Marcella Hazan’s Immortal Tomato Sauce Recipe

While Craig was gone these past nine days, I found myself watching a lot of True Blood on HBO Go. I’m still finishing up Season One, so no spoilers please, but I found myself quite choked up at a moment that was a subtle one, as far as the series goes. Sookie, the protagonist, is mourning the loss of a relative (see, I’m not spoiling it either) who–before dying–made a pecan pie, half of which remains in the refrigerator. At the wake, Sookie freaks out when someone tries to remove it; at the end of the episode, she eats the pecan pie and cries. What got me was this notion that through our food we live on even after our death. The ingredients that we use are merely objects, but how we combine those objects–with our touch, our sense of taste–is a manifestation of our spirit. It’s also true of the recipes we leave behind. And so, in the real world, we mourned the loss of Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan this weekend and last night I could think of no greater tribute than to make her celebrated tomato sauce with butter–a sauce that every home cook should know.


Back in 2005, I wrote about this sauce on my blog in a post called Marcella Hazan’s CRAZY Tomato Sauce. That post no longer has pictures (they disappeared or got erased) and, in the ensuing years, many other food bloggers sang the praises of this sauce. Smitten Kitchen. Orangette. Josh Friedland on Epicurious. (Josh talks about the sauce recipe going viral and points to me as the first one to blog about it; while that may be true, that post is pretty useless without pictures.)

The recipe went viral, though, because it’s just so good. You can memorize it right here and go home and make it tonight: in a pot, place a can of tomatoes and cut them up with a knife (just drag it through the pot). Add 5 tablespoons butter, 1 medium onion (peeled and cut in half; I had a red one, though yellow would be better) and a pinch of salt. Turn up the heat, bring it to a simmer, and cook–gently–for 45 minutes “until the fat floats free from the tomato.” Stir now and then and, towards the end, taste for salt. Your whole apartment will smell like a combination of an Italian grandmother’s kitchen and a pastry shop (that’s the tomatoes and butter marrying together).


At the end, you remove the onion, cook up a pound of pasta in salted water (Marcella recommends spaghetti, penne or rigatoni) and toss it all together with the sauce. (I lifted the al dente pasta with a spider into the sauce pot, turned up the heat and cooked for 30 seconds until the pasta was thoroughly coated).


It’s a sauce that’s ridiculously simple to prepare and astonishingly delicious to eat. When Craig took a bite, he positively swooned: “It has so much flavor!” he declared. It’s the sweetness of the butter, the tartness of the tomatoes, and that little pinch of salt that makes the recipe so winning. And with Parmesan cheese grated on top, you can do no better for an easy weeknight meal. In fact, I urge you all to find someone in your life who doesn’t cook and to send them this recipe. Chances are, if they take the trouble to make it, they’ll be a cooking convert. Credit Marcella.


If you haven’t already, read Kim Severson’s very thorough account of Marcella Hazan’s life; then read Ruth Reichl’s lovely reminiscence. Mostly, though, you should make this tomato sauce. In your kitchen, at your stove, with just a can of tomatoes and a little more than half a stick of butter, you can bring Marcella back to life. The recipes we leave behind are powerful things.

Recipe: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter

Summary: From Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.


  • 2 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes (blanched, peeled, and chopped) or–much easier–2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes (I used a 28 ounce can of San Marzano), cut up, with their juice
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt
  • 1 pound pasta (spaghetti, penne, rigatoni)
  • Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese for the table


  1. Put either the prepared fresh tomatoes or the canned in a saucepan, add the butter, onion, and salt, and cook uncovered at a very slow, but steady simmer for 45 minutes, or until the fat floats free from the tomato. Stir from time to time, mashing any large piece of tomato in the pan with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and correct for salt. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.

Preparation time: 5 minute(s)

Cooking time: 45 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 4

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s)

65 thoughts on “Marcella Hazan’s Immortal Tomato Sauce Recipe”

  1. I have to say that after making this the first few times I couldn’t bear to take the onion out. At the beginning I use my potato masher to squish up the tomatoes and then at the end blend the onion right into the sauce (love a stick blender for this purpose!). Definitely a deviation from the original recipe but my husband loves it. I’ve also taken the onion pieces out and eaten them on slices of bread if I’m extra hungry.

    1. Arlyn Lichthardt

      Interesting comment! When the Italian-born, Mrs. Hazan arrived to America in the mid-1950’s, she complained that what passed for tomato sauce tasted like warmed-over ketchup.

    2. I made this for the first time tonight. To us it is the Emperor’s New Clothes of pasta sauces. Can’t fathom what all the fuss is about. After reading the comments about San Maranzano tomatoes, I’m willing to give it another try, but I don’t have much hope.

      1. I made this recipe with San Marzano tomatoes and it was incredible. The second time I doubled the recipe and used some other brand of tomatoes, and it was acidic and unremarkable. Your results may vary.

      1. I just saw the episode of america’s test kitchen where they voted Muir Glen organic canned tomatoes as #1, they even weighed the inside tomato jelly of each brand…..!

  2. I have made this sauce many times…it always turns out perfect. I use San Marzano tomatoes, add a little garlic and use my stick blender to whirl it all together (onion,too) after it’s cooked. Delicious!

  3. I just made this and loved it so much I had to go buy the ingredients for meatballs to cook in it! Thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. My father died on Christmas when I was seven years old. He left behind frozen peaches that he had frozen when he went to visit my aunt, his sister. Even at seven, I understood how strange it was to eat his peaches and yet not have him. Forty-nine years later I still love eating tree ripened peaches and thinking fondly of the father I adored.

  5. Nancy Schneider

    I have used this recipe with heirloom tomatoes instead of San Maranzano’s and it, too, is just delicious.

  6. Food does live on. My dad died in 2002 and I still have a jar of his bread and butter pickles. I couldn’t eat them and now I wouldn’t dare thinking that they would kill me.
    PS. The recipe sounds great. I’ll try it soon.

    1. I have my Mother’s “golden glow” pickles in my fridge from about 2001. I won’t eat them, but I won’t throw them out either. Can’t do it. Miss you Mum. RIP Marcella Hazan, this recipe is very, very good. A must try.

  7. Nora Carrington

    My grandmother (b. 1895) picked and canned wild Maine blueberries. She died in 1975 when I was 20. My mother made a blueberry cobbler from the last jar at least 10 years later, maybe more. It was delicious, and sometimes I feel like I’m the youngest person on the planet who knows what a blueberry is supposed to taste like. Even most of the pick-your-own places grow modern varieties that bear little resemblance to a Real American Blueberry. They’re small, for starters; the size of English peas.

    I tried this tonight with a can of Hunts tomatoes. No, they aren’t San M, but they are consistently the best readily available brand. The tomatoes are smallish so there are a *lot* of tomatoes in each can. The timer has 10 minutes to go and the sauce is still very watery. Left a wooden spatula in the pot with the lid parked on it so there was plenty of evaporation.

    You did get the description of the smell exactly right, tho. Lovely. I’m going to keep cooking as I started with frozen butter and even though I thought I had accounted for the time to get to heat, I may have miscalculated.

  8. After reading this post I saw a True Blood cookbook while browsing through a bookstore and thought of you…it seems right up your alley!

  9. I am making this right now and my apartment already smells amazing!!!!! Thank you for sharing the recipe! I am using regular tomatoes though, I live in Argentina and San Marzanos are impossible to find.

  10. When I saw on Twitter that Marcella Hazen passed away, I told my husband I knew what we were having for dinner the next day. We made this same dish on Monday. I love it’s simplicity and it’s incredible flavor. It’s one of our favorite go to meals!

  11. This is the only pasta sauce I make anymore. I like chopping the onion and putting it back into the sauce. Also, I’ll dip crackers into the sauce, or eat it plain. So good!

  12. I really appreciate the way you write about writing about food and how inviting or encouraging you are to readers about making the dishes. I’m so glad you talk about musical theater and shows. It all seems connected. Thank you. I’m reading about Marcella Hazan while making Eggplant Dirty Rice, thanks to you. I used to make a similar dish seasoned with a combination of dill and basil during my vegan years and winters in Maine but had lost my confidence once in California. Thank you for restoring that.

  13. Thank you for this sweet tribute to Marcella Hazan. Of all the cookbooks I own, her’s are still my favorites. And I’ve noticed over the years that many Italian recipes seem to be versions from her original two cookbooks, Classic Italian Cooking 1 and 2. She taught me how to make and cook pasta and all about Italian food before ingredients like quality olive oil and parmigiano-reggiano were easily available in grocery stores. Just when I thought I’d made everything fabulous from her Essentials cookbook, I got her cookbook out this week and made a zucchini gratin that knocked my socks off. Zucchini gratin with tomato and marjoram is a wonderful dish that seems to caramelize all the ingredients together effortlessly. I could eat it every day. Marcella, you will be missed but will live in our hearts forever.

  14. I’m an English teacher stranded for the next year in China (2 months down, 10 to go!) and I’ve been desperately trying to find a simple recipe I could make with one pot, a hot-plate, and with a very limited supply of “western” ingredients available. This is currently simmering away on my dinky hot-plate, my apartment smells heavenly, I have a glass of wine on the table and I feel more at home than I’ve felt in a long time. Thank you so much for posting this!

  15. Wow! Thank you so much for posting!
    Just made it for the family and got 5 stars
    Simple and intriguing recipe and after the first plate totally addictive! Didn’t make enough. Going to make it tomorrow too.

  16. Makes me think of the Soprano episode where Bobby’s wife dies in a car accident. Later on Janice pulls out a baked ziti she made from the freezer to feed him and the kids. It was all too much for Bobby knowing that his late wife had made it.

  17. I love this sauce. I can eat the whole lot by myself. No pasta needed – just cut up the onion and spoon the sauce over it … ! :-)

  18. I tried it because it has all my favorite ingredients and looked so easy to prepare. It was delicious! Thank you for sharing it!

      1. keep up with the latest science – saturated fats are fine for you, especially butter! it’s the carbs in the pasta that will lead to heart disease. I use the sauce over veggies…

  19. I’m 65 and, unfortunately, I didn’t figure out until just last year that that garlic ruins tomato sauce. I love garlic and could easily eat a whole head of roasted garlic, but for crying out loud, why does it have to overwhelm so many foods. I hope I live another 30 years so I can continue to to enjoy the taste of foods as they are.

  20. Nancy Sitar Nataloni

    This sauce is sooooooooooooooooooo good you can eat if from the pot. I have made is a few times and given the recipe to my grandson who is just starting to cook. The sauce smelled the whole apartment building and they licked the pot. Such an easy recipe should be made at least once a week. This sauce is awesome and some people would think you cooked it all day. It is the very best and I would serve it to anyone ! ! ! ! !

  21. This recipe can be great, but it is absolutely necessary to use very good quality canned tomatoes or the sauce will have to cook forever to get the right sweetness and flavor. I’ve made this many times, first with La Valle organic tomatoes (perfect), then with La Valle non-organic (took at least twice the time to cook down). Even with San Marzano tomatoes, you need to make sure they’re not too watery. When done right, this is truly a wonderful recipe.

  22. This sauce is excellent and just another version of a tomato sauce that one can use. My husband loves it. I have been making pasta sauce for over 30 years. I have changed over the years, I use to do my Italian grandfathers traditional recipe with pork and beef, spices etc and simmering for 6-8 hours, I then started using a lighter version like a marinara and simmered for a couple of hours. We now like our sauces a little lighter and this fit the bill. I know butter is not lighter but it gives it a very nice creamy consistancy. You can add garlic and other spices to this if need be but the overall technique is siimple and easy. For a fast week-night dinner it can’t be beat.
    People need to stop being so judgmental.

  23. This looks crazy good – and even better, super easy. Will definitely be making this on pasta night this week!

  24. This sauce is so overrated. I suppose if one is used to microwaving Prego you almost feel like a cook if you bang a few pots together. Made it tonight and no one was impressed.

  25. I made this tonight with a can of San Marzano peeled tomatoes. I added a Tbsp of minced garlic and a few tsp of crushed red pepper flakes, Penne pasta… sooo tasty! Probably the best simple dinner I’ve ever made!

  26. Ok so i read this, gave puppy eyes to my husband who’s the dearest who got up to get the tomatoes and onion (tutorosso so i’m really excited for when i can get my hands on the san marzano) and i set it to cooking … oh god the smell – i have always wanted to be able to make a delicious simple tomato sauce but this is just ridiculously easy and did i mention the smell? i don’t even think i waited til it was fully reduced because i started gobbling spoonfulls about the time the whole of Italy wafted to my room lol … anyhow – thank you internet for your ravings – you are not often wrong : )

  27. Very Good With Some Homemade Ground Turkey Meatballs…The Best Part is The Yummy Stuff That is Super Condensed & Sticks to The Pan Above The Sauce!!! :-)P…….

  28. Outstanding With Some Homemade Ground Turkey Meatballs! The Best Part is the Yummy Stuff That Sticks to The Pan Above The Sauce :-)P…….

  29. I attempted this recipe last night. I was so excited about it. After 45 minutes in the pot all I had was watery, stewed tomatoes. However, after an hour and a half I had the most amazing red sauce ever. I don’t know why mine took so long and frankly I don’t care. I will never make any other sauce again. I also did what a few of the others did… I used my potato masher to mash the tomatoes and I mashed a bit of the onion into the sauce as well. Mouth-wateringly delicious.

  30. Prego and Ragu are better than this sauce. The raw onion permeates everything making it basically inedible. I’m not sure why I even tried this recipe

  31. I have been using this recipe for a long time it’s the best you can use it plain or add any spice needed. I love it

  32. Food indeed lives on, I have jars of preserves that my mom put up and cannot bring myself to eat them, they are still lovely. An even earlier memory is that of my maternal grandma passing. She had made a batch of brownies to bring to a family gathering ( she even sampled one). She died the following day and I remember my dad passing them around saying this is the last thing grandma made for us, we need to eat them. I could not, but vividly remember the sentiment all these years later!

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