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Arthur Avenue Secrets: The best-jarred tomato sauce

Updated: Mar 2

During the Saturday Shopping & Tasting Tour, the most common question is, "Which jarred tomato sauce is the best?" With so many options flooding the supermarket aisles, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. However, the key to Italian cooking is simplicity: using high-quality ingredients with minimal intervention. Therefore, the best jarred tomato sauce is simply pureed tomatoes with no additional ingredients.

Glass jars of tomato passata
Tomato puree or passata

Basic Italian Tomato Sauce is Marinara Sauce

Marinara sauce is simply a little bit of olive oil and passata (puree) of tomatoes, heated for no more than ten minutes, with a fresh basil leaf thrown in for the last minute of cooking. Marinara means "in the style of the sailor," and the idea is that anyone can make the sauce quickly. Add a pinch of salt. If you like garlic, add a whole peeled clove with the tomatoes, but it's unnecessary. Don't slice it with a razor; no matter what you remember from Goodfellas, that's how you give yourself garlic breath.

A jar of good quality passata like Mutti will cost $3 or $4. If you like your sauce chunkier, use canned tomatoes like Bianco DiNapoli or real, not fugazi San Marzano tomatoes from Teitel Brothers on Arthur Avenue.

Cans of tomatoes from the Naples area on Arthur Avenue
Teitel Brothers stocks real San Marzano tomatoes, and tomatoes grown adjacent to the official San Marzano fields

What's the difference between homemade marinara sauce and jarred tomato sauce

So what's the deal with the jarred marinara sauce at least $8, if not more?

1) Marketing

2) Branding

3) Preservatives

Essentially, jarred marinara is just pureed tomatoes, with the addition of a bunch of junk to keep it shelf stable for a very long time. The USDA is setting the rules here, not an authentic secret recipe. That's a lot of extra money to pay for additives that aren't good for you anyway.

An Italian tomato sauce that needs to be cooked for a long time is specifically a ragù, which is what Italian Americans often call Sunday gravy. That's because it's filled with meat that needs to slowly cook over a low flame for hours until it's fork tender. There's no single recipe, and no two ragùs are the same. Sometimes I use sausage, meatballs, and braciole which I could make, but usually pick up at Vincent's Meat Market. Other times, I may just put in a chunk of a pork shoulder. Most important though is that the meat has some fat because fat is the magical ingredient.

This is the perfect starter recipe if you've never made a Sunday sauce/gravy/ragù.

Easy Sunday Ragù Recipe

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • Two garlic cloves

  • One medium bone-in pork shoulder with fat, bring to room temperature before cooking

  • Two 28-oz. cans of San Marzano tomatoes, crushed with your hands

  • A tablespoon of tomato paste (optional)

  • One tablespoon Turkish oregano. Most big brand oregano in American grocery stores is Mexican, which differs greatly from what grows in the Mediterranean. Most grocery stores will also stock Turkish oregano.

  • Salt to taste

Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cover it with Kosher salt, and let it come to room temperature. Kosher salt is far less "salty" than regular table salt and helps bring out the flavor of the meat. Diamond Crystal is the very best.

Cover the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven with a quarter of an inch of olive oil. Peel the garlic, slice off the ends, and place it in the pot whole. Add to the oil and place the pot over a very low flame. Use a wooden spoon to move the garlic through the oil to season it as it becomes soft and translucent, about five minutes.

Raise the flame to medium and add your pork shoulder. Let it brown, about 3-4 minutes on each side.

Add the crushed tomatoes right over the pork shoulder and stir with a wooden spoon to combine the tomatoes with the oil and fat from the pork. Stir slowly and add the oregano. Once warm, add the tomato paste and stir to combine once again. 

Cover the pot and turn the flame down to the lowest possible whisper. Let it cook for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. You may need more time depending on what kind of stove you're using. It's ready when the meat can be shredded with a fork. Use a spoon to remove the ribbons of fat oil that have risen to the top.

Stir once again, letting the chunks of meat fall into the sauce. Serve over pasta or with a "scarpetta", a hunk of bread used to clean your plate of every delicious drop.


Want to visit Arthur Avenue with a complete guide on your phone?

A Shopper's Guide to Arthur Avenue, Little Italy in the Bronx is now available via Saltete. It's a map-synced guide to the Italian shops full of history and shopping tips. The full Shopping & Tasting Tour itinerary is included so you can do the tour independently.

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