I must begin with a confession: There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I want to reach out with all my love to my husband, a dish of pasta and tomatoes is almost always in my hands. When I am worn out and the world isn't such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta. When time is short but dear friends must be fed with joy and not pressure, I make pasta with tomato sauce.

In my years of exploring Italy's countryside, I cannot think of a farmhouse or country home I have visited where I did not see tomatoes preserved in some way or another. Tomatoes flavor countless foods--pizza, polenta, rice, beans, meats, seafood and all kinds of vegetables. But at every table, in every home, no matter what else I was offered, eventually a bowl of pasta with some kind of tomato sauce was set down before me.

As my collection of pasta and tomato recipes grew, I realized every Italian cook I met had at least several favorites. Tomato sauce is a sauce for every man. Anyone can afford a tomato. Anyone can make a good tomato sauce with what's on hand and most country cooks do. Tomato sauces require no stocks or fancy ingredients. Yet for their incredible variety no one had codified tomato sauces. As I mulled over the tomato and its sauces, a structure revealed itself. There is logic to the tomato sauce.

What follows are three tomato sauces that bring together many of the secrets shared by country cooks I've met throughout Italy. One sauce uses uncooked tomatoes, one uses canned tomatoes and one uses oven-roasted canned tomatoes. But I've also provided a variety of tips and ways for you to improvise once you've learned some basic principles. There are more sauces and techniques, but get started with these and then you'll see how with no extra work you can now possess a sorcerer's cache of flavoring secrets.

Building Flavor In a Tomato Sauce

Simmered tomato sauces begin one of two ways. One method starts with a flavor base of sauteed vegetables called a soffrito. The other method has all the ingredients simmering together with no preliminary saute. Both are delicious, yet they have important differences.

A soffrito is made by sauteing chopped vegetables, herbs and/or cured meats in oil, butter or pork fat. It can be as simple as garlic and parsley, as complex as carrot, celery , onion, chili peppers and herbs. If you understand a soffrito, you are then free to create when you cook. For bold sauces, brown the soffrito fast over medium-high to high heat before you add the tomatoes. This produces big, meaty-brown flavors. For gentle, sweeter sauces, saute the soffrito very slowly, beginning with medium heat for a few moments, then cooking over medium-low until its ingredients are limp but not colored. For even deeper, sweeter character, once the soffrito is limp, raise the heat and saute it to golden brown. For sauces between the two extremes, saute the soffrito to golden brown over medium heat.

But you can also build flavor in a tomato sauce without sauteing the soffrito. This method always surprises people because of how effortless it is and yet how very good the resulting sauces taste. Put whatever soffrito ingredients you want to use in a saucepan along with the fat you'd usually use for the saute and the tomatoes. Simmer everything together, uncovered, for about 25 minutes, or until the sauce is thick.

Your next decision is whether to strain or puree this type of simmered sauce. A single sauce will go from elegant to big and bold, depending on whether you strain it, puree it or spoon it over pasta straight from the pot.

The "passed" sauce (sugo passato) is the smoothest, most restrained style of sauce without a saute. You pass the sauce through a food mill to eliminate everything that isn't crushable, like seeds, peels and other solid ingredients. Use passed sauces over most pastas, from ones as fine as angel hair to modestly thick shapes like small penne, as well as in lasagna, on pizza and anywhere a smooth sauce is needed.

The same sauce tastes bolder and more substantial when you puree it in a blender or food processor. Serve this style with medium to bold pasta shapes, from spaghetti to penne and rigatoni to fusilli. As with the passed sauces, pureed sauces are a secret weapon when it comes to layering lasagna, saucing pizza, moistening polenta or cooking into a risotto as part of its liquid.

But the biggest flavors come from simmered sauces served straight from the pot. Just be sure to chop the ingredients into small pieces. This "untouched" sauce marries with everything from linguine and spaghetti to the bolder cavatappi, ziti, snails and shells.

Improvising: The Next Stage

This is where tomato sauces really become fun. Once you understand how seasonings and techniques work, you can quickly conjure up any style of sauce you want, from classic tomato-basil to a wildly luscious tumble of flavors that make the tomato seem like the newest thing you've ever eaten. Here's how:

* If you want your sauce to be sweet, cook the soffrito slowly. Use soft-flavored herbs (basil, chives and mint), sweet peppers or artisan-made balsamic vinegar. Finish the sauce once it's tossed with pasta with fresh creamy cheeses like ricotta to bring out the softest, sweetest tastes of tomato.

* If you want your sauce to be tart, add wine, citrus zests, capers or red or white wine vinegars.

* Bring out the tomato's salty flavors with anchovies, olives, capers, cured meats, sausage or cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano, cacioricotta, Asiago, Fiore Sardo, Fontinella, Dry Kack and the like.

* Open up the tomato's suave richness and meaty quality by first browning the soffrito quickly and then cooking the tomatoes with any one or a blend of the following: cured meats, fresh meat or poultry, soaked anchovies, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, onions, garlic, black pepper and/or strong herbs (like sage, rosemary, bay, thyme, oregano and savory).

Stirring a little butter or olive oil into a tomato sauce just before serving rounds out, silkens and lifts it.

No other savory food can so easily become so many different sauces by merely pairing it with different ingredients or changing its method of cooking. This is why tomato sauces are so popular in Italy and America. And if you think there is solely a single tomato sauce with a few variations, think again.

From "The Italian Country Table" by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. (C) 1999. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.

TIPS FOR BETTER SAUCES:

The Pot

The size and shape of the pot will influence the taste and texture of a sauce. In shallow, wide skillets or saute pans, sauces cook faster and taste brighter. In deep saucepans, moisture evaporates more slowly and sauces cook longer, tending to taste more mellow, more evolved and complex. Tasting is the only way of knowing when a sauce is ready. Look upon recipes as guides, but let your palate be the final judge.

Storing

* Raw sauces do not hold for more than a few hours. Keep them out of the refrigerator because, as with fresh tomatoes, cold kills flavor.

* Most cooked sauces are at their best freshly cooked but will keep, covered in the refrigerator, for up to five days.

* Freeze cooked sauces containing generous amounts of olive oil for no more than one month. After that, the oil can take on a fishy taste.

* Freeze all other cooked sauces in airtight containers for as long as five months.

* Thaw frozen sauces in the refrigerator and then reheat them over a gentle flame, stirring often. Be careful not to overcook. Since some tomato sauces are ruined by overcooking, always reheat to hot, but take care not to continue cooking the sauce.

Fresh Tomatoes

If you are using fresh tomatoes in your recipe, taste before buying. The words "vine-ripened" are no assurance of good taste. Seek varieties bred for flavor, not shipping, though that is often difficult.

Never refrigerate tomatoes. Cold kills flavor. At 40 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature of most refrigerators), tomatoes turn hard and taste dull and returning them to room temperature will not restore flavor. Keep them at room temperature, in a basket for air circulation.

Should you peel and seed your tomatoes before they go into the sauce? Over 300 elements create the taste of a tomato. The gel that surrounds the seeds contains a significant amount of them. Italian cooks have always known this. Traditional sauce recipes often call for the entire tomato--seeds, peel and flesh--to be cooked and then passed through a food mill. Personal preference and a sauce's tradition dictate whether or not to peel and seed.

When I want to seed and peel tomatoes for a raw sauce, or have a meaty puree, I just cut them in half and rub them skin-side out against the side of a grater with big holes. Do this in a shallow bowl.

If bigger chunks of tomato are needed for a cooked sauce, sear the skin over a stove burner until it puckers. Cool, cut in half, slip off the skin and squeeze out the seeds.

Canned Tomatoes

For most months of the year, we turn to canned tomatoes for our tomato sauces. Whole canned tomatoes are my first choice because many brands of pureed, crushed or ground tomatoes, though convenient, are thickened with low-grade tomato paste, which brings a metallic flavor to dishes. I use "plum" tomatoes and "whole" tomatoes interchangeably. When necessary, I just break whole canned tomatoes up with my hands as they go into the pot.

When you buy whole canned tomatoes, check the labels. Ideally, whole tomatoes are packed in tomato juice with or without basil leaves. (Maybe I've missed it, but I have never detected any basil flavor from these leaves.) Drain away the liquid when you want less tomato taste or want to thicken a sauce quickly. A short cooking time protects the simple bright taste of barely cooked canned tomatoes. Keep the liquid for sauces where quantity, more tomato flavor or longer cooking is desired. Slightly longer cooking usually deepens and enriches the flavors of canned tomatoes.

All canned tomatoes are not alike. Surprisingly, the much-touted imported Italian San Marzano tomatoes often disappoint when tasted against canned American examples. Then again, I wonder how many are actually the true San Marzano, grown in the rich volcanic soil of the Naples area. It is difficult to tell.

I find that whole tomatoes packed in tomato juice by Hunt's, Contadina and the organic Muir Glen are quality brands of domestic canned tomatoes. Red Pack brand's whole tomatoes "in tomato puree" are excellent. However, their whole tomatoes "in thick puree" tend to taste metallic in cooking because there seems to be low-quality tomato paste used to thicken the puree.

For quality imported canned tomatoes, I prefer Cirio, La Valle, Tutto Rosso and Asti.

In addition to the whole tomatoes, the chopped or diced tomatoes made by Hunt's, Muir Glen and Contadina, as well as other packers, are a gift to cooks. These are time-savers with sound, pure tomato taste unsullied by paste or puree. Usually there's some tomato juice added and that is all.

THREE DIFFERENT METHODS, THREE DIFFERENT TASTES

Uncooked Tomato Sauce

(6 to 8 servings as a first course, 4 as a main dish)

This recipe gives you the basic technique for cooking tomatoes into a sauteed flavor base, or soffrito. You saute onions, garlic and herbs and toss them with fresh uncooked tomatoes. When fresh tomatoes are out of season, use a 28-ounce can and a 14-ounce can of whole tomatoes, undrained, breaking them up with your hands as they go into the skillet. Simmer them, uncovered, over high heat for about 8 minutes, stirring often, until the sauce is thick.

1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons robust extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, finely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves, chopped

Pinch of hot red chili pepper flakes (optional)

1 pound spaghetti or other favorite string pasta

6 quarts boiling salted water

3 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2-inch dice, but left unpeeled and unseeded; or a 28-ounce can and a 14-ounce can of whole tomatoes, undrained

About 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the onions and salt and pepper to taste. Cover, reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally and checking for sticking, until the onions are clear, limp and sweet-tasting, about 30 minutes. Uncover the pan, increase the heat to medium-high and cook the onions, stirring frequently, until pale gold. Stir in the garlic, basil and red pepper flakes, if using. Cook for 1 minute. Cover and set aside.

Cook the pasta in fiercely boiling water, stirring often, until tender yet firm to the bite. Drain in a colander.

Quickly rewarm the onion mixture by tossing it with the hot pasta. Finally toss in the tomatoes. Season to taste. Turn into a heated bowl and serve hot. The cheese is totally optional. When tomatoes are sensational, it gets in their way.

Variations:

Try these flavorings alone or in combination, tasting as you go.

* 2 rinsed anchovy fillets, sauteed into the onions until they dissolve

* 3 slices soppressata (a hard salami), minced and cooked with the onions

* Shredded zest of 1/2 large orange, added with the garlic and basil

* 8 fresh Italian parsley leaves, chopped and added with the garlic and basil

* 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, added with the garlic and basil

* 1 tablespoon capers, stirred into the sauce just before serving

* 2 tablespoons each minced celery and carrot, sauteed with the onions

* 2 tablespoons dry white or red wine, stirred in with the garlic and basil

Per serving (based on 6, with cheese): 485 calories, 23 gm protein, 73 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 551 mg sodium, 6 gm dietary fiber

Simmered Tomato Sauce

(6 to 8 as a first course, 4 to 6 as a main dish)

Here, everything--tomatoes, olive oil and seasonings--goes into the pot more or less at once, with no sauteing ahead of time, and simmers until thick.

Italians make this sauce with unpeeled fresh tomatoes or canned ones, passing the sauce through a food mill once it's cooked. My preference is for a more rustic juicy sauce with bits of tomato, so I roughly chop it in a blender or food processor. Only if the fresh tomatoes' peels are tough or bitter do I peel them.

5 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

12 large fresh basil leaves, torn

1/4 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil

3 1/2 pounds ripe delicious tomatoes, cored and possibly peeled (do not seed), or two 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, drained

1 pound modest-size pasta such as ziti or penne, or a substantial string pasta, such as linguine

6 quarts boiling salted water

1 1/2 to 2 cups (6 to 8 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)

In a 4-quart saucepan, combine the garlic, basil, onion, salt, pepper and oil. Heat over medium-high heat for 1 minute, no more. Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with your hands as they go into the pan. Bring to a lively bubble and cook, uncovered, until the sauce is thick and reduced by half, about 30 minutes. Stir often, watching for sticking or scorching. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let stand for 15 minutes.

Pass the sauce through a food mill or chop it in a blender or food processor until it is in small pieces. If desired, the sauce can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

Cook the pasta in fiercely boiling water, stirring often, until tender yet firm to the bite. Drain, toss with the reheated sauce and serve immediately. Grated cheese is an option.

Per serving (based on 6, with cheese): 537 calories, 23 gm protein, 71 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 542 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber

Oven-Roasted Tomatoes

(Makes 16 to 32 pieces, 4 to 8 servings)

Amazing things happen to canned tomatoes when you roast them with olive oil, garlic and herbs. Imagine little scarlet medallions of tomato flecked with herbs, tasting almost brazenly meaty and sweet. Make these tomatoes when fresh ones are out of season. Eat the roasted tomatoes on their own, on bread and bruschetta, with salads, beans, polenta and risotto, or toss them with larger pastas in convoluted shapes, such as rotini.

Two 28-ounce cans peeled whole tomatoes, drained, halved and seeded (preferably Muir Glen, Hunt's, Contadina or Red Pack)

1/2 to 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

14 large fresh basil leaves, torn

Two 4-inch branches fresh rosemary

1/2 medium red onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice

5 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread out the tomatoes in a large shallow pan (a half-sheet pan is ideal) and drizzle on the oil. Add the basil, rosemary, onion, garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Turn the tomatoes to coat with the oil. Bake the tomatoes in the preheated oven, basting and turning the tomatoes several times, for 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours. The tomatoes are done when their color deepens to dark scarlet and they taste mellow and very rich. Don't let them brown, nor allow the garlic to brown--it'll turn bitter.

Transfer the tomatoes and the oil to a glass or china bowl. Set aside at room temperature until they cool or for as long as 5 or 6 hours. The flavors will ripen in this time.

Cover tightly and refrigerate the tomatoes for up to 4 days, or freeze for up to 3 months. Serve the tomatoes at room temperature or tossed with hot pasta.

Per serving (based on 6): 219 calories, 3 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 439 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber