Sunday Dinner

A Love Letter to Marcella Hazan’s *Other* Tomato Sauces

September 21, 2018

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From the first time I made Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, I was in love.

I wasn’t alone in my adoration—pretty much the entire internet was right there with me. Much has been said about the genius of this recipe, but I’ll gladly say it again: Three pantry ingredients (canned whole tomatoes, onion, butter) and a little bit of time give you a rich, almost creamy sauce with a bright, sweet tomato flavor, no matter the season.

I fell so hard that I found reasons to make it all the time. I served it over pasta of all shapes and sizes. I added hot Italian sausage and baked it with penne and Parmesan. I cooked peppers in it and ate it with a fried egg on top. I loved it so much, I even ate it cold, onion and all.

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Until, as suddenly as our affair began, it was over. I met someone else, another tomato sauce that somehow felt even more magical: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Olive Oil and Chopped Vegetables.

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Top Comment:
“I just found out tomato sauce is better and more complex when you add ingredients!! And that it gets even better when you COOK those ingredients!!! Try it!!!!" (Joke's on me, though, because I definitely will. :D )”
— VeryOriginalUsername

A mutual friend introduced us by pulling out her stain-spattered copy of Essentials of Italian Cooking one night when we were making dinner together. Instead of the tomato sauce I knew so well, she pointed to this other recipe—so similar, but also so different. In the place of my beloved halved onion and 5 tablespoons of butter were 2/3 cup of chopped carrots, 2/3 cup of chopped celery, and 2/3 cup of chopped onion instead. Into the tomato they all went, and after 30 minutes I added 1/3 cup of olive oil, turned up the heat, and stirred some more. She cooked the pasta, we put together a salad, and we sat down to eat.

I sat at the dining room table and looked skeptically at the tomato sauce I’d cooked. I spooned some onto my pasta, pushed it around a bit on my plate, and took a bite. The room stood quiet in my mind, like in a movie, all the people and noise slipping into the background; it was just me and this tomato sauce, which was speaking to my soul. This sauce was more than the sum of its parts in such a deep way. It was bright and acidic, sweet and tangy, improbably fresh tasting, and full of a thick, fresh, vegetal crunchiness I wasn’t expecting.

I started excitedly telling everyone about my new love, how much more complex it was than my old obsession, how much more it added to my simple weeknight dinners, how energized I felt by my new discovery.

It was just me and this tomato sauce, which was speaking to my soul.

I made it regularly, testing the boundaries of what it could be. I chopped the vegetables roughly and I minced them fine, yielding sauces that were more rustic and more refined, respectively; I added black pepper and chili flakes for a spicier version, with grated cheese and fresh basil at the end for a gratuitous flourish. All of my experiments proved unnecessary—the sauce could withstand anything, but needed nothing.

The smell of cooking tomatoes filling my apartment was in itself a reason to keep making the sauce; the fact that I got to eat it over and over again was like a prize I’d won for just being myself.

You can't beat the smell of tomato sauce on the stovetop, shown here in a Lagostina stainless steel skillet. Photo by Julia Gartland

I felt I had a secret: Everyone knew that Onion and Butter was great, but I had Chopped Vegetables and we were never going to be apart. And that’s when I met Marcella’s third sauce, which I guess I’d just never turned the page to see before: Tomato Sauce with Sautéed Vegetables and Olive Oil.

I made it on a whim, thinking that this new sauce posed no threat to my love affair with Chopped Vegetables. While it’s nearly the same ingredient list, in Tomato Sauce with Sautéed Vegetables and Olive Oil, Marcella asks that you cook 1/3 cup of onions in 1/3 cup of olive oil (a ratio to make my heart skip a beat), then sauté 1/3 cup chopped carrots and 1/3 cup of celery with the onion before adding the tomatoes.

I was not prepared for the moment I dipped my spoon into the finished sauce and tasted. It was richer, darker, and jammier. The onions were sweet from their first cooking in oil, the carrot and celery soft and aromatic, the tomatoes like a concentrated paste of tangy sweetness—I had fallen completely for Sautéed Vegetables.

This was the sauce of my childhood fantasies. It is a perfectly balanced sauce, in which all the ingredients melt into one another and compliment each other, exciting no matter how many times I make it, coating pasta like they were made for each other, the pale strands of spaghetti becoming a picture-perfect orangey-red. The soffritto adds a savory base, making it less fresh tasting than its predecessors, but more well rounded, and giving the illusion that it’s been cooked for hours when in fact it only takes 45 minutes.

All three of Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauces are perfect, each unique and uniquely magical.

All three of Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauces are perfect, each unique and uniquely magical. I will always love Onion and Butter, and I recall our days together fondly. I still cook Onion and Butter when I’m feeling nostalgic, when I want that bright tomato acidity, when I crave the comfort of a melted onion and the creaminess that the butter imparts.

I will always love Chopped Vegetables, and I make it when it’s cold or grey and I need something bright to perk me up and take me back to that first time, when the night around the table with friends seemed endless. But now I make Sautéed Vegetables, alone, just for me. Maybe someday I’ll share it with someone I love. For now, it’s my own pleasure, and our future together is rich and bright.

In partnership with Lagostina, the premium Italian cookware brand that values high-quality materials and time-honored craftsmanship, we're bringing you seven days of stories and recipes all about Italy.

To cap off the week, we're highlighting the #LagostinaSundayDinner with a new series all about the Italian tradition of Sunday suppers—casual, all-day affairs with friends, family, and delicious food—that features go-to recipes from some of our favorite chefs and cookbook authors.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Davencstate
  • Brigid Reinhard
    Brigid Reinhard
  • bookjunky
  • Märtin Hœrnüng
    Märtin Hœrnüng
  • Toobluetilloo


Davencstate October 3, 2020
Well written, your flair and passion resonates
Brigid R. July 12, 2020
Thank you! I love simple food and I love my Marcella Hazan cookbook!
bookjunky May 27, 2020
Jesus, it's like you've never made a freaking tomato sauce without a manual.
Märtin H. September 3, 2019
Mirepoix is a wonderful thing.
Toobluetilloo July 31, 2019
All so easy and perfect...but how can there be pasta sauce without fresh GARLIC??
Matt June 16, 2019
I'm surprised the hordes haven't descended upon this article with asinine comments like "this was bland and I needed to add an entire bottle of oregano to make it taste remotely like marinara." Or gems such as "NO GARLIC? That's not how you're supposed to make italian sauce."
VeryOriginalUsername April 22, 2019
"Hey! I just found out tomato sauce is better and more complex when you add ingredients!! And that it gets even better when you COOK those ingredients!!! Try it!!!!" (Joke's on me, though, because I definitely will. :D )
Jessica L. September 21, 2018
I love this!!!! I am still in love with Onion Butter but will have to try the next two love affairs!
inpatskitchen September 21, 2018
Alexandra Stafford turned me on to another Marcella Hazan sauce. It can be found here:
inpatskitchen September 21, 2018
hmm...the link doesn't seem to be working but the recipe can be found on her site
VeryOriginalUsername April 22, 2019
Link worked fine for me, just had to be careful to separate the "here:https" at the beginning when copying. Thanks!