Marcella Sauce — Most Famous Tomato Sauce in the World!

by Dorothy Reinhold on August 17, 2011

Print This Post Print This Post Marcella Sauce -- Most Famous Tomato Sauce in the World!

It’s August, and tomato vines are heavy with red goodness. So we all need a master recipe that takes advantage of rightthisminute freshness, whether it is from our own garden, or the farmers market nearby.

I’ve been hearing about the most famous tomato sauce in the world for awhile now. It’s Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, from her book “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” circa 1992. It has three ingredients. Yes, that’s all it takes for true, classic, tomatoey “gravy.” Tomatoes, butter and onion. No olive oil, no garlic, no basil, no oregano, no nuthin’ else.

Marcella Hazan, in case you didn’t know, is a reigning goddess of Italian cooking. What she knows, she teaches. And what she teaches, we learn. It’s a beautiful circle.

Her sauce has been swooned about all over the web, including here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here. I could go on with hundreds more references, but you get the picture.

I am adding my voice to this chorus: This sauce is every bit as good as everyone says it is. Now that I’ve made it, I want to make it again. And again. My Italian roots demand it.

A word to the wiseguy: Use the best quality ingredients you can find. If you don’t have organic heirloom garden-fresh tomatoes in season, use canned Marzano. And if you think you’re going to be a smart alec and cut down on the butter, just don’t. The butter makes this sauce! It smoothes out the acid of the tomatoes in the best way, and adds a rich undertone.

Freeze your tomatoes

Freeze your tomatoes for easy skin removal.

Tomatoes on a plate

Take them out of the freezer and thaw on a plate.

Thawed tomatoes on a plate.

Thaw. Skin slips right off!

Tomato sauce in the pot Shockingly Delicious

All 3 ingredients into the pot.

Potato masher with tomato sauce

Mash tomatoes with potato masher while cooking.

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

Summary: A three-ingredient simple sauce that tastes transcendantly of tomatoes! Marcella Hazan’s brilliant, deeply rich sauce will make a convert out of you. Yes, it is not only the most famous, but the best tomato sauce in the world.  


  • 2 pounds fresh, ripe, heirloom organic tomatoes (or 1 28-ounce can Marzano tomatoes with juice)
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted organic butter
  • 1 onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)


  1. If using fresh tomatoes, they must be peeled first. The easiest way is to put them in the freezer and freeze solid. When frozen, take them out and thaw in a bowl on the counter (they will weep tomato water as they thaw). When they have thawed, the skin will slip right off and can be discarded.
  2. Put tomatoes and their juices in a saucepan, break them up with a knife or spoon, add the butter, onion, and salt, and simmer, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally during cooking, and use a potato masher to mash up the tomatoes. The sauce will thicken while cooking.
  3. Serve with cooked pasta. Offer Parmigiano-Reggiano to grate over the pasta. Close your eyes and enjoy!
  4. Serves 4. Makes 2 cups of sauce – enough for 1 pound pasta.

Quick notes

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Italian Cooking.”

How I changed the recipe: Marcella calls for cutting the onion in half and simmering the two halves with the sauce, then discarding the onion before serving. I can’t stand discarding food, and I also didn’t want to have a saved cooked onion in the refrigerator, so I chopped the onion and cooked it in the sauce. We loved it that way! I also prefer to freeze my tomatoes as an easy way to get the skin off. You could certainly blanch them and then skin them, but that requires an extra pot and I’m lazy that way. Just put your tomatoes in the freezer the day before you want to make the sauce, and you’ll be good to go.


My suggestions for variations:
–sprinkle with drained capers and fresh basil cut in a chiffonade
–serve your pasta alongside grilled Italian sausages
–after the sauce has cooked, stir in some canned Italian tuna to take your meal in a whole different direction. Garnish with chopped Italian parsley.

Marcella Hazan's famous tomato sauce on Shockingly DeliciousPreparation time: 10 minute(s)

Cooking time: 45 minute(s)

Number of servings (yield): 4

Culinary tradition: Italian

My rating 5 stars:  ★★★★★ 1 review(s). I would give it 10 stars if I could!

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Chef Debbi September 29, 2013 at 11:55 am

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve taught to freeze tomatoes whole! I never do it any other way! Thanks for the recipe Dorothy, it is truly incredible sauce.


Dorothy Reinhold September 29, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I know, it’s like a little tomato secret that shouldn’t be a secret!


Eben Pagan May 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

Hello, I read your blog like every week. Your story-telling style
is witty, keep doing what you’re doing!


Connie Kaiser October 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm

I am surprised – I learned to roast tomatoes over an open flame on a long fork – never knew you could freeze them to take the skin off! Doesn’t it affect the texture??


Dorothy October 11, 2011 at 9:01 am

Yes, it does affect the texture, but not in any way that damages your sauce. The cells will burst when you freeze a watery fruit or vegetable, like a tomato. When you thaw it, it collapses and is mushy. This doesn’t matter if you will be using it in a sauce, because the cells will burst when you cook them anyway. But, for example, if you wanted to make a salad with some nice fresh tomatoes in it, using a frozen tomato would NOT be the way to go, because they will be mushy and collapsed when they thaw. So, the moral of this story is freezing = good for sauce, freezing = bad for using tomatoes in a salad.


Connie Kaiser October 11, 2011 at 11:09 am

Perfect! Thanks!


Cathy/ShowFoodChef August 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Great write-up about this, especially the encouragement to not skip the butter. I know people who insist on substituting margarine, etc.. and then wonder why it isn’t good. Hazan’s book is my Italian bible – love her SO much!


Dorothy August 26, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Thanks! It’s funny about butter. Some people can’t get over the idea of it.
In this case, I say don’t make it if you can’t have butter. Just choose a different recipe!
Usually I like to suggest substitutions, but margarine just doesn’t work here.
We still have fresh organic heirlooms, so I am off to the farmers market on Sunday to get some!


Mary August 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

OMG – Our Brandywines are ripe and totally amazing in this recipe. Licked the plates! Must make more – NOW


Dorothy August 22, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Wish I had some Brandywines, too! Must make a note to plant some next year.


Chef Debbi August 21, 2011 at 10:20 am

Hi Dorothy,
My tomatoes are starting to come in fast and furious now, I love to just throw them in the freezer and pick out what I need when I need it. Gonna try this sauce today but did you try sautéing the onions at all? I find I don’t like them much if they aren’t softened first. Just curious, maybe I’ll try it that way and let you know. I would NEVER cut down on the butter!!
Thanks for the recipe!


Dorothy August 22, 2011 at 5:57 am

I did not try sauteing the onions first, but I may do that next time, especially since I elected to chop them and leave them in the sauce. It can’t hurt it at all! If you are doing her original recipe and halving the onion and then removing it at the end, sauteing would make less sense. Do it and let me know! I must make another batch of this right now!


Diana August 19, 2011 at 1:59 pm

You had me at butter. It’s on the stove now.


Dorothy August 22, 2011 at 5:52 am

I know, I know.
Oh yes.


sippitysup August 19, 2011 at 8:53 am

I add a bit less butter and a little garlic (very little) but essentially this is how I do it too. Good to know I am doing something right! GREG


Dorothy August 22, 2011 at 6:01 am

Oh yeah, there’s a lot that’s right about this sauce! I am going to throw in a bit of garlic next time just for variety, too.


Christel Shaw August 18, 2011 at 7:43 am

Love that you posted this recipe ! The tip about freezing the tomatoes is such a good one. My Italian Nonna made this sauce for us for years and years and you are correct, it is absolutely delicious. Guess what I am making for dinner tonight?? Cheers !


Marilee Reyes August 17, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Sounds terrific, Dorothy. Will be trying it, soon. Marcella’s recipes are the best.


Bijouxs August 17, 2011 at 5:49 pm

This sauce has been a staple in the Bijouxs kitchen for years! So wonderfully simple. Marcella’s Italian Kitchen is a cookbook I cherish. Great of you to bring her recipes back!


Dorothy August 22, 2011 at 6:05 am

I need to explore a lot more of her recipes now!


Wendy August 17, 2011 at 5:21 pm

I love making my own tomato sauce, but I love your freezing tip way better than the boiling method. I will be trying that next time we get great tomatoes.

Around My Family Table


Valerie August 17, 2011 at 11:36 am

I can’t wait to try this sauce! I just love the idea of freezing the tomatoes first as I’m tired of burning my fingers on blanched tomatoes.


Dorothy August 22, 2011 at 6:06 am

Me too. Plus, with freezing, I don’t need to waste the gas to heat the water, and I don’t need to dirty another pot! Winning!


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