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Sicilian Pasta Gravy

Written by Olivia Kate Cerrone

When both sets of my great-grandparents emigrated from Sicily in the early 1900s, their agenda was clear: to assimilate as Americans and forget all else. The struggles of famine and poverty they shared with countless others made it easy, perhaps even necessary, to sever ties with a land that no longer enabled a functioning life.

While time and distance heals, traditions fade and family ties dilute. But what’s abandoned isn’t always lost.

More than a hundred years after my great-grandparents left Sicily, I went back to pursue an Italian citizenship and gather research for The Hunger Saint, a novel that involves the brutal mistreatment of underage sulphur mine workers near Agrigento.

rigatoni with sicilian pasta gravy
Photo: Casey Barber

My travels brought me to Augusta, origin of the great-grandfather who would unknowingly help in my application for dual citizenship.

His relationship with the old country left much to wonder. For years during his life as a Boston fisherman, he made annual trips to Augusta for reasons that no one in the family was allowed to discuss.

Were there Mafia ties? That much didn’t excite me. The prospect of a secret family did.

Unraveling the mystery is a slow education. Establishing a foundation of knowledge is the necessary first step.

rigatoni with sicilian pasta gravy
Photo: Casey Barber

As a writer, I immediately turned to the familiar avenue of literature to gain a deeper understanding of the culture I was trying to re-enter, and devoured the work of writers like Virgilio Titone, Giovanni Verga, Maria Messina, and other literary realists who honor a kind of truth in the fiction they’ve crafted.

But through food, it’s possible to gain a very different, perhaps more intimate sense of the culture, even if just on a gastronomic level.

While I never had a nonna to cook with in the kitchen, I’ve been blessed with amazing friends that let me prepare Sicilian dishes for them, and concocting a good Sicilian pasta gravy through research and practice came as a happy essential.

That ingredients like capers, raisins, pine nuts, and anchovies should complement one another in a sweet and tangy delicious red sauce makes sense when you consider Sicily’s background.

rigatoni with sicilian pasta gravy
Photo: Casey Barber

The ways in which Sicilian cuisine differs from other Italian culinary traditions reflects the history of its people.

Over the course of hundreds of years, the presence of Ancient Greeks, Jews, French Normans, Spaniards, and North Africans—not to mention the current wave of Bangladeshi and Chinese immigrants that call the bigger cities of Palermo and Catania home—have left a rich multicultural imprint on all facets of Sicilian culture, from its architecture to its local music and the complex diversity of its dishes.

Sicilian pasta gravy offers a bolder, more Mediterranean taste than a typical Italian red sauce, once-forgotten flavors that have become a standard in my cooking life.

The secret to making this sauce extra rich lies in how long it’s allowed to sit together before consuming. It’s ideal to refrigerate the sauce overnight to allow all of the sweet and salty flavors to sync together, creating a warm, vibrant taste.

rigatoni with sicilian pasta gravy
rigatoni with sicilian pasta gravy

Sicilian Pasta Gravy (Red Sauce)

Yield: 8 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Additional Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Sicilian pasta gravy reflects the Italian region's muliticultural history with ingredients like pine nuts, raisins, capers, and anchovies.


  • 1 1-ounce package of raisins
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
  • 10 large black olives, drained and halved
  • 3 anchovy filets, chopped
  • 1/4 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar


  1. Soak raisins in lukewarm water for 20-30 minutes until plump and soft. Drain and reserve.
  2. Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or saucepan over medium heat.
  3. Add onions, garlic, and celery, stirring occasionally to cook for 7-10 minutes or until they are tender and just starting to brown.
  4. Once the onions are lightly browned, add the crushed tomatoes and can of paste. I like my sauce thick and hearty—food that feeds the marrow of your bones—which is why I add a can of tomato paste to ensure a richer consistency.
  5. Add the capers, pine nuts, olives, anchovies, and raisins.
  6. Stirring slowly, sprinkle in basil for taste and sugar to cut down on the acidity of the tomatoes while articulating the sweetness of the raisins

Let the sauce come to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for at least 1 hour, stirring occasionally, until the sauce reaches its desired thickness.

Editor's Note: If your sauce is too thick, add up to 1 cup water while simmering to loosen to your desired consistency.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 8 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 241Total Fat: 18gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 14gCholesterol: 12mgSodium: 358mgCarbohydrates: 17gFiber: 4gSugar: 10gProtein: 7g

The nutritional information above is computer-generated and only an estimate.

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  1. I am going to try this recipe. Not sure about the raisins, but it is Sicilian, which has that North African influence.

  2. I have a friend who is into all things Italian and this gravy sounds like the perfect recipe to share with him. Interesting that it has raisins – I’m sure it’s as fabulous as it sounds.

    1. Oooh! I’ve never tried it with golden raisins but I bet it would be equally tasty. I’ve made meatballs with currants and pine nuts, so I bet you could sub them in there too.

  3. Do you have any suggestions (type of pan, etc.) to keep pine nuts from burning? I always burn them!

    1. Melanie, the best advice I can give is just to watch them like a hawk. I burn them often too (and it kills me because they’re so pricey), so I try not to multitask and to pull them off the burner a minute before you think they’re REALLY done.

  4. Why do I always end up reading your blog at 1am, when I’m fending off the midnight munchies and telling myself I’ll sleep better if I don’t eat right before going to bed? Curses, foiled again.

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