From Naples to Naperville: Spaghetti with Pomodoro Sauce

How fun is it when food can take you on an adventure? When it can transport you to those age-old cobblestone streets, narrow bylanes lined with fresh laundry and sweet sound of casual conversation, noisy markets with the endless chatter of hawkers trying to sell their catch of the day. This is Naples people, and it was yesterday’s destination for lunch. Truth be told, my time in Naples was painfully short. Infact we didn’t even get to step outside of that train station. This glorious city was merely a transit point for us switch trains as we were heading from Rome to the Amalfi Coast. Ah, if only I would have just ran out of those wide doors into the grand Piazza Garibaldi, but alas with numerous suitcases in tow, stepping more than five feet away from the train tracks would have just been irrational. Now almost two years later, I yearn to visit the city and take it all in. However, I obviously don’t have the money to jet off to Italy in a moment’s notice. What I do have though, is the ability to visit this city through its food, and that’s where the inspiration for this lovely plate of Spaghetti with Pomodoro Sauce came from. The recipe is based of one from the Italian culinary goddess herself, Lidia Bastianich. On her show, Lidia’s Italy, she prepared a version of the Neopolitan classic, Spaghetti with a Quick Tomato-Garlic Sauce. Inspired by this quick and easy recipe, I set out to prepare it myself. I made one major change which you will easily notice in the pictures. I did not actually have spaghetti on hand, and in an effort to use what was already at home, I used a blend of fettuccine and broken up lasagna noodles, which are also known as maltagliati in Italian. Tossed together with the sauce and sprinkled with a generous amount of pecorino romano cheese, I felt as if I left Naperville behind, and that I was sitting in one of numerous trattorias tucked away in the back alleys of Bella Napoli. 

The secret to this sauce is all about the quality of the ingredients because they are only five major flavors in this this. First you have to start with richest and fruitiest extra-virgin olive oil you can find. I know that there is quite a bit of debate as to whether or not extra-virgin olive oil should be used for cooking or for dressing. If you ask me, I would say both because that way you have the satisfying and palette-cleansing flavor of the olive oil running through the sauce. Next up would be the garlic, and you have to be generous with this one. This sauce is definitely one that is filled with stereotypical Italian flavors, and the robust flavor of garlic is one of them. For the decent kick of heat, Lidia goes for the peperoncino, or crushed red pepper,  as do thousands of Neopolitans and myself as well. You can put as much as you would like, but be sure to make a little hotspot in the pan and toast the flakes before mixing them with the garlic. It brings out the spicy flavor, and redish oils in the peperoncino come out and color the sauce . Then you have the main the ingredient, the pomodorini, or tomatoes. It is an absolute must, if you are using canned tomatoes, to use the San Marzano variety. These are the quintessential Italian tomato with their distinctive sexy, hour-glass shape. They are pleasantly tangy and crushing the tomatoes in their puree by hand is a very relaxing feeling. Finally, let’s get one thing straight before we head to the garnishes. This sauce is quick and it is not Sunday gravy. It only takes a mater of 20 minutes to cook. What we want here is to have a sauce where the ingredients have heated up and softened, yet their inherent flavors are still shining through. Once you have quickly simmered your sauce, you can head to the garnishes. The first is a handful of fresh basil leaves, chiffonade-chopped or just torn by hand. DO NOT use dried basil flakes! If you do, you might as well just call it quits with this dish because those vividly green and fragrant fresh leaves with their sweet and minty flavor a necessity in keeping with the integrity of this sauce. After the pasta has been tossed in, the dish is finished off with a generous amount of freshly-grated pecorino romano, or perhaps even a grainy grana padano could work here too. Served piping hot right out of the pan, this dish is Neopolitan vacation that you can enjoy anywhere in the world.

Recipe: Spaghetti with Pomodoro Sauce

Adapted slightly from Lidia Bastianich

  • about 35 oz of canned San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • crushed red pepper, adjust to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • fresh basil leaves, atleast 10, but more is perfectly fine
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb of spaghetti
  • pecorino romano or grana padano cheese for finishing


Cook spaghetti according to package directions. In another pan, heat up the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and toast for about 2 minutes, till it is slighly colored, but not burnt. Push the garlic to one side of the pan to make a hot spot, and toast the crushed red pepper for about a minute before mixing it with the garlic. Then add the tomatoes and their juices to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes. About 2-3 minutes before you plan on adding the pasta, stir in the basil leaves. Then add the pasta and a generous shaving of cheese. Mix everything together, making sure that all of the noodles are evenly coated. Serve the pasta nice and hot in bowls with extra cheese for garnishing.


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