The (Raw) Tomato Sauce That Gets Better the Less You Do to It

August 25, 2016

Quite possibly the best way to enjoy really good, ripe summer tomatoes—as well as making the most of spending as little time in front of a hot stove as possible—is this raw tomato sauce for pasta.

Ripe San Marzano tomatoes. Photo by Emiko Davies

It's something my Tuscan husband often makes for lunch on a warm day when he's craving pasta al pomodoro (he often craves this simple, homely comforting dish), but either doesn't have the patience to cook the sauce or the desire to turn on the stove (except to boil the pasta).

Patience Gray, who spent 20 years in the Mediterranean (including Tuscany and Puglia) and wrote about her food experiences in her wonderful recipe-memoir, Honey from a Weed (1986), includes a recipe for this refreshing dish that she notes does not need any cheese. I agree with her, though sometimes, if I want to make it a little more substantial, a ball of fresh fior di latte mozzarella, torn up, goes quite nicely.

Photo by Emiko Davies

She instructs to peel, remove seeds from, and chop ripe yet firm tomatoes, then to pound them in a mortar with 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, salt, and a hot green pepper. Ripped up basil leaves (tomatoes are, as Jane Grigson says, basil's soulmate) and olive oil finish off this “dressing,” and it's added to hot pasta the moment it has been drained.

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Jane Grigson, in her Vegetable Book (1978), has a similar recipe but adds a couple of spring onions to the garlic, leaves out the chile, and lets the mixture sit for 3 hours in the refrigerator, so that the flavors are drawn out and can get to know each other.

Photo by Emiko Davies

More than recipes, I think these are simply good ideas, suggestions, for doing as little as necessary to this delicious preparation.

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“The only addition to good olive oil and a hint (I mean just a hint) of fresh garlic, is a diced avocado and possibly, fresh basil. The sauce becomes somewhat creamy from the avocado. It's best with short pasta.”
— Julia D.

Peeling the skin off the tomatoes is important, as is removing the seeds. There are many ways to remove the skin from tomatoes by blanching: Patience instructs to pour boiling water over the tomatoes in a bowl, but I like to blanch them directly in the pot where the pasta will cook—it saves time and washing up. Skins removed, you can chop (my preference), but some like to blend the tomatoes for a smooth sauce. My husband's nonna used to just squeeze the tomatoes into bits with her hands. You can prepare it in minutes, or make it well in advance and leave it to chill.

I find that you can get the best out of the tomatoes if you let them sit out of the fridge for about 15 minutes with a good seasoning of salt—at room temperature fresh tomatoes are at their tastiest and the time allows the salt to draw some of the juice out of the chopped tomatoes. If you have really good tomatoes, fresh basil, and good olive oil, you're already more than halfway there.

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Have you made no-cook tomato sauce before? How did you doctor it, if at all? Tell us in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jackie Swann
    Jackie Swann
  • Margaret Thayer
    Margaret Thayer
  • Jazzymom
  • Julia della Croce
    Julia della Croce
  • dymnyno
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Jackie S. July 2, 2017
Deliziosa! Followed your suggestion to bring tomatoes to room temperature before using. I keep my tomatoes in the fridge because ripe fresh tomatoes spoil quickly in the tropical constant 84-86 deg F weather where I live. The dish turned out beautifully. I read the comments on different ways of prepping the tomatoes and adding avocados (Italy meets Mexico!) and will try them out. Thanks for the article and recipe!
Margaret T. July 1, 2017
"Leave the tomatoes out of the fridge"... !?!?!?!? They should never be there to begin with - it destroys their flavor!
Emiko July 2, 2017
I know, tomatoes are best kept at room temperature (and are tastiest then too). But how many people DO store in them in the fridge? So for those who do, it's best to have them out of the fridge before starting the recipe.
Jazzymom August 29, 2016
I like to prepare my tomatoes pretty much as you describe....I heat the olive oil and lightly cook some garlic and red pepper flake in it and pour the warm oil over the tomatoes and then let them macerate on the counter for at least an hour before adding the hot pasta. The garlic becomes more mellow that way. We eat pasta prepared this way as long as the beautiful summer tomatoes are available.
Julia D. August 26, 2016
Here's another, Calabrese recipe, that is even simpler than the raw tomato sauce, with surprisingly tasty results: Bring half a pound of spaghetti to boil and slip in a big, fresh and sweet vine-ripened tomato to the cooking water when it's halfway cooked. Drain and transfer to a serving platter. Smash the tomato with a fork and top with good olive oil and fresh grated parmigiana or pecorino cheese.
Emiko August 27, 2016
Love the sound of this!
Julia D. August 26, 2016
One of the most popular recipes in all of my fourteen cookbooks is for a raw tomato and avocado sauce I learned from an Italian friend. Prepare the tomatoes as for the basic recipe here. The only addition to good olive oil and a hint (I mean just a hint) of fresh garlic, is a diced avocado and possibly, fresh basil. The sauce becomes somewhat creamy from the avocado. It's best with short pasta.
dymnyno August 25, 2016
One of my favorite ways to make sauce is to pick warm tomatoes from the garden, squish them up with my hands, tear up basil, add a little salt and olive oil. Then cover with wrap and let sit in the sun for about an hour to "cook". Serve with pasta and fresh cheese.
Emiko August 27, 2016