If you only ever learn to cook one Italian dish, it should be pasta with tomato or pasta al pomodoro. Similar to American spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce or the Italian-American marinara sauce, it is everything that’s great about Italian cooking: It’s simple. It only requires a couple of ingredients, and it’s delicious. I make it at least once or twice a week, usually on my busiest nights when I need something healthy, quick, and easy.
You only need 5 ingredients: 1. pasta, 2. tomatoes, 3. olive oil, 4. parmesan cheese, and 5. salt.
If you stock your kitchen with dry pasta in almost any shape (fusilli, rigatoni, penne, rotini, spaghetti) and keep a couple of cans of tomato on hand (a small 14-ounce can for 2 people and a large 28-ounce for 4 people – whole, crushed, diced, or pureed will do), you can easily make a healthy and delicious dinner in about 30 minutes with just a little olive oil, parmesan cheese, and salt.
Pasta al pomodoro or pasta with canned tomato
- 1 small can of tomato (about 14 ounces), whole, crushed, diced, or pureed
- 250 grams of pasta (half a standard grocery store box)
- Olive oil
- Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Cook the canned tomatoes in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan or pot large enough to hold the cooked pasta. Add a pinch or two of salt to taste and cook until the sauce is thick.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta al dente in salted water.
- Drain and add the cooked pasta to the pan with the tomato and toss. Make sure to save some of the pasta water.
- Toss over high heat for about 30 seconds. Add more pasta water if needed. The pasta should move easily about the pan.
- Plate the pasta and top with grated parmesan cheese if using, or add in step 4 while tossing.
Get creative with your pasta with tomato
Pasta and tomato is a great building block recipe, as you can add to or swap out many of the ingredients and create something new. Check out my free mini-cookbook with 6 super simple recipes for pasta and tomatoes.
Here are 20 ideas to get you started, but the list doesn’t end here. Experiment with what
Herbs and spice
- Fresh basil is a classic that can either be added to the tomatoes while they reduce or on top of the finished pasta after it is plated and cheesed.
- I often blonde a clove of garlic in the olive oil before adding the tomatoes. Add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil to a pan, and a whole clove of garlic, crushed without the skin. Cook until it turns a light blonde or golden color. I often leave the garlic in the pan while I reduce the tomatoes, but sometimes I take it out.
- You can cook a dry red chili pepper in the olive oil before adding the tomato to add some spice.
- Red chili pepper is a classic Italian spice that gets used quite a bit. A sprinkling of red chili pepper flakes in the tomato and oil will add some heat.
- This recipe adds orange zest, pepper and marjoram. I’ve never added orange zest to tomato pasta before, but I am definitely going to give it a go one of these days.
Cheese and dairy
- Some recipes, like this one, add richness by blending in a bit of butter.
- A couple of spoonfuls of ricotta can be a delicious and creamy addition at the end. Or add some
robiolina, one of my favorite creamy Italian cheeses
- Or maybe toss in some chunks of good old mozzarella at the end.
- I haven’t tried it yet, but this recipe wildly includes sour cream!
- Swap out the parmesan for some salty pecorino.
Fish and meat
- Instead of adding salt to my tomatoes, I typically use a couple of splashes of colatura di alicior anchovy extract as it adds a bit more complexity and I love it. I put it in just about everything.
- You could also add an oil packed anchovy filet or two to the tomato while it is reducing.
- Add a protein like canned tuna or mackerel to the tomato after it has been reduced.
- Start by cooking chopped guanciale or pancetta and then adding the tomatoes. Or try savory bacon like in this recipe.
- My father always used a little sugar in his tomato sauce. Some tomatoes need it to balance out their flavor.
- My Italian boyfriend loves to roughly chop up an onion and cook it in the olive oil until it becomes soft before adding the tomatoes.
- You can add some complexity to the sauce by beginning with a
sofrittobefore adding the tomatoes. A sofrittois made by finely chopping onion, celery andcarrots and cooking it in a little bit of olive oil until it turns a golden color. When you buy vegetables in Italy from a vegetable shop, they often give you the ingredients for sofrittofor free and toss it in the top of your shopping bag before you leave. This recipe uses a sofritto.
- You could also roast it in the oven. My mother loves this baked recipe as it’s so easy. You just toss everything in a baking dish and throw it in the oven and let it cook itself. It’s also got a lot of flavor with butter, garlic, anchovies and red chili pepper, and roasting the tomatoes deepens their flavor as well. Yum.
- Use fresh tomatoes instead of canned or jarred. This adds a few more steps as you need to remove the tomato skins.
- In the summer, I like to halve fresh cherry tomatoes and cook them in a frying pan with some chopped garlic, olive oil
anda little salt until the tomatoes become soft and begin to fall apart, like in this recipe.