Pasta Sauce (“gravy”)

About this dish

  • Serves: 2-10
  • Time: 30-90 minutes
  • Method: stove top

This is a basic tomato sauce recipe. Our family always used meat as a flavor base.

Some notes:

The ratios of tomato products vary with the number of people served. It is not useful to merely scale the amount of ingredients.

About the tomato products: I use only Contadina plain products (NOT “Italian” or “Garlic”). These products are as follows:

  • puree – raw tomatoes that have been liquidized
  • paste – puree with water removed
  • sauce – cooked puree paste and sauce comes in 8 and 15-oz cans

I generally only use paste and sauce. NOTE that even though you can add water to paste, or cook puree, these are NOT interchangeable except as noted below.


  • olive oil (1/2 cup for small batch, more for larger)
  • fresh finely-chopped garlic (1 clove for every 2 people)
  • salt
  • ground black pepper
  • Italian parsley (flat-leaf) – fresh or dried (optional)
  • dry red wine (1 cup for every 2 people) use something you’d drink that’s not oaky, like a pinot or merlot
  • water (you’ll need more than you think)
  • pecorino romano cheese, grated (optional)
  • ground nutmeg (1/2 teaspoon for small batch)
  • sausage or meat (1/4 lb per person, approximately; limit “hot” sausage to 1/3 of total meat)
  • tomato products — NOTE that this does not scale by simple multiplication:
    • For 2-3 people:
      • 1-2 15-oz cans sauce
    • For 5-6 people:
      •  1 small (8 oz) can of paste
      • 3 medium (15 oz) cans of sauce
  • pasta as desired
    • if using boxed pasta, use 1/4 lb per person
    • boil in salted water using at least 1 quart of water per 1/4 lb of pasta
    • never fill the pot more than 2/3 full of water


You can replace sauce with paste at a ratio of 2:1 (by volume), but NEVER use only paste. For larger the amounts of sauce cooked at once, use more paste and less sauce.

You can use stew beef or similar cuts of pork. You can mix beef, pork, and/or sausage. My family usually uses half beef, half pork but I tend to use sausage a lot.


Heavy-bottomed pan – NOT ALUMINUM! (it will react with the tomato!) and do NOT use teflon – you need to get the pan too hot, and teflon makes nasty gasses when you do that.


Cut the sausage (any way you like). Lightly salt it, but DO NOT ADD PEPPER YET.

Heat the pan to medium-high, and add the olive oil.

Brown the sausage in small batches. If you put in too much at a time, it will cool the pan and won’t brown. At the end of each batch, take out the cooked sausage and hold it aside.

IN THE LAST SAUSAGE BATCH: near the end of the browning process, put all the sausage back in the pan and add the garlic and some black pepper (“to taste”).  If you want to add nutmeg, this is the time to do it.  Stir the sausage around a few times, but DO NOT OVERCOOK THE GARLIC. About 1 minute is enough, then remove the pan from the heat and take the sausage out and put it aside.

De-glaze the pan (dissolve brown bits on the pan) use half of the red wine (or a similar amount of water if you prefer).

Add paste (if you’re using it) to the pan thin with wine and water to consistency of tomato juice. Use no more than 1/4 cup of wine per small can of paste. Cook on low at least 30 minutes per small can of paste, adding water as needed. Remember to stir the pot every 15 minutes, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot each time.

After the first 30 minutes, add the meat back into the pot.

If the cooking paste gets thick, add more water. it should NEVER be thicker than the final goal at this point. It’s better if it’s a little watery – you’ll have lots of time to cook out the water.

Note that when you are cooking the paste down you can add some olive oil, but be careful to add no more than 1/8 cup per can of paste. If you add too much, instead of creating an emulsion you will create an oil slick.

Add the sauce and thin the result again if needed. Cook at least another 30 minutes. THIS IS WHEN YOU START COOKING THE BOXED PASTA (it will take 10-15 minutes to boil the water and another 10 to cook the pasta).

The sauce is done when it is as thick as you want it. You can always add a little water to thin it out or cook it on high (stir more frequently) to thicken it.

Note: never add oil to the pasta water. It makes the sauce slide off. Pasta (“paste” in Italian) is supposed to be slightly sticky. When the pasta is done (‘al dente, or still a little “chewy” inside), drain the water out. Do not overcook – pasta keeps cooking when it is drained. DO NOT COVER THE COOKED PASTA – it will continue to cook too much. DO NOT RINSE THE PASTA – again, that sticky coating helps make the sauce stick.

Just before serving, add the chopped parsley to the sauce. Serve with the grated cheese as a garnish.