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A good friend of mine once went on a date with a middling restaurant chef who, when they went back to his place at the end of the night, started to whip up a small batch of this sauce, telling her that it was his own creation. As she watched him pour a can of tomatoes into a pot, followed by some cold butter and raw onion, she asked if he knew who Marcella Hazan was. It wasn’t long before his face was the color of marinara.

The original recipe, called Tomato Sauce III, can be found in Hazan’s formative “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” from 1987. (The book was originally published in 1973). It’s all of four ingredients, and, especially if you make it with canned tomatoes, involves virtually no prep and takes well under an hour to make, but tastes like it took all day. Famously, it involves an entire stick of butter and an uncooked onion. The butter adds richness, of course, while the onion* lends its depth and, as it loses its integrity, turns soft and silky, enhancing the tomatoes’ sweetness.

A couple of years ago, I was having lunch with a friend who knew Hazan’s husband, Victor, her longtime taste-tester and translator. I asked her to ask him how the sauce came to be. She emailed me Victor’s response:

That sauce of Marcella’s travels the world. As you may remember, Marcella comes from a fishing and agricultural town in Romagna, the coastal area of Emilia-Romagna. When they cook tomatoes for sauce, they use butter and onions. The usual practice is to mince the onion and to soften it in butter over the stove, then to add tomatoes. Her mother used fresh plum tomatoes in season, and tinned tomatoes otherwise. When Marcella came to New York after we married, she discovered a love for ingredients, and found many ways to allow them to express their character. She remembered her mother’s old sauce of sautéed minced onion, butter and tomatoes, but she transformed it into the version that so many have adopted as their basic tomato sauce. The onion is used whole, it is not sautéed, its sweetness develops slowly and envelops the tomatoes.

Victor closed the email in what I’m told is his characteristic affection for his late wife, and poise in prose: “In one sense it is a traditional sauce out of her background, in another it’s an improvisation generated by her unquestioned genius for cooking.”

*This recipe suggests you discard the onion after all of its flavor has melted into the sauce, but I am here to tell you not to throw it away! Either puree it into the tomatoes with a stick blender or pluck it out of the pot and spread it on a slice of crusty bread: A cook’s spoils never tasted so good.

I’m going to let you all in on a little secret. (It’s one I’m especially embarrassed to tell Jim Webster, one of my editors, who makes and cans fresh tomato sauce every summer.) I have only made Marcella’s sauce with fresh tomatoes once in my life. Every other time — there were dozens at least — I’ve used canned tomatoes. (Of course, if you have a bumper crop of tomatoes and love the process of canning, don’t let me stop you!)

Think of this as a rich marinara and the possibilities for turning it into dinner become endless: Pizza, bruschetta, over gnocchi or layered in a lasagna or parmigiana. Thanks to that stick of butter, it’s really lovely with pasta, especially if you reserve some of the pasta water to help emulsify the sauce, turning it creamy and yet bright, and bursting with the freshness of summer tomatoes.

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Ingredients

  • Scant 2 pounds fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes (may substitute 28-ounce can peeled whole San Marzano tomatoes; see NOTES)
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, cut lengthwise in half
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (optional)

Step 1

Cut the fresh tomatoes in half lengthwise. Place them cut side down in a wide saucepan; cover and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until slightly softened.


Step 2

Working in batches as needed, transfer the tomatoes to a hand-cranked food mill set over a mixing bowl. Puree until the solids are completely broken down, with tomato seeds and skins left in the mill. Discard the solids; pour the pureed tomatoes and juices back into the saucepan, then add the butter and onion halves, cut sides down. Cook over medium heat until the butter has melted, then season lightly with salt and add the sugar, if using.


Step 3

Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook (uncovered) for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, to form a smooth, brightly colored sauce that has thickened a bit.

Taste and add salt as needed. Discard the onion before serving or storing.

NOTES: If you use canned tomatoes, chop, squish or puree them. Then, add them and their juices to the saucepan and cook as directed with the other ingredients.

If you don’t have a food mill and want to use fresh tomatoes, peel and de-seed them first. Here’s how: Slice an X through the base and dunk them in boiling water for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until they float to the surface. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and place them in a bowl of ice water. This will make them easy to peel. After peeling, slice the tomatoes in half and, using your fingers, scoop out and discard the seeds and gel. Tear the tomatoes into pieces and run them through a food processor, in batches if necessary, to puree.


Nutrition Information

Per serving (1/3 cup):

Calories: 160; Total Fat: 16 g; Saturated Fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 40 mg; Sodium: 55 mg; Carbohydrates: 6 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugars: 4 g; Protein: 1 g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.


Adapted from Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cookbook” (MacMillan London Ltd., 1987).

Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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