For a while I resisted the idea of writing about tomato sauce. In fact, as a typical Italian living in the US, I'm often annoyed when Italian cuisine is identified exclusively with tomato and cheese-laden dishes. But then the spring arrived, persuading me to break the ice, and to use this post as an opportunity to dispel some myths!
Tomatoes first arrived in Italy for the first time during the 1500s. They were brought by the the Spanish, who had encounterd them in the Americas. In particular, Jewish or conversos merchants of Spanish or Portuguese origins brought them to Livorno (Leighorn), and from there to the rest of Europe. However, at the beginning tomatoes were met with suspicion: after all, even in the Americas they were still considered poisonous, and enjoyed solely as a decorative plant. It's not clear how long it took for people to realize what they were missing on: all we know is that for a while these myths about the poison lingered, or were replaced by others about magical or aphrodisiac powers. But without a doubt, nobody yet was thinking of pizza margherita!
The fact that in Italy the local Jews, always adventurous with vegetables, were among the first to bite into this forbidden fruit is suggested by the fact that many traditional Livornese recipes with tomato are named "alla mosaica" (Moses-style) or "alla giudia" (Jewish-style). Meanwhile, the general population was also starting to experiment with the "pomidoro" (from the Latin "golden apples"), at least in some regions, and with the exception of the aristocracy, which waited much longer. (In France, au contraire, tomatoes were served at the Royal Court). In any case, it took a while to arrive at today's dishes: the first written record of a recipe for pasta with tomato sauce only dates back to 1837!
Historical digressions aside, one of the reasons I've been wanting to write this post is to state clearly that pasta sauce is a dish, not an ingredient. It's something that you can make easily and quickly to dress your pasta. It should not be used to add flavor to your brisket, or (my pet peeve!) to pizza. You are going to cook/bake your brisket and pizza anyway, so what's the point exactly of adding a pre-cooked sauce? Use simple strained tomatoes and they will cook with the food. Trust me, nobody in Italy would ever put jarred marinara sauce on their pizza. For a realistic, minimalistic and perfect version of pizza margherita, check out the recipe and video by Mario Grazia for Academia Barilla.
And now on to the pasta sauce, in a couple of variations. You will notice that I use canned tomatoes. That's because I live in Manhattan, and I find that the varieties that are sold here tend to be quite firm and have a lot of seeds: they are much more suitable for salads than sauces. Even when I was growing up in Venice we used canned tomatoes imported from the San Marzano area near Naples. However, if you are lucky to live in an area where the tomatoes are soft and juicy, go ahead and use fresh!
Tomato-lovers should also check out:
My Pappa col Pomodoro (Tuscan Tomato Soup)
Frank's How To Buy canned Tomatoes
Smitten Kitchen's Slow-roasted Tomatoes
Academia barilla's Tomato Focaccia