southern Italian cooking have evolved. What I’m more likely to cook now is a streamlined version, using one type of meat.

Lately I’ve been into lamb shank, simmering it with a soffrito of carrots, celery leaves, leeks, thyme or rosemary, sometimes shallots, adding wine (I’m into dry Marsala at the moment), a little stock, tomatoes, maybe a pinch of cinnamon, and let the thing simmer away for a few hours until it ‘comes together’.

I can tell by the lightly thickened texture and the aroma when it’s right, and of course, the meat has to be falling off the bone tender.

At the end I’ll add fresh herbs such as flat leaf parsley, basil, or mint. The resulting sauce I use on pasta and I serve the lamb as a second course, usually with a veggie or a salad.

I make similar red sauce using pork shoulder or duck legs, varying the herbs and spices, but always reserving the tender meat for the secondo.

It is a personal dish for me too, one with no set recipe, just something that, in a way, creates itself, depending on what flavors I want to taste at the moment.”

The more I consider it, the more I realize that my red sauce is a direct reflection of my background—with pork sausage, which is distinctly Southern Italian, and Calabrese hot pepper flakes that only my Calabrian grandfather loved.

Sometimes I’ll do a puttanesca with anchovies and capers, and other times I’ll use meatballs, but to me, a good red sauce absolutely must have pork fat.

Italian red sauce simmered with various cuts of pork and beef, is a traditional Sunday dinner tradition.
Photo: Casey Barber

If ever you’ve had sauce that was smooth and velvety, you can bet the farm that it was cooked with a piece of pork.

So without further ado, here is my recipe for perfect Sunday afternoon red sauce. Well, my own very personal version of perfect.

Italian red sauce with rigatoni and sausage

Italian Red Sauce

Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Italian red sauce, or gravy, as it's known to many Italian families, is a slow-cooked miracle whose recipe varies from home to home.

Ingredients

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 small shallot
  • red pepper flakes
  • 4 links hot Italian sausage (the better the sausage, the better the sauce)
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • Turkish oregano or wild Calabrian oregano (never ever the Mexican oregano sold in those McCormick tins)

Instructions

  1. Cover the bottom of your pot with a quarter of an inch of olive oil. 
  2. Chop the garlic and shallot and add them to the pot with a pinch of red pepper flakes, cooking very slowly on a low flame until they soften. 
  3. Meanwhile, lightly brown the sausage in a separate pan. 
  4. Once the garlic is fragrant and glistening, add the crushed tomatoes. 
  5. Stir slowly and add a generous pinch of oregano. 
  6. Once warm, add the sausage and turn flame down as low as possible. Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. 
  7. When the sauce is bubbling with ribbons of oil forming at the top, remove from heat. 
  8. Stir well and add the pasta of your choice. Sausage serves as a second course.

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13 Comments

  1. Yum! Guess I will have to have some pasta and red sauce tonight, even though I am in Montreal.

  2. thanks danielle for sharing! one weekend soon i’ll definitely try this. red sauce is such a huge topic, there must be some blog out there devoted to it, or at least a recommended cookbook, yes, maybe?

  3. It IS a huge topic. There will be more to come on the topic from me, too. Next up…how to make tikka masala which is basically India’s version of red sauce.

  4. I love trying different recipes for red sauce, so thanks for this post. (Remember to use tomatoes in a glass jar, rather than a can, due to the BPA lining!)

  5. I’ll have to try red pepper flakes. My grandma didn’t use them, but it sounds terrific.

    My friends ask for my recipe as well, and I’m sure it frustrates them that I just eyeball everything. A handful of this, etc.

    I had to laugh at the burnt mouth reference. You’d think we’d learn … wouldn’t you?

    My favorite part of the process … other than the smell of the garlic (and onions, at my house) is when the sauce changes. You know? That moment when it goes from a bunch of tomatoes and stuff, to sauce.

    The color changes. The flavor changes. Friends ask when in the simmering process this happens, but the only answer I have is that you’ll know when you see and taste it.

    Three cheers for us! All the little Italian-American girls out there, keeping the traditions alive.

  6. I’m so envious of those of you who grew up with food like this. I’ve decided one of the great drawbacks of coming from a WASP-y Midwestern background is that no one *ever* asks you for your family recipes.

  7. Sounds fantastic. I’ve got a bit of Northern Italian blood. Completely different cuisine and no family tradition of cooking it as the ancestor was a younger son running to America to escape the priesthood!

  8. I love the idea of adding sausage to red sauce but two of my four offspring are vegetarian… One suggestion: use FRESH tomatoes instead of canned. Or at least tomatoes in glass jars. Canned tomatoes are sitting in BPA-lined cans. BPA is a known endocrine disruptor. Not something we should be eating, or feeding our loved ones…

  9. I make – and preserve – a meatless marinara sauce with homegrown tomatoes. In a pinch, it works on pasta, but usually I’ll open a couple of jars and doctor them up, adding sausage or meat and red wine (neither of which I am comfortable using in food preserving). Even so, my sauce is NEVER as good as my mom’s.

  10. we always call it sugo or in this case, with meat, ragu’… being italian american, we naturally spoke italian (i think that gravy is an old way of translating ragu’, since it contains meat or meat drippings (though we don’t eat the meat with the pasta, but rather consume it as the second course after the pasta); whereas sauce is sugo… still, if you’re an Italian American, I don’t know why you’d get bogged down with english translations, just use the italian!). we’re from monte di procida and would NEVER put oregano in it. we use basil. obviously, italy is regional, and recipes differ from place to place, but i never knew anyone to put oregano in sugo or ragu. i always thought that oregano was something Americans added (what the $%^# do they know?)… for me, add oregano, and it tastes a corner pizza slice. i know of some sicilians, southwestern sicily, who add mint instead of basil, which i never cared for. oregano, never! (though on a fresh tomato salad, oregano is acceptable to us). grated carrots in sugo?! never… mario batali is no italian american, he’s from the north, german, perhaps!

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