Romancing The Sauce

Almost everyone on the planet loves Italian food. If you’re like me nothing can compare to your grandmother’s pasta sauce. Whether you’re Italian or not everyone has their own favorite version. That’s not so unusual because everyone in Italy has their’s too.


Nothing says “love” like an Italian red sauce but don’t always have time for a “made by hand” pasta sauce for spaghetti? Begin with a jar of store bought sauce as a base and add your own special touch. There are dozens of brands that will deliver a decent sauce with the twist of a lid. However it’s a crowded category with a huge price range. Celebrity chefs compete with traditional classics. You probably have a family favorite jarred sauce to try with these add on ingredients.


Our Nonna always added a few pinches (1/4 t) of allspice to her basic red sauce for spaghetti and meatballs. Surprisingly allspice pairs well with tomatoes giving the sauce a deeper flavor. A typical Tuscan sausage recipe La Salsiccia di Lucca includes allspice as a seasoning. Like sausage the meatballs benefit from the spice’s undertones.

Basil and Oregano

Basil and oregano are complimentary herbs existing better together than apart. Both are included in most Italian/Mediterranean herb blends. Our Nonna always added an extra pinch of basil to her jarred sauce even if it was listed on the label.  The best Italain basil comes from Italy’s Ligurian Riviera.

Italian oregano can be strong and spicy so use sparingly. Oregano became popular in the United States after World War II when returning GI’s longed for the flavor of the pizza they had eaten in Italy. According to a national plant wholesaler certain plant varieties grow better when planted as companions and suggest planting basil next to tomato plants. Planting these side by side allows nutrients to be shared under the soil, enhancing the flavor of the tomatoes.


This may sound strange, but a little sugar helps bring the flavors together in a tomato sauce. It balances out the acidity and enhances the natural sweetness of the tomatoes. Depending on how acidic your sauce is to start with, a teaspoon to a slight tablespoon should be enough for a good balance of acidity and sweetness with neither dominating.

Italy’s Aqua Cottura

pasta boil

A key ingredient common to all Italian pasta dishes is l’acqua di cottura, the residual water that was used to boil the pasta. Literally translated to mean “the water of cooking” or cooking water which they consider to be liquid gold. The water used to boil your pasta is makes your pasta dish more delicious and helps the sauce adhere to the pasta better while also improving the flavor and texture of the sauce. L’aqua cottura adds moisture and makes the pasta creamy without adding too much oil or grease.

The magic of pasta water is due to the starch the pasta releases as it cooks so its important to use a good quality artisan pasta. Use only as much water as you need to cover the pasta as it boils (typically 1 pound of pasta to 4 quarts of water at a rolling boil). As long as you give the pasta a few vigorous stirs during the first two minutes of cook time the noodles will not stick together. This is essential because it is at this moment when the pasta can clump together as the first layers start to soften and release starch. Time according to package instructions and when the pasta is done the starch content will be concentrated in a ghostly glaze in the pasta water.

Drain but retain a few tablespoons of the water to add to the pasta as you finish it with the sauce in a separate pan. The sauce will adhere to the noodles in a beautiful marriage of the two and you will have a flavorful pasta with a thick, creamy sauce.