The first thing to know about marinara: It’s not a synonym for tomato sauce.
“Marinara is very specific,” says Oretta Zanini de Vita, who has just published a very specific cookbook on how to pair pasta shapes with pasta sauces. “Tomato sauce is a completely different thing.”
“It’s all about quick, and light, and feeling the tomatoes in your mouth,” said Lidia Bastianich, who recently published her 12th book on the food of Italy, “Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking” (Knopf).
Real marinara sauce has the taste and juice of fresh tomato, but also a velvety texture and the rich bite of olive oil: Even the best jarred sauces can’t pull that off. And because it comes together from pantry ingredients before the pasta water even comes to a boil, it’s a recipe that home cooks should master.
The trick to perfect marinara is to cook it at a vigorous simmer, so that the tomatoes are cooked through just as the sauce becomes thick. The tomato pieces hold their shape, the seeds don’t have time to turn bitter, and the color stays bright red. Done right, it explains why spaghetti with tomato sauce is a dish that a person might crave virtually every day, as fundamental as bread and butter or rice and kimchi.
“It’s a real chef’s flavor,” Bastianich said. “It takes work to get to the simplicity.”
Marinara became a catchall term for tomato sauce in this country because its ingredients are all native to Campania, the area around Naples that sent so many families to the United States in the last century. Italian-American cooks treated it as a multifunctional ingredient: a starting point for other sauces, the base of a soup, the acid that breaks down meat in a stew. Strictly speaking, it consists of olive oil, ripe tomatoes, a substantial hit of garlic, a nip of dried chili and dried oregano (or, in modern times, fresh basil). The list of things that do not belong in marinara is much longer: no onions, no wine, no meatballs, no anchovies, no tomato paste, no butter (as in Marcella Hazan’s well-loved sauce) and almost no time.
“Everyone thinks you have to have a grandma in the kitchen, stirring for three hours, to make your own sauce,” said Frank Prisinzano, who makes four different tomato sauces at his restaurant Sauce in the East Village. “Marinara, after 25 minutes, it’s dead.”
Back in the last century, when most Americans cooks had never heard of “pasta” (it was called macaroni), there was one kind of tomato sauce at the supermarket. It was smooth and sweet, came in a can and had a reliably faint onion flavor. Now there are hundreds.
Even basic sauce goes under many different names (tomato-basil, marinara, chunky onion-tomato, rustico, classic) and can easily cost $10 a quart. Much better to buy a can of tomatoes and make your own.
There is nothing wrong with a slow-cooked sugo di pomodoro, a long-simmered smooth sauce with aromatics like onion and celery. Or the quick sauté of whole tomatoes, olive oil, minimal garlic and basil that produces pasta al pomodoro e basilico. Or a complex ragù, which often includes red meat and can cook for many hours, until the meat melts into the sauce.
But none of them is marinara, a simple combination that nonetheless requires a particular method and specific ingredients. If you usually buy jarred sauce, or think of tomato sauce as too basic to merit much attention, put Bastianich’s precise recipe to the test.
• Use a skillet, not a saucepan. This allows the sauce to cook evenly and thicken quickly.
• Use fresh-tasting olive oil; it matters not whether from Italy or California or Greece.
• Use garlic cloves that are not sprouted or yellow, but firm and white. Once peeled, they can be thinly sliced or slivered, or left whole and lightly crushed, but not chopped or minced. The more the garlic cells are broken down, the more sulfurous molecules, which produce a strong odor and flavor, are released. “Using lots of garlic is a stereotype of Italian food, but the way we use it keeps the flavor under control,” Bastianich said.
• Use fresh basil sprigs, preferably not the overgrown Jack-and-the-Beanstalk kind with floppy leaves and fibrous stems, but it will do. (The greenhouse basil available most of the year is often grassy-tasting; small leaves are tastier.) Dried oregano is traditional and can be used interchangeably; at many Italian and Greek markets, it is sold on the branch, which lends a rounder flavor than the leaves in the jar.
• If possible, use a small dried chili instead of flakes from a jar, which include the bitter seeds. Fish it out of the sauce and discard at the end.
• And now, to the tomatoes. If you happen to live near Mount Vesuvius, by all means use ripe local tomatoes. If not, canned are almost certainly your best option.
The explanations of why this sauce is called alla marinara – of the fisherman (or his wife) – when it doesn’t contain fish, are many and convoluted. It may be because this light, quick-cooking sauce is well-suited to fish and shellfish. Or because fishermen had to cook dinner out on their boats in the Bay of Naples, and didn’t have time or fuel to simmer a sauce for hours.
Or, according to Zanini de Vita, who has just published “Sauces and Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” (W.W. Norton), it could be that the Neapolitan fishermen had a trick to deepen the flavor. “They would put a stone from the sea to boil in the sauce,” she said. This sounded preposterous until she added, “or some seaweed,” which makes more sense: seaweeds and sea salt both contain natural glutamates, which produce umami, a rounded, savory flavor that makes food satisfying.
Zanini de Vita and her co-author, Maureen B. Fant – an American who writes for the New York Times from Rome – agree that marinara can be paired with almost any shape of pasta, making it unusually versatile within the Italian canon. (Smooth tomato sauces, they said, work with long, thin shapes like spaghetti; chunky ones usually demand a stubby shape, with holes or cups to catch the sauce.)
Strictly speaking, marinara should not be served with cheese.
And finally, marinara should never be spooned on top of plain pasta, but tossed with it in a preheated serving bowl – or in the cooking pot – as soon as the pasta is ready. This may be the most important step of all, but American cooks often don’t observe protocol, said Fant, who teaches classes in Roman cooking.
“You never, never leave the pasta sitting around in a colander,” she said. “In Italy you could go to jail for that.”
Adapted from “Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking,” by Lidia Bastianich (Knopf, 2013)
Time: 25 minutes
Yield: 3½ cups, enough for 1 pound of pasta
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, certified DOP if possible
f cup extra-virgin olive oil
7 garlic cloves, peeled and slivered
Small dried whole chili, or pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large fresh basil sprig, or f teaspoon dried oregano, more to taste
1. Pour tomatoes into a large bowl and crush with your hands. Pour 1 cup water into can and slosh it around to get tomato juices. Reserve.
2. In a large skillet (do not use a deep pot) over medium heat, heat the oil. When it is hot, add garlic.
3. As soon as garlic is sizzling (do not let it brown), add the tomatoes, then the reserved tomato water. Add whole chili or red pepper flakes, oregano (if using) and salt. Stir.
4. Place basil sprig, including stem, on the surface (like a flower). Let it wilt, then submerge in sauce. Simmer sauce until thickened and oil on surface is a deep orange, about 15 minutes. (If using oregano, taste sauce after 10 minutes of simmering, adding more salt and oregano as needed.) Discard basil and chili (if using).
Shrimp alla Marinara
Adapted from Lidia Bastianich
Time: 25 minutes
Yield: 5 or 6 servings
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 whole garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
2½ pounds large shrimp (about 30), peeled and deveined
Marinara sauce (see recipe)
8 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces (optional)
2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley
1. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 4 garlic cloves and cook just until golden and sizzling. Add half the shrimp, placing them in one layer in the pan. (If you crowd the shrimp, they will steam instead of fry.) Sprinkle with salt.
2. Cook, turning once, just until lightly golden and pink around the edges, about 4 minutes total. With a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a plate. Discard garlic cloves. Repeat with remaining oil, garlic and shrimp.
3. When all the shrimp are cooked, pour the sauce into the empty skillet, and bring to a lively simmer, stirring to scrape the bottom of the pan. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
4. Stir in the shrimp, basil (if using) and parsley, and cook just until the shrimp are heated through. Serve immediately.