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Big Man on Marinara Street

vintage style Roma tomato illustration

My Grandmother's Fresh Tomato, garlic and Basil Marinara Sauce recipe

Prep time: 15 minutes  |  Cook time: 20 minutes
Serves 2 (if you want more... just double it ::wink::)†

Ask an Italian about their tomato sauce and it can go one of two ways. Either you get one word answers because it's a "family secret" or, more likely than not, you'll get an earful with lots of wildly gesticulating hand gestures. It's no surprise, I'm in the latter camp. So, take, have a Campari. Relax. Let's talk about tomato sauce.

When talking tomatoes there's* two types to talk about. There's Sunday Sauce, or just "sauce", some call it "gravy" (I never liked the term, but whatever). Whatever the name, it's the hearty slow-cooked all-day deal you think of when you think the sopranos... or, any Italian American Family. "Dinner" starts at 2pm. The sauce has been going since noon, there's "anitpasta", Chianti in a basket, "pro-shoot" and "Mutzzarell". The sauce starts with an aromatic base, some tomato paste, lots of San Marzano tomatoes and usually meatballs, sausage and bra-shole. Drinks are usually spilled from all the talking with the hands and everyone has an opinion about everything. It's quite a sight.

Marinara is something entirely different. It's fresh and it's quick, with copious amounts of garlic. It has less to do with the sauce they give you with mozzarella sticks at TGIFriday's and everything to do with the marinara pizzas that are ubiquitous at the many authentic Neapolitan pizza shops that have finally crept out of Naples, NYC and into the rest of the world.

The secret to good food and drink, the secret to the simplest three-ingredient recipes is one and the same the world over. Whether it's Italian or French, American or Japanese, the secret is not really a secret at all, it's just high-quality fresh ingredients. This marinara sauce recipe impresses most when tomatoes and basil are at the hight of their vibrancy, June till September in the northern hemisphere.



  • 2 servings of your favorite pasta (I'm not gonna tell you what style to use with this, pretty much any works. I prefer linguine.  As for what constitutes a serving...well... it's about 1/8 pound or 2 oz or 50-60 grams.  If you're Italian... you just know
  • about 1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil (enough to generously coat the bottom of your pan)
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic* rough chopped or sliced
  • Crushed red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • 4 Medium-large, fresh, ripe, Roma, Plum or Red Heirloom tomatoes rough chopped, kinda chunky (what is "medium large"?  About the size of a baseball). After chopping tomatoes, put them in a bowl or dish to catch the juices and sprinkle salt (kosher, sea or rock) over tomatoes. For more thoughts on Tomatoes see the notes below
  • 10-12 fresh basil leaves, torn into small bits
  • Salt and pepper to taste

*Note: It's Standard Operating Procedure to always (at least) double the garlic of any published recipe.  However...look who you're talking to here. Know that I already doubled it for you. (you're welcome) If you want you can double it again... you do you. But know.. I already doubled it.


1. Fill a large pasta/soup pot with cold water and heat on high.Generously salt the water while still cold.

2. Chop all your tomatoes and garlic while the water comes to a boil.

3. In a skillet or saute pan, heat EVOO till warm but not shimmering or smoking and add garlic. Saute garlic for 1 minute or until fragrant. This is where it gets advanced: I like to lift the pan off the heat and swirl the oil/garlic around the pan till the oil cools off and sauteing stops. Then return it to heat, saute for a minute and repeat taking it off heat, swirling. I find this infuses the oil with the garlic. (Note: Don't let the garlic brown!!! Dear god don't ever let the garlic brown..unless of course if you're making toasted fried garlic chips...but not with pasta!)

4. Add crushed red pepper flake and cook for 1 minute.

5. Add tomatoes and their juices. Stir to incorporate into garlic, oil, red pepper mixture and bring to a simmer.Cover and simmer for at least 20 minutes. (Note: the sauce is gonna reduce. That's a good thing. But, you're gonna wanna keep an eye on it that it doesn't reduce too much. If it's sticking to the bottom of the pan when you stir it, add about 1/4 cup of the pasta water to the sauce and stir to incorporate)

6. about 12-15 minutes into the sauce simmering, when the pasta water's at a nice rolling boil add your favorite pasta and set a timer for 3-4 minutes less than what the package says for "al dente" (for example, the De Cecco linguine I used says "12 minutes till al dente" so I set a timer for 8 minutes....the worst thing you can do is overcook the pasta)

7. When the timer rings...buzzes...plays "by the seaside"...whatever... transfer the pasta to the saute pan. I use metal tongs or a spider depending on the pasta shape. I prefer not to use a calendar. See the "Continuing Education" below for an explanation.

8. Add 1/4 cup of pasta water to the pan andstir to incorporate into the sauce. Bring to a lively simmer, add the torn basil leaves and toss/stir for 2-3 minutes so pasta finishes cooking and the sauce clings to the pasta.

9. Taste the pasta (THIS is the most important step. You know how many people I know don't taste the food coming out of their kitchen?? Too many)

10. Add salt and pepper and more crushed red pepper to taste

11. This is the Giant Squid secret: Turn off the heat and let the pasta and sauce rest for 5 minutes. If you're adding Parmesan, do it now. (I know I know... I said this recipe was vegan and Parmesan isn't vegan ::eye roll::just leave it out). You know how youlet a steak, or meat rest before cutting? This is the same principle. This allows the dish to cool slightly and the flavors meld together just a little bit more. This is why cold pizza is so delicious.This is why eating the leftovers while you clean up after dinner is so delicious. But actually, you wouldn't know anything about that... because if you're cooking the recipe, then you're NOT doing dishes. Whoever cooks doesn't clean up. That's how it goes.

Bonus: Add some freshly torn basil leaves on top when serving

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