Photos by 
Jessicarobyn Keyser
Jessicarobyn Keyser

The Only Pasta You Should be Having is Pasta al Pomodoro — and You've Likely Been Making it Wrong

by 
Anna Rahmanan
February 9, 2021

Growing up in Milan had its perks: a collective devotion to the power of clothing and the importance of good manners, plus proximity to other splendid European towns. But there wasn’t any greater embarrassment of riches than the food. Italy afforded me access to gastronomical treats that included endless gelato, deliciously prepared fresh fish, coffee so good even teenagers found it comforting, and oh-so-much pizza. 

Upon my arrival to the United States in 2005, trying to find stand-ins for my favorite Italian delicacies proved rough, but I got by. This country’s take on a simple branzino, for example, is acceptable — as are the arancini sporadically found across American menus (how can you get fried rice balls wrong, after all?)

But it was pasta al pomodoro — Italy’s iconic dish — that made me realize that things were never going to be quite the same on my plate. Specifically, a passed-down family recipe boasting a bit of garlic, onions and a perfectly cooked tomato sauce made with a surprise ingredient most clearly represents the difference between American and Italian palates. It was through pomodoro that I learned a simple truth: the United States could learn a thing or two from Italian eaters.

In his 1995 Authentic Pasta Book, Fred Plotkin writes: "Three immense [problems] I notice invariably [in the United States]: we overcook pasta, we serve it in immense portions and we oversauce it." 

In a 1997 New York Times article, Nancy Harmon Jenkins echoes Plotkin's sentiments: "My own moment of truth took place years ago in a vaunted restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, when I was faced with a large oval plate on which slippery, slimy, overcooked corkscrews peeped shyly from a small lake of highly seasoned, cream-thickened sauce," she writes. "Just back from a year in Italy, I recoiled. And I recognized that the 'more is always better’ creed operating on so many American tables was anathema to an appreciation of Italian cuisine."

Agreeing with both writers’ perspectives, I found American taste buds to mostly be  delighted by extravagant sauces drenched on all sorts of foods (burgers! Salads! French fries! Grilled chicken! Steak! Sushi!). Many folks on this side of the Atlantic find the relatively uncomplicated and on-the-surface simple-looking pomodoro to work against the self-imposed pasta requirements that define the local scene.

Italians, on the other hand, tend to drift towards penne al pomodoro or, perhaps, an aglio-olio-peperoncino (garlic, oil and chili pepper) over the penne alla vodka that permeate the American market. (Fun fact: the origins of the latter dish have yet to be substantiated. Some claim it to be the offspring of Dante, a restaurant in Bologna, while others grant it an American descendence). 

Perhaps most importantly, when going for the classic version of the globally beloved pasta, the average Italian expects the star of the show to be the noodles themselves — and not the sauce, as illustrated by both Plotkin’s and Jenkins’ words. That latter fact paradoxically points to the importance of the sauce itself as well: the condiment should be subtle; understated but stellar enough to complement the texture and flavor of the pasta — not an easy task indeed. 

Which leads to the question: how do we make the perfect pomodoro sauce? The tomatoes themselves would be a good place to start. 

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The most striking difference between tomato sauce served in the two countries is the level of sweetness. In the United States, most canned versions feature added sugar. The tomatoes themselves — even organic ones — are a bit sweeter than the ones grown in Italy. After a series of taste trials, yours truly found Mutti’s strained tomatoes to be the most similar in terms of flavor profile to Italian options. Slightly tart and boasting the right texture (not too liquid-y nor chunky), they also happen to be relatively easy to find at any local supermarket. If unable to get your hands on them, opt for any type of San Marzano peeled tomato option instead—just make sure to lovingly crush them in the pot as the sauce is cooking. 

The perfect pomodoro sauce as traditionally prepared in Italy also makes use of a peeled, cut-into-two carrot to be thrown in the pot as the sauce itself comes to a boil. The sweetness of the carrot will counterbalance the tartness of the tomatoes, neutralizing any over-acidity that might tamper with the desired flavor of the sauce. Bonus points: the orange vegetable actually changes the texture of the sauce, thickening it just so. 

Finally, let us introduce you to what is arguably one of the most overlooked ingredients in the United States when it comes to pasta pomodoro: basil. The herb adds what can only be defined as a light freshness to a hearty dish. A few rules to follow when handling the green: you don’t need more than four or five leaves per plate, make sure to add them to your dish once already plated and stay away from dried basil. The fresher the herb, the crispier, more defining and long-lasting the taste.

But as relatively easy as it might be to convince American pasta lovers to purchase the right sauce and add a carrot to their list of ingredients, it is the treatment of the noodles that could be the most surprising to non-Italians. As my own mother learned upon moving to Italy from Iran by way of the United States, the American tendency to rinse the pasta after placing it in a colander is as sacrilegious an act to a true Italian as consuming pasta with ketchup is. That is to say: do not rinse your pasta before mixing it with the sauce. Why? Rinsing removes starch, which is sticky and a great emulsifier: it thickens the sauce that touches the pasta just enough that it helps it cling better. When the sauce you’re making is subtle and nuanced, as pomodoro is, this is key. 

One more thing to keep in mind: the pot of water you’ll be boiling before throwing in your pasta should always be as salty as the sea. The goal is not to have to add any salt to your dish after plating it.

And so, without further ado, here is one of the most authentic pasta al pomodoro recipes you’ll find out there. Simple to follow and requiring a list of rather easy-to-find ingredients, we promise the dish will completely revamp your taste buds … perhaps even momentarily transporting you to Italy. Just don’t forget the wine. 

Classic Pasta al Pomodoro With Basil

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Serves 3

Ingredients

1 box of penne 

1 carrot

1 onion

1 can of tomato sauce. (Mutti is highly recommended, but a high-quality puree will work in a pinch.)

Olive oil

Fresh garlic (garlic powder works as well)

4-5 fresh basil leaves

Kosher salt

Optional: Fresh parmesan

 | 
 | 
Serves 3

Ingredients

1 box of penne 

1 carrot

1 onion

1 can of tomato sauce. (Mutti is highly recommended, but a high-quality puree will work in a pinch.)

Olive oil

Fresh garlic (garlic powder works as well)

4-5 fresh basil leaves

Kosher salt

Optional: Fresh parmesan

Ingredients

1 box of penne 

1 carrot

1 onion

1 can of tomato sauce. (Mutti is highly recommended, but a high-quality puree will work in a pinch.)

Olive oil

Fresh garlic (garlic powder works as well)

4-5 fresh basil leaves

Kosher salt

Optional: Fresh parmesan

Directions

  1. Bring a big pot of salted water to boil. Remember: your water should be as salty as the sea!
  2. Dice up your onion and a garlic clove. In a smaller pot, heat up about a tablespoon of olive oil and add the onion and garlic to it (if using garlic powder, add about half a tablespoon but make sure to do so after the onion has browned). Cover the pot with the lid. Let cook on low fire until the onion is browned. 
  3. Once the onion is browned, pour the can of tomato sauce in the pot. Peel the carrot and add it to the sauce whole. Lower the heat to a simmer. The carrot stays with the sauce and is never discarded. Cook it until soft.
  4. Once your pot of water is boiling, throw in the penne. Follow directions on the box to properly cook. For al dente penne, cooking time usually ranges between 10 and 12 minutes.
  5. Once your pasta is cooked, drain it in a colander. 
  6. One the sauce is boiling, turn the heat off. 
  7. Throw the pasta back in the original pot and add the sauce to it. Turn the fire on very low and mix until evenly spread. Don’t worry about the carrot being whole—it’s all about the flavor it gives off within the pot.
  8. Serve yourself a bowl and add some fresh basil and, if desired, grate some fresh Parmesan on top. Enjoy!

About the Author

Anna Rahmanan

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