If you keep trying to make a pasta sauce like your nonna (or anyone’s nonna) used to make and you keep falling flat, it probably comes down to one thing: You’re not using enough olive oil.
Health-conscious Americans tend to use way too light of a hand with the olive oil, and that’s why our homemade sauce often tastes more like canned tomatoes than it does nonna’s ragu. It’s not about garlic, white wine or a splash of cream, though all those things may be important, depending on the recipe. To get something close to that incredible pasta you had at that charming restaurant during your amazing trip to Italy, it’s all about the olive oil — and real Italian cooks don’t hold back.
“Without oil, you don’t cook,” said Emiliana Livi, who runs the kitchen at Trattoria del Moro, a longstanding favorite in Orvieto, in the Umbria region of Italy. “Olive oil is fundamental to almost every Italian dish. Not just because it helps the sauce amalgamate, but because it adds so much flavor.”
Livi and her Umbrian counterparts, both in restaurants and home kitchens across the region, are lucky to have very high quality olive oil to use as a base for recipes. If they don’t have their own trees and pick their own olives to press, most cooks at least buy local oil that, if not certified organic, is grown by organic methods and free of pesticides.
“We use a lot of oil in our food because our oil is so good,” Livi said.
“Olive oil is the base of all our ancient recipes,” said Adio Provvedi, house manager and chief raconteur at Hosteria di Villalba, a rustic eatery in a wooded park near Umbria’s border with Tuscany. “Consider that tomatoes were brought over from the Americas and they weren’t even eaten here until the 1700s. Other parts of Italy used pork lard or butter because they didn’t have olives. But in Umbria, where we’ve always had olives, our historical recipes begin with olive oil.”
“For Livi, the right amount of oil is 2-3 generous tablespoons for a portion of sauce for two people. For Franca, it means half a cup of oil for about one liter of sauce.”
Franca Pasqualetti, a bona fide nonna who also happens to be my mother-in-law, was born a contadina (peasant) and is a dyed-in-the-wool casalinga (housewife). Italians attach a near-reverence to both those terms, as casalingas and contadinas know their way around a pot of ragu like nobody’s business. I’ve watched, stupefied, as Franca has poured glug after glug after glug of olive oil into a pan to make a soffritto, the sauté of aromas that form the base of every Italian sauce. “Ehhh, I like to pour on the oil,” she laughs. (Seriously, her food swims in it.)
“Our olive oil,” Franca adds, “especially when it’s newly pressed, adds a certain amount of acidity and pizzico (or bite) to a sauce.“
The soffritto, said Provvedi, is where the oil works its magic. “It absorbs the flavor of whatever is cooking it,” he said — whether that’s garlic or onions or pork cheek — “and unites its flavor with those other tastes.”
The result is a rich, flavor-packed sauce, and the only way to get that taste is by pouring on the oil.
In a simple tomato sauce, Franca doesn’t even bother with fancy terms like amalgamate and emulsify. The oil floats on top of the tomato base in orangey-red pools. When the strained, cooked pasta gets tossed in, the oil absorbs into the pasta strands and blends in seamlessly. While a traditional contadina pasta might not meet anyone’s definition of “light” fare, even an ample dose of olive oil doesn’t impart a greasiness to the dish, nor does it leave a fatty coating in the mouth the way that animal fats can do.
But what about Instant-Potting, steam ovens, sous vide or a dozen other ways of cooking low-fat? “Yes, there are new methods of cooking that require less oil,” Livi said. “But for our traditions and for the recipes and tastes that are più vecchia (roughly meaning old-school), you need an abundance of olive oil.”
For Livi, that means 2-3 generous tablespoons for a portion of sauce for two people. For Franca, it means half a cup of oil for about one liter of sauce.
There are countless variations of sugo (sauce), but a basic pomodoro (tomato) sauce starts and ends with just a few ingredients: olive oil, garlic, salt and canned, crushed tomatoes. For an arrabbiata sauce with a little spicy kick, just add cracked cayenne pepper to taste.
Here’s how to make a basic pomodoro:
In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil and a couple of peeled, whole garlic cloves. (Remember, use 2-3 generous tablespoons of olive oil for every 2 people you’ll be serving.) As the cloves start to brown, add cracked cayenne pepper if desired.
Stir and turn the cloves until they are golden brown, then remove them from the oil and discard. Provvedi cautions not to let the oil get too hot—above 300 degrees Fahrenheit the oil will start to smoke, release fumes and smell really bad. If this happens, hold your breath, dump the oil and start over.
To the hot oil, add the canned tomatoes (eyeball the correct amount of servings you’re planning for), and be careful with the splatter.
As the tomatoes and oil cook, add salt to taste. Note that you won’t get an emulsified sauce this way, but once the sauce is mixed with the pasta, you won’t sense a distinction between oil and tomatoes.
While the sauce simmers for 20 to 30 minutes, boil a pot of salted water for pasta. As soon as the pasta is cooked and strained — but not rinsed! — add it to the sauce and serve immediately.
All three of our experts emphasized the need to use high-quality olive oil. Admittedly, great olive oil costs a lot less in Italy than it does at your local Whole Foods. And while it’s painful to use half of a $15 bottle of oil as the base for pasta sauce, if you want pasta that tastes like nonna’s, you’ve got to use the good stuff. Assuming you can’t travel to Italy and bring back your own, take a look at these suggestions for the best grocery-store olive oil brands.