I mark the day I started making great tomato sauce when I spent an afternoon in Lucia Lo Presti’s kitchen. She is the Sicilian mother-in-law of my friend Anthony Giglio, an inspired wine and spirits writer and great cook himself.
I’d asked Anthony if I could watch Lucia make the extraordinary eggplant dish I’d tasted at his house. With the eggplant, came the secret to great tomato sauce and a glimpse into Lucia’s unique way of life — Sicily in New Jersey — where canning ripe tomatoes is a yearly family event, meals are eaten under the grapevine-covered pergola, and ripe figs from her tree make a perfect dessert. The Life-Changing Magic of Canning Tomatoes, Anthony’s evocative homage in Food & Wine, jogged many memories.
The secret to Lucia’s sauce, aside from very good tomatoes, is an abundance of olive oil. It gives it an extraordinarily silky quality and richness with no trace of heaviness.
My recipe is a bit different than the Summer Marinara in the Food & Wine article (as is my version of Lucia’s Eggplant) but then, cooks are always shifting proportions and steps. I invite you to compare the two and forge your own. Exact quantities are not essential.
Recipe: Lucia’s Tomato Sauce
This is a perfect sauce for pasta and a fine base for many dishes, from stuffed peppers to stews. It is essential to Lucia’s La Melanzana in Padedda (Eggplant Slow Cooked ‘in the Pan).
Lucia makes her tomato sauce with dead-ripe summer tomatoes she and her family can every August and September for use during the year (and gifts for lucky friends). Her recipe works fine with good quality canned tomatoes from the supermarket.
Makes about 2 ½ cups with crushed tomatoes, 1 3/4 to 2 cups with whole peeled plum tomatoes
About 1/3 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 smallish yellow onion, chopped (about ¾ cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or drained whole peeled plum tomatoes
Salt to taste
¼ to 1/2 teaspoon sugar
Pour the olive oil into a large skillet and stir in the onion. Over medium-low heat, sauté the onion until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until it just starts to color. Add the chili pepper flakes if desired (they will add just a hint of appetizing heat), stirring them into the oil to release their flavor.
Add the tomatoes. (If using whole tomatoes, break them up with the edge of a kitchen spoon.) Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the flame down to medium; simmer, stirring occasionally, until the oil rises to the top and separates from the sauce, about 25 to 30 minutes. Add salt to taste and a little sugar as needed to balance the flavors.