When it comes to Italian food, few dishes are more iconic than Pasta Al Pomodoro. Want proof? The classic pasta recipe's three main ingredients -- pasta, tomatoes, and basil -- are the colors of il tricolore (the flag) and they're three of the most used ingredients in Italian cooking.
To clarify there are a lot of different kinds of tomato-based pasta sauces in classic Italian cooking.
You have "alla checca," which is an uncooked summery tomato sauce reminiscent of bruschetta topping; then there's "marinara," which is the closest thing to Pasta Al Pomodoro but it tends to be made with larger chunks of tomatoes and is cooked a bit longer; more hearty is "sugo di pomodoro" which is a slow (and long) simmered tomato sauce often made with onion, garlic, and carrots as a base, and finally there's a "ragu," which is a slow simmered meat version of "sugo di pomodoro" (think what the guys made in the jail scene in Goodfellas).
But pomodoro sauce is something all its own. Classically made with just olive oil, garlic, basil, and tomatoes (fresh or canned), it's a very simple sauce that is more of a quick-cooked light tomato sauce than anything else.But simple but by no means basic. Like so much of Italian cooking, this recipe only calls for a few ingredients so it's uber important they're as high quality as you can get.
The best Pasta Al Pomodoro is a dish where the sauce is a perfect balance of sweet and savory and the sauce is a texture that coats each piece of pasta without being soupy or dry.
Depending on the kind of tomato sauce you're looking to make -- alla checca, pomodoro, ragu, etc -- there are a few different steps. However, they all start out by combining olive oil and tomatoes.
For Pasta Al Pomodoro you want to start by infusing the olive oil with the garlic and basil then adding the tomatoes and quickly cooking them. You only want the sauce to simmer for 15 minutes so it doesn't reduce and doesn't get a "cooked" flavor. Think of the recipe more like a quick cooked version of "alla checca" meaning they both emphasize freshness of the ingredients.
If you want the end result to be a bit silkier, you can add a knob of butter right before you toss the sauce and the noodles together and/or you can blend the sauce with an immersion blender to slightly aerate and smooth out the sauce. Neither of those steps are traditional nor are they essential, but I do them for dinner parties because they add that extra touch to make this dish feel a bit more elegant.
I'm going to assume you'll get the freshest garlic and herbs you can find, so then the only two ingredients up for discussion are the olive oil and the tomatoes. You can make pasta al pomodoro with fresh tomatoes (we'll share that recipe with you in the future) but more often than not we make the recipe with high quality canned tomato sauce.
The star tomato for pizza and pasta sauces in Italy is the San Marzano (in fact, it's DOP or a protected ingredient because it's so cherished) and true San Marzano DOP tomatoes are hard to find the United States. However, many quality tomato companies grow a strain of those tomatoes here. I'm a fan of the Bianco DiNapoli brand because they're flavorful and have great texture.
As for olive oil, if you've read our tips on buying great olive oil then you all know that around here we always get extra virgin olive oil for our cooking and our garnishing.
Okay, that's it for the essential info you need to know before you try your hand at Pasta Al Pomodoro. Now get in the kitchen, cook it up, and share it on social using the hashtag #swsociety!
smashed and peeled
(optional - omit to make it dairy free)
or other long thin noodle pasta (use gluten free noodles to make recipe gluten free)
for garnish (optional - omit to make it dairy free)
For The Tomato Sauce: Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium high heat. When it shimmers, add the garlic clove and one sprig of basil (at least 3 large leaves), and, a pinch of the crushed red pepper flakes, if using. Cook until the mixture is fragrant then immediately remove the garlic and basil. Add the tomatoes, a large pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Immediately lower to medium-low heat and simmer, stirring occasionally (make sure to get the bottom of the pan so nothing burns!) until the flavors just come together about 15 minutes.
If you want a smoother sauce, use a stick blender (or transfer the sauce to a blender or food processor) and process it until smooth. Add the butter (if using) and tear the remaining basil leaves into the sauce just before serving.
The sauce can be made ahead of time and stored refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days. If you want to keep in longer, store it in the freezer.
For The Pasta: Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Once you lower the heat on the tomatoes to simmer them, add the spaghetti to the water. Cook the pasta 3 minutes short of the package directions, reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water, then use tongs to transfer the noodles directly from the pot to the pan with the sauce (the butter (if using) and the basil should already have been added to the sauce).
Use tongs to turn the noodles in the sauce and, if you want the sauce a bit thinner, add 1/3 cup of the pasta cooking water (this will also help the sauce adhere to the noodle). To serve the pasta, use a ladle and the tongs to twist one portion of the noodles into a "nest" then transfer this to the serving plate. If desired, top with a drizzle of olive oil and some Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and serve immediately.
This sauce recipe will cover 12 ounces of noodles and have a little left over for those who like extra sauce. If, instead, you just want the noodles covered with sauce but none leftover, you can cook 1 pound (16 ounces) of pasta for this amount of sauce.
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