One day, I was in a café in Paris' foodie black hole, place de la Madeleine, and I asked why there were so few Italian restaurants in Paris.
“Bof, la cuisine italienne ! Enlevez les tomates et y aura que la cuisine française mal faite,” the waiter sneered–take away the tomatoes and you just have badly made French food. Pure gastronomic jingoism from the world capital of gastronomic jingoism, of course, but the fact remains that the tomato appears more often in Italian food than in French.
When you look at Italian-American food, the tomato becomes indispensable. An Italian traveling in New York would be horrified to find that the cheap “Italian” cafés serve gallons and gallons of tomato sauce, but we Americans love it and gobble it up by the barrelful. Few people make their own, though, preferring the sugary glop from bottles near the dry pasta in the supermarket, and many of those who do make it from scratch commit the sins of not using nearly enough olive oil, forgetting a little alcohol, or omitting the herbs. A little quarter-sized dollop of oil to barely wet the garlic or onions will leave your sauce lacking richness; forgetting wine or vodka will give you a “flat” flavor, and leaving out the herbs will make your sauce a one-note dish.
This is a very versatile sauce and plays well with a lot of ingredients. While you can't make a proper ragù from it, you can add different vegetables, a hit of cream, or meat to make a variety of sauces. Whatever you do, remember to undercook your pasta a little bit and let it finish cooking in the sauce; don't just serve a dish of pasta with a ladleful of sauce over the top.
Simple Tomato Sauce
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
1 (28 oz.) can peeled whole tomatoes
1/3 cup good red wine or vodka
Small piece of rind from a Parmigiano or pecorino Romano cheese, optional
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, basil or oregano (or 1 Tbsp. of each)
salt and pepper
1. Put the oil and onions or garlic with a pinch of salt in a cold skillet and set over medium heat.
2. When the onions or garlic is translucent, add the tomato paste and mash into the oil until the oil is colored.
3. Put the tomatoes into a bowl and crush with your fingers, then turn into the skillet, juice, seeds and all. Mix together and bring to a simmer.
4. Add the red wine (or vodka) and cheese, then salt and pepper to taste, and return to a simmer.
5. Let simmer 5-10 minutes and add the herbs.
6. Remove the cheese rind if still there, then blend with a blender or immersion stick if you want a smooth sauce.
6. Cook your boiled pasta in the sauce until done, adding a shot of extra-virgin olive oil at the end of the process.
This sauce, made in large quantities, can be used as the base for Sunday Gravy, the Italian-American weekend tradition in which various meats and sausages are braised in tomato sauce; the sauce goes over pasta as a first course and the meats are served with vegetables as a second course.
If you use vodka in place of wine and add a quarter cup of cream, you've got the perfect sauce for penne alla vodka; simmer chopped (not ground) beef and pork in the sauce for meat sauce that goes well in lasagne.