Tomato Butter Sauce

I have heard fellow foodies rave about the genius of this recipe for years. Google Marcella Hazen’s Tomato Sauce and you’ll see what I mean.  It just sounded so simple, I found it hard to believe it could be as delicious as everyone was saying!  On the other hand, it is the definition of Italian cuisine – quality ingredients and restraint.

The original recipe is simple – simmer canned Italian tomatoes with an onion, butter, add a pinch of salt. The tomato sauce is entirely hands-off; you don’t even mince the onion.   Pull out the onion at the end, and you’re left with a bright, velvety tomato sauce rich and luscious from the butter.  Of course, even Marcella Hazen’s recipes are not sacrosanct in my kitchen. My interpretation uses a red onion (instead of yellow), a couple of cloves of smashed garlic, a bit of extra virgin olive oil, and (of course) some red chili pepper flakes.  Leave it chunky or purée it (my preference) for a smooth, creamy sauce.

I know you are asking why canned tomatoes?  Canned tomatoes are always in season. The tomatoes are harvested at the peak of ripeness, the moment they achieve the ideal taste, texture and color.  Instead of being carted away to the produce shelves across the country, they are immediately processed, so they maintain the sweet taste and balanced acidity of a perfectly vine-ripe tomato. 

Not all canned tomatoes are equal.  You will get the best tasting sauce if you use Italian canned tomatoes – grown and processed in Italy.  Don’t be fooled by tomatoes labeled San Marzano – check to see where they came from.  Of course, any good quality canned tomatoes will still make an acceptable sauce.  But Italian tomatoes are sweeter, rounder, less acidic and you will definitely taste the difference.  My favorite canned tomato is Cento San Marzano Tomatoes.  Pomi is another excellent Italian product.  Pomi does not use San Marzano tomatoes, but tomatoes grown and processed in Italy.

If you have access to perfect summer tomatoes – and I do mean perfect – then by all means use them.  But you must remove the skins first.  You can find instructions for how to do this in the recipe.

This sauce won’t replace your favorite meaty sauces.  But it’s ridiculously simple and unbelievably delicious and versatile.  It is a nice alternative to traditional marinara sauce for pasta.  It makes a perfect pizza sauce.  Add it to risotto.  Serve it with grilled vegetables.  A touch of cream transforms it into a luscious Tomato Bisque Soup. Or forget about the pasta and use it as a dipping sauce for focaccia!      

Tomato Butter Sauce

This is perhaps the most famous recipe created by Marcella Hazan, the cookbook author who changed how Americans cook Italian food. It also may be her easiest. Four basic ingredients create a rich, velvety, deeply flavored sauce for pasta and so much more!
Author Rosalie D’Amico


  • 2 (28-ounce) cans Italian tomatoes (whole, peeled tomatoes or diced). You can also use 4 pounds of perfect plum tomatoes.
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and cut in half
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • teaspoons sea salt
  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon chili pepper flakes


  • Add the canned tomatoes and remaining ingredients to a saucepan. If you are using whole tomatoes, break them up with your hands or dice them and remove the stem core if necessary.
  • Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 1½ to 2 hours.
  • Remove the onion. Marcella says to discard it. It is pretty tasty and I usually find some way to use it.
  • Serve the sauce chunky or purée to desired consistency using an immersion blender or food processor. The sauce is a delicious alternative to traditional marinara sauce for pasta. Add it to risotto in place of some of the liquid. Spoon it over grilled or steamed vegetables. A touch of cream transforms it into a luscious Tomato Bisque Soup. Or forget about the pasta and use it as a dipping sauce for focaccia!


Fresh Tomatoes.  If using fresh tomatoes: Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Fill a large bowl half full of ice cubes and cold water. Using a sharp knife, cut a 1/4-inch-deep X on one end of each tomato. Place the scored tomatoes into the boiling water and cook until you see the skin starting to wrinkle and split, 1 to 2 minutes (be careful not to cook too long, or the tomatoes will become soft and difficult to handle). Using a slotted spoon, lift the tomatoes out of the pot and plunge them into the ice-cold water bath. Let sit for a few minutes to cool, then transfer the tomatoes to a cutting board and, using your hands, peel off their skins. Cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch chunks (discard the cores at this point) and transfer them, along with all of their juices, into a Dutch oven or saucepan.
Canned Tomatoes – Diced vs. Whole.  Almost all diced tomatoes have added citric acid and calcium chloride which affects the taste, while several brands of whole tomatoes are processed without the additives. Taste and judge for yourself.
Gnocchi with Tomato Butter Sauce