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The secret to a bold weeknight pasta sauce? A little anchovy boost.

(Photos by Jennifer Heffner for The Washington Post; food styling by Nicola Justine Davis for The Washington Post)
Fast and Easy Tomato Sauce
Total time:25 mins
Servings:4 to 6
Total time:25 mins
Servings:4 to 6

What’s the little container filled with big umami flavor you keep tucked in the refrigerator door or pantry shelf? Worcestershire sauce? Miso? Tomato paste? Yes, yes and yes, but more recently, I’ve made sure I never run out of oil-packed anchovy fillets.

I’m a big fan of the tiny fish strips, not because I like to eat them on their own (the way my husband does), but because they are a terrific way to add that little something extra to so many recipes. Most recently, they were an unexpected star ingredient in Claudia Fleming’s flavor-packed Gruyere and Onion Cocktail Biscuits. I’ve added them to rémoulade sauces, salad dressings (and not just for Caesar ones) and stuffed artichokes, and mashed them into mayonnaise to spread on sandwiches.

Tonight, they can help you get a delicious tomato sauce on the table in less than 30 minutes, if you make this pantry-friendly recipe from “Simple Pasta” by Odette Williams.

How easy is this? Grab a 28-ounce can of quality crushed tomatoes and a tin of anchovies, then add olive oil, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper and simmer. It’s that easy.

“You’d think this full-bodied sauce had been simmering for hours, not just 20 minutes,” Williams writes in her cookbook.

That flavor comes from those little fish, which can be purchased several ways: filleted and oil-packed, which are usually used for cooking; marinated in vinegar, generally for eating straight up; or salt-packed, which require rinsing, plumping and filleting.

Don’t hate the little anchovy. Learn to harness its power.

Here, we’re talking about the oil-packed variety. Williams recommends 4 to 6 fillets in this recipe. As I try to do with most recipes, I made it exactly her way the first time. It was great, but the anchovy flavor was a little muted for my taste. So the next time, I ramped it up by adding a few more of the oily little fish strips. I loved it even more.

Also, I tried it with fresh oregano and garlic and, for an even more pantry-friendly version, with dried oregano and garlic powder. Both were delicious.

Williams calls the sauce pomodoro in her cookbook because she makes it with canned Italian tomatoes. She says the recipe was given to her by an Italian American friend, who credits cookbook author Marcella Hazan, famous for her simple, delicious sauces.

Marcella Hazan’s Italian cooking legacy endures under husband’s care

During this often-hectic holiday season, it’s a great little recipe to bookmark because you can use it in so many ways. Spoon it on pizza dough, toss it with store-bought ravioli or make a shakshuka. It freezes well, too, so make a double batch and freeze it in serving portions to have handy in the months to come.

Put your favorite pasta on to boil, get the sauce simmering, and you’ll have time to make a light green salad and open a bottle of red wine for a quick-as-a-flash weeknight supper.

If this sauce sounds too ho-hum, check out Williams’s quick-to-make variations for amatriciana, arrabbiata and puttanesca sauces, too.

Fast and Easy Tomato Sauce

Storage: Refrigerate the sauce for up to 4 days; freeze for up to 3 months.

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  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 to 6 anchovy fillets, packed in oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves or 2 teaspoons dried
  • One (28-ounce) can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
  • Fine salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 1 pound spaghetti or your favorite pasta, cooked according to package directions
  • Grated parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)
  • Fresh basil leaves, for serving (optional)

Step 1

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil for about 1 minute. Add the anchovies and cook them slowly, mashing with a wooden spoon until they melt into the oil, about 5 minutes. (Adjust the heat as needed, without letting the oil get too hot, so the anchovies disintegrate rather than fry.)

Step 2

Add the garlic and oregano and saute until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer the sauce until slightly thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste and add more salt or pepper, as needed.

Step 3

Serve over your favorite pasta and with parmesan cheese and fresh basil, if using.

VARIATIONS: To make an amatriciana sauce: Omit the anchovies and add 8 ounces diced pancetta, smoked bacon or guanciale (skin removed); saute in the oil until crisp, 4 to 5 minutes. Omit the garlic and oregano and add 3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes. Add the tomatoes and season with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and black pepper. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. If you’d like the sauce a touch sweeter, stir in 1 teaspoon light brown sugar.

To make arrabbiata: Omit the anchovies and double the number of garlic cloves. Add 1 or 2 small seeded and finely chopped fresh red chiles and saute with the garlic. Add 1 teaspoon light brown sugar and an additional 1/2 teaspoon of salt and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

To make puttanesca: Prepare the sauce as directed, but before adding the tomatoes, add 3/4 cup chopped olives (black oil-cured, kalamata or green). Then add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons of capers and 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Nutrition Information

Per serving (1/2 cup plain sauce, 1 1/3 cups pasta, 1 tablespoon parmesan), based on 6

Calories: 435; Total Fat: 12 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 7 mg; Sodium: 354 mg; Carbohydrates: 68 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 8 g; Protein: 15 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 “Simple Pasta” by Odette Williams (Ten Speed Press, 2022).

Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to

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