A love letter to marinara sauce — and a recipe you’ll use for years to come

Dan Pelosi
·7 min read
Grossy Pelosi's Marinara Sauce
Grossy Pelosi's Marinara Sauce

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Dan Pelosi is an In The Know cooking contributor. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website for more.

I grew up in a seriously Italian-American family in a small town in Connecticut. There are many foundational things that came out of this upbringing, but knowing how to make a giant pot of marinara sauce may be the most important of all.

My grandmother and grandfather somehow always simultaneously had a pot of marinara sauce simmering slowly on the stove, a second pot chilling in the fridge and several Tupperware containers of it stacked frozen in the freezer at all times. And that’s not to mention the endless cans of tomatoes in their basement and the whole heads of garlic on their kitchen table, weirdly just hanging out next to the salt, pepper and grated parm just daring you to use them to enhance your meal.

In the summer months, they had a garden that was too big for their own yard, which churned out the sweetest, brightest tomatoes and the most fragrant, spicy basil leaves the size of my (then) small hands. It was like they had the secret knowledge that, should the world end at any time, marinara sauce would be the absolute key to survival. Perhaps, some day, we’ll find out that were were right all along. If that’s the case, come over to my house — we’re gonna live forever!

Most kids I knew growing up spent their time outdoors getting into trouble or in their bedroom exploring secret imaginary worlds. Not me. I spent my time in kitchens cooking alongside anyone in my family who happened to be cooking — which was everyone. Marinara sauce, being that it was always in some stage of mass production, became an obsession of mine. I spent countless hours dipping torn hunks of Italian bread into marinara sauce, discussing notes and flavors and changing the sauce as many times as needed to get it perfect.

This was a master class long before there was MasterClass. It was my childhood safe space.

Credit: Den Pelosi
Credit: Den Pelosi

Soon it was time to leave my safe space, and I went to college. My parents would roll up to my dorm more frequently than most, toting a giant cooler in the back of their hunter green Ford Taurus station wagon. Inside that cooler was enough homemade food to put the dorm cafeteria out of business. I was very popular on campus because of it.

Much to the dismay of my fans, I spent a year studying abroad in Rome, which was my first time truly cooking family recipes on my own. Turns out, Rome is an awesome place to do that! I spent mornings in the Campo DeFiori, a large farmer’s market in the center of the city. I would wake up at obscenely early hours to smell tomatoes and crush basil between my fingers, giving all the Italian nonnas at the market the best show I could. They were my sisters, even if they didn’t know it. By the end of my year abroad, I just knew that cooking was my greatest passion.

After college, I moved to San Francisco, and it hit me that this wasn’t a year abroad in college anymore. This was my new permanent and very adult address — and that made me homesick like never before. I dove straight into setting up my kitchen, and I immediately began cooking, tirelessly working until my entire apartment filled up with that same marinara sauce scent I grew up bathed in. This took some time, but the journey was well worth it. After endless phone conversations with everyone in my family who ever touched a tomato, I was able to get to create my own marinara sauce recipe that tasted just as good as the ones I grew up with and smelled, well, like home.

Suddenly there was marinara sauce on my stove, in my fridge and in my freezer at all times. This not only meant that I was finally an adult, but also that I now had the confidence to take on this recipe like so many other beloved family recipes. Throughout the subsequent years of my adult life, marinara sauce has become the absolute foundation of so many important moments. I’ve pulled it out of the fridge to comfort a friend with a quick bowl of last-minute spaghetti and meatballs. I’ve given a new mom friend a frozen lasagna to help get her through the first few weeks with her baby. I’ve filled my own giant cooler in my trunk with eggplant parmesan and baked stuffed shells to bring to my grandfather on his 99th birthday. And I’ve even made heart-shaped chicken parmesan for a special valentine.

So check out my marinara sauce recipe below. My hope is that you fall in love with it, make it your own, feed it to everyone who crosses your path and that it becomes something that you cannot imagine your life without.

Credit: Dan Pelosi
Credit: Dan Pelosi

GrossyPelosi Marinara Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 red onion, chopped

  • 1 head garlic (all the cloves), peeled and rough chopped

  • Salt and pepper, to taste

  • Red pepper flakes, to taste

  • 1 cup dry red wine

  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano

  • 2 lb. medium sized tomatoes, chopped into quarters

  • 2 28-ounce cans tomato purée

  • 1 5-ounce can tomato paste

  • A handful fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces

  • Sugar, as needed

Tools:

Instructions:

  1. Heat olive oil in your sauce pan on medium heat, then add chopped red onion, chopped garlic, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Cook until browned.

  2. Add one cup red wine and two tablespoons dried oregano. Cook until wine is reduced by about half.

  3. Add chopped fresh tomatoes, cooking with the lid on the pot, until tomatoes are stewed.

  4. Then add the two 28-ounce cans tomato puree and a handful fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces. Stir and let simmer on low while the flavors develop and the scent gets stronger. This can go on for literal hours, but about 20 minutes is your minimum here.

  5. If your sauce is too loose, add tomato paste and incorporate until you achieve your desired thickness.

  6. Season with salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and a bit of sugar to taste. This is where you can personalize your flavor a bit. I like my sauce on the sweet side, so I tend to use a bit more sugar. Plus, if your tomatoes aren’t naturally sweet, a little sugar takes care of that!

  7. You can also personalize the texture of your marinara. I love a thick and chunky marinara, but if you want it smoother and creamier, blast it with a blender.

Pro tip: You can make the sauce a few days in advance — the flavor will only get better with time. Keep your pot in the fridge and reheat on the stove before serving.

You can also make enough to freeze in containers for later use. Most Italian-American families have an entire freezer full of marinara sauce. It’s a fact — I saw it online once. Frozen sauce lasts up to six months.

Here are some great ways to use your marinara beyond just a perfect bowl of spaghetti:

Credit: Dan Pelosi
Credit: Dan Pelosi

If you enjoyed this story, check out this decadent lamb lasagna recipe!

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