The Stubborn Italian's Classic Pasta al Pomodoro
This classic Pasta al Pomodoro recipe is a first in a series of recipes I’ll be testing and photographing from a cookbook that my dad wrote for the family. It’s got all the little tips and tricks to make a pasta sauce that’s perfect in its simplicity.
At my brother’s request, my stepdad—an Italian who grew up in Libya and spent his adult years living, learning and cooking all around the world—wrote a little cookbook for our family.
Like many excellent home chefs, Gianfranco learned to cook from all the significant women in his life—his mother, grandmother, sister and friends in all the countries he ever lived or visited. So his recipes, while rooted in Italian tradition and technique, are inspired by, “a little here, there and everywhere,” as he puts it.
I started cooking my way through his recipes years ago, but got frustrated by my lack of confidence in the kitchen and behind a camera. Now that I’m more skilled in both, I’m testing, tweaking and sharing what he has shared with us.
There’s no larger goal here other than to have a space to publish these recipes as I make them and have some accountability so that I’m consistent in cooking my way through them each week.
Above all, I love how this process has made me realize how much time, care and effort went into every meal dad prepared for us. We took it for granted when we were kids. We didn’t know how good we had it. Now I’m getting to participate in his process. It’s a wonderful gift.
So, first up, classic pasta al pomodoro with spaghetti.
There is another “al pomodoro” sauce, which is similar to this one and a little bit sweeter. With this sauce, you start it with half the portion of olive oil and the half portion of butter. The only other difference is that when starting, you will wilt half a finely chopped onion and cook it for about 15 to 20 minutes until it’s really soft before adding the tomatoes. I like them both, but the one detailed below is more versatile to prepare with other dishes. In the other recipes, you will see this recipe referred to as the “basic tomato sauce.”
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
PREP TIME: 5 minutes COOK TIME: 45 minutes TOTAL TIME: 50 minutes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 28-ounce can of peeled San Marzano tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon dry oregano
4 to 6 fresh basil leaves
16 ounces spaghetti
3 tablespoons grated parmigiano reggiano
In a deep saucepan, pour about 3 tablespoons of olive oil and set over low to medium-low heat. Add the whole cloves of garlic and continue cooking, letting the garlic flavor the olive oil on the low heat for about 10 to 12 minutes. Lower the heat if the garlic starts to burn. Remove and discard the garlic after it turns soft and before it gets too brown.
Meanwhile, chopped the canned tomatoes into rough pieces or—in a method I like to call the grandma system—squish them through your fingers to break them up. (I sometime use the potato masher, which is clean quick and easy.) Then place the tomatoes and their juice into the pan and add about ¼ cup of a cup of water. Add salt and pepper, to taste, as well as the teaspoon of crushed red pepper. (If you like more of a kick, stir in an additional 1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper). Let simmer on low to medium-low heat for about 45 minutes to one hour, stirring frequently and make sure the sauce never boils violently. (This will make it turn bitter.)
Add the dry oregano about 20 minutes after starting the simmer. You will notice when the right consistency is achieved after most of the water has evaporated and the sauce becomes thicker and a darker red. After tasting for doneness and flavor, remove the sauce from the fire and tear a few leaves of basil into it.
Now onto the pasta. Drop your spaghetti in boiling salted water and cook for one minute less than what the package recommends. After it’s done, pour your prepared sauce in a shallow skillet and add the drained spaghetti. Make sure all the water is drained from the spaghetti. Saute the spaghetti and sauce together on medium heat for a few minutes until the sauce coats the pasta completely. Sprinkle generously with the parmesan and serve hot.