How to Make the Best Classic Italian-American Red Sauce

I love this sauce. This is nostalgia. This is what I grew up eating. It was my window into Italian food. This is my mom’s food.

Today, I have a hard time calling this Italian food.

Whatever we should really call it, its delicious.

Pair this sauce with my Gluten-Free Pasta recipe for an affordable yet decadent meal!

After going to Italy and researching the food cultures there, this is a variation of a Napoli style red sauce that made it’s way across the Atlantic and into the abundance of the Americas. This sauce was crafted in New York and New Jersey from Italian immigrants. It’s roots are Italian, the ingredients are mostly Italian, but it just isn’t a widely used sauce in actual, well, you know, Italy.

This sauce is the history of my family served in a bowl. My grandma’s family emigrated from Italy around the turn of the century. People just like them came from all over to New York City to make a life here. They brought with them the inspirations from the Old Country but found a New World full of new ingredients and new wealth they had mostly never known.

It was not easy for them by any means, but within a generation Italians had cemented themselves as “real” Americans and contributed mightily to the palate of all Americans, Italian or not.

Italian-American food represents this leg of the journey, one that comes from the centuries of poverty and famine that many European foods are based in, but is no longer bound by rigorous tradition or periodic scarcity. When this diaspora reached American shores they found here the abundance to put meat in every sauce.

Nowadays, every tourist spot in Italy has learned to serve spaghetti with meatballs to cater to Americans but it is not traditionally found everywhere.

Italian food in Italy itself is generally fresh, seasonal, simple and local. This recipe for red sauce is rich, deep and complex.

That being said, and it bears repeating again. I LOVE this sauce.

Just don’t call it Italian food.


  • 1 large Canned Marzano Tomatoes
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 small Onion & 1/2 head Garlic
  • 1/2 cup Red Wine
  • Fresh Basil, Thyme & Bay Leaf
  • Optional: 1/2 lb. Ground Beef or Turkey
  • 1 Tbsp. Tomato Paste
  • Parmesan Cheese + Rind
  • Salt, Black Pepper & Red Pepper
  • Brown Sugar

Tips and Options

Garlic isn’t featured that heavily across Italy. Shocking, I know. I was actually really surprised by this on my visit there as well. That deep, garlicy flavor we crave is absolutely present in this Italian-American red sauce just as we crave it!

My most common variation is to add ground meat. Again, meat like this in a pasta sauce is heretical to many Italian dishes but we love it here in the USA.

Ground turkey is lean and adds plenty of flavor. Ground beef is more deep and has more natural fat. You should use less olive oil if you’re using ground beef in the recipe to compensate.

To add meat to the recipe, brown the ground beef or turkey in the pan with olive oil as needed. Once browned, remove and add onion to soak up that amazing flavor. If not using meat, start with softening onions in a pan with olive oil.

For a lighter version omit the parmesan rind and tomato paste. “Brew” your seasonings, the basil, garlic and red pepper, with a cup of extra virgin olive oil in a separate pot. Like a tea. Then strain out the oil and mix the oil into the tomato sauce. Discard the aromatics.

For a heavier sauce, add a splash of Worcestershire sauce or balsamic vinegar. Or roast your garlic first, then add it to the sauce instead of adding it raw.

Fresh herbs make a huge difference. Your basil and bay leaf should be from a plant not a jar!

Fresh ground parmesan tastes so much better than pre-grated cheese. Plus they have to put stuff like potato flour in pre-ground cheese to keep it from clumping together. It alters the flavor. Buy a wedge of actual parmesan from Parma, Italy. Save the rind for this recipe.

Finally, no one recipe will ever work the same every time. The tomatoes will have more or less juice. Herbs will be of varying strength. The absolutely most important tip is Taste. As. You. Go.

There is no one set way to cook anything. Following a recipe to a “T” will bring different results.

Learn to taste, season and adjust as you go to get the sauce you want.

Red pepper adds heat. Basil adds sweetness. Not enough flavor? Add salt and cook longer.


Brown meat, remove from pan. Turkey may need a little olive oil while beef provides more of its own cooking juices. Save left over juices in pan to cook the onions.

Chop onion, mince garlic. Cook onions in more olive oil, using same pan as above, until soft, then add the garlic.

Add salt, pepper and red pepper to onions and garlic. Stir, don’t let the garlic burn.

Add in can of tomatoes and bring to a slow boil. Add in 1 tsp tomato paste, about a three inch parmesan wedge and 1/3 or so cup of red wine. Season with thyme. Stir gently to incorporate.

Add bay leaf. Taste, adjust seasonings as needed. Continue to simmer. The flavors will intensify over time.

Simmer and reduce for about 4 hours. The longer the better, more and more flavor will be imparted on the final product. I ideally get this sauce started before noon and have it later on for dinner.

Taste. Time. Taste again. Serve.

Garnish with Basil and more shredded Parmesan.


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