When you hear the words “homemade spaghetti sauce”, what image pops in your head? 

An Italian grandma stirring a gigantic stockpot of sauce for hours on end?

Or does a jar of spaghetti sauce heated in the microwave and tossed with hot pasta come to mind? That’s spaghetti sauce made at home, after all. 

Which is it?

Can I really make homemade Italian red sauce?


As the daughter and granddaughter of some amazing Italian cooks, I’ve learned that not only can you make an old-fashioned Italian spaghetti sauce easily and successfully —you can even make it on a weeknight!

In one hour!

Without being or needing an Italian grandma.

My friend, you’re going to make a canned tomato sauce recipe that has been known to make intelligent people pour it in a bowl at the end of a meal and sop it up with a crispy piece of homemade garlic bread

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What’s the difference between Italian gravy, red sauce and marinara sauce?

bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and bowl of meatballs

Red pasta sauce recipes are classified a few different ways, depending on the ingredients and sometimes even how an Italian family refers to them (“my ma is making her Sunday gravy, ya wanna come over?”)

  • Italian red sauce like this one is simmered for a long time on the stove and is one you can do just about anything with. Having some of this red sauce in the freezer means lasagna with ricotta or a quick pasta dinner can be part of the week’s menu. 
  • Gravy traditionally implies tomato sauce has been simmered with some sort of meat in it. My grandma used to put in a piece of pork (bone-in) in her Sunday gravy and simmer it for a couple of hours. You can also poach meatballs right in the sauce without baking or frying.
  • Marinara sauce is usually just tomatoes (fresh or canned) simmered with some garlic and fresh basil. This fresh tomato marinara sauce is a good starter sauce if you’re new to making homemade tomato sauce.

What you’ll need

three cans of tomatoes stacked on top of each other.

In addition to canned tomatoes (that you can also use for this tomato sauce recipe with butter or this spicy tomato vodka sauce recipe), you’ll need:

  • onions
  • garlic
  • seasoning like salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper
  • a little sugar

How to make homemade Italian red pasta sauce

  • Start with the best canned tomatoes you can find [1]. I have a whole buying guide for San Marzano tomatoes which helps you distinguish and identify these famous tomatoes.
  • Place the tomatoes in a blender and pulse a few times until you get the texture you want [2]. The longer you run the blender, the thinner the sauce will start out to be. I like it a little chunkier but completely embrace those who don’t.
  • Saute chopped onion in some olive oil [3]. Give it a chance to soften and get a good tan. You want it golden but not too dark.
  • Quickly saute the garlic. You are flavoring the oil and onion but you don’t want to brown the garlic.

Optional: Add in some red wine. This adds so much flavor to the sauce and onions!

p.s. I always add more garlic because it’s garlic and life is short. If you don’t love it, don’t put as much. Just promise me you won’t leave it out all together. And if you do, don’t tell me.

  • Caramelize the tomato paste. As it heats and melts, the paste will relax with a big old sigh into the onions and garlic [4].
  • Lower the heat, add your seasonings and a little bit of sugar. You want the sugar to slightly caramelize but not burn. Sometimes, I even take the pan off the heat for this step because it’s plenty hot.
  • Add in the pureed tomatoes and simmer for about 45 minutes. Taste and season [5].


Sugar in tomato sauce? Yes! A little bit of sugar balances out the acidity of canned tomatoes, especially. Every canned tomato is different so adjust to your taste and brand of tomatoes.

Tips for the Best Red Sauce

  • Add some fresh basil if you have some.
  • Taste the sauce throughout the cooking to adjust the seasoning and heat.
  • If you find the sauce isn’t as well-rounded in flavor or is on the hotter side, add a little water (start with ¼ cup) to the sauce along with a pat or two of butter. The taste can vary depending on your tomato of choice.
  • Feel free to double or triple the recipe but don’t double the salt or the crushed red pepper. Start with a 1 1/2 ratio if doubling the recipe and go from there. Better to salt as you go and for the crushed red pepper, the heat intensifies over time. Unless you want an arrabiata sauce, then go for the heat!

How to sauce pasta like an Italian

two bowls of pasta with tomato sauce and cheese

In Italy, they sauce things lightly and gently to allow the pasta, meat or star ingredient to shine, something that I respect and totally agree with. My mom tosses the drained and cooked pasta with a couple of coffee-sized cups of sauce right back in the pasta pot.

That’s a memory ingrained for life!

Storage, Reheating and Freezing Tips

  • Store in an airtight container for up to 4 days in the refrigerator.
  • Reheat on the stove on low until heated through. Can also be microwaved in a microwave-safe bowl (covered) until heated.
  • Freeze cooled, cooked spaghetti sauce in freezer-safe bags or sealed, airtight containers for up to 3 months.

Made this recipe?

I’d love it if you’d share your review and leave a star rating and comment!

two bowls of pasta with tomato sauce and bowl of meatballs and cheese.
4.84 from 6 votes

Italian Red sauce with San Marzano Tomatoes

This homemade Italian tomato sauce is easy, simple to make and uses canned San Marzano tomatoes for terrific flavor and convenience. With a taste far superior to jarred tomato sauce, you can make this red pasta sauce with San Marzano tomatoes in about an hour. Serve over al dente pasta noodles and finish with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. And it's even better the next day!
Prep Time:10 minutes
Cook Time:1 hour
Total Time:1 hour 10 minutes
Servings 4




  • Place tomatoes in a blender with their juices and pulse until desired consistency reached.
  • Heat olive oil in a 4qt. saucepan (or larger if doubling) over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent and rich in color, about 5 minutes. Briefly add garlic for 30 seconds until you smell it. 
  • Add red wine here, if desired. Cook for at least two minutes until wine is incorporated. See note below.
  • Reduce heat to medium-low and add tomato paste. Swirl around until softened and combined with onions about 2 minutes. Add spices ending with sugar and quickly combine because you don’t want the sugar to burn but to caramelize just a bit.
  • Quickly add pureed tomatoes and simmer over low heat for about 45 minutes. Check the seasoning after 30 minutes or so. Add more salt/pepper or a little more sugar if the tomatoes are more on the acidic side.
  • Taste and adjust for seasoning.
  • The sauce will thicken which is what you want. You are looking for a rich, red, sauce with kick-butt flavor. You can leave it as it and use it w/meat or as a pizza sauce.


Cooking Options
  • Check flavor and consistency after 30 minutes. The sauce can be thinned down with 1/4 cup of water.
  • You also can add some red wine (1/2 cup) right after the onions and garlic are added.
Serving Options
  • Make my homemade meatballs using this sauce.
  • You can cook down and use as dipping sauce for focaccia, a pizza sauce or even your favorite appetizer (I see you, frozen mozzarella stick lovers!).
Storage, Reheating, Freezing Tips
  • Store in an airtight container for up to 4 days in the refrigerator.
  • Reheat on the stove on low until heated through. Can also be microwaved in a microwave-safe bowl (covered) until heated.
  • Freeze cooled, cooked spaghetti sauce in freezer-safe bags or sealed, airtight containers for up to 3 months.
Course: Main Course, Pasta, Sauces
Cuisine: Italian
Author: Lori Murphy
Did you make this recipe? Tag @josieandnina or tag #josieandnina!

The Italian Starter Pantry

Some ingredients to keep on hand for Italian recipes include:

  • 28 oz cans of Italian whole plum tomatoes
  • 6 oz cans of tomato paste
  • Good olive oil
  • Tubes of triple concentrated tomato paste (for times when a tablespoon or two is needed)
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Fresh or frozen cubes of parsley
  • Fresh or frozen cubes of basil
  • Red wine (both for cooking and drinking while cooking!)
  • Dried spices like crushed red pepper, oregano, thyme, garlic powder
4.84 from 6 votes (4 ratings without comment)

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  1. Sorry the best tomatoes no longer come from Italy. American canned tomatoes have a better taste according to “America’s Test Kitchen”
    I agree.
    Also, paste comes last to avoid scorching the sauce while it cooks.

    1. Thanks Arty! One of my favorite things about cooking and blogging is hearing everyone’s perspectives because food is such a personal thing to each of us and there are so many techniques to explore. As far as the tomatoes go, I’m a big America’s Test Kitchen fan and love hearing they endorse American tomatoes. I just happen to prefer authentic San Marzano tomatoes.

  2. I’ve been making “sauce” since I learned from my Grandma Rose when I was a kid, going to Grandma’s every Sunday. Everyone who’s tried it loves it. The secret, I use, is Sprite, preferably Sugar free for me. Try it, it gives the sauce a nice sweet flavor.4 stars

    1. Hey there Sean! I love a twist on a classic – I will totally give that a try and can totally see that making a great sauce! Your Grandma Rose sounds like one smart lady 😊 I have a new recipe coming out next month for Easter that uses soda for a sweetener so we have something in common. So appreciate your taking the time to reach out!

  3. Did a 2 day spaghetti sauce & meatballs taste test. The ole Betty Crocker one let us down. Absolutely no depth of flavor. Yours reigned supreme. Love the hint of nutmeg in the meatballs. Brought a batch to a friend in need and got rave reviews too. Thanks!5 stars

    1. Martha – seeing your message amidst the packing for our move brought a huge smile to my face! Thank you!! And so love that you paid it forward with meatballs -comfort for sure! Thank you!!☺️

    1. Hi Denise! Thank you for your question. I do mention garden tomatoes in the post briefly but will add it to the recipe card. Absolutely use them! Actually that’s what my grandma Nina did from her dad’s garden. I’m not a vegetable gardener (lots of shade here sadly!) but I’d definitely peel them and use a food mill to separate the pulp from the seeds and proceed with the recipe from there. Let me know if you have any more questions and if you make the recipe!🤗

  4. Hi Lori, I was wondering if your going to (or maybe already have shown) another red sauce recipe from Aunt Nina, your other grandmother. I have always wondered how her recipe compared to the way I make my sauce. I’d be interested to try hers.
    Georgia Bartolomucci

    1. Hi Georgia!! I love that you commented! Hope you are well! I so wish I had my grandma’s recipe. I do need to talk more to my mom about it and will definitely get one up here. Her sauce was very smooth comparatively and I know she’d use garden tomatoes once in a while. I can taste her gnocchi as I write this…such a great memory!! Happy Sunday to you!😊

  5. the paste came last because you never knew how thick the first tomatoes would be….so It’s an add as needed type of ingredient to enhance flavors and get to desired thickness.

    with all the additional multiple flavors and sizes of paste it is much easier to get the sauce to your families taste profile. In the 50’s there were basically two brands….so whichever one was “on sale” went in the buggy.

    Ps we carried our daytime shopping groceries up the 5 block hill and over 5 blocks….no wimps need apply !

  6. I would change the order and add the raw tomatoes first and the tomato paste later. The paste has concentrated flavors already but the raw tomatoes don’t. This is a place for that EVO,
    you know the expensive one you bought for special foods. Splurge on some, you won’t regret it here.

    Other familial choices could be peppers, mushrooms, red wine, and larger chopped tomatoes or onions. Using meats to flavor the sauce is popular, some say essential. Josie used scraps of pork. Some use beef and/or cook the meatballs with the sauce too. The peppers and/or mushrooms would be added after the onions and garlic flavor the oil. Josie also used two cheeses in her sauce, romano and parmesan. Both cheeses are added in middle of cooking. Asiago cheese could be used also.

    Brown sugar, Josies’ choice, is better than white sugar giving a more complex rounded flavor profile to the sauce. Most recipes with garlic use the sugar to take the edginess off the taste. White sugar can be used to cancel any extra hotness you may want to take out of you added too much hot pepper.

    There is is no one correct way to cook red sauce, so experiment and use your familial biases to take it where you want it to be.

    Slow and easy is the order of the day with homemade sauces…..let all those layers of flavor come together using lots of love, low to medium temperatures, and lots of stirring.

    1. Hey there Uncle Tony!😃 I didn’t know Gram used brown sugar – totally trying that! I love caramelizing the paste with the spices but you are exactly right when you say that there are so many different ways to make sauce. So blessed to have had two wonderful role models in both my Grams! And family to help carry on the traditions and relay the memories!🥰 Thank you so much for sharing all of this – love it!