The Italian word ‘marinara’ signifies a relationship with the sea. This means in vongole alla marinara, the clams are done in the same dish with small pieces of white fish and shellfish. And in the recipe cozze alla marinara, the mussels are cooked with little crustaceans.

But when we come across salsa marinara, it has nothing to do with fish or any other kind of seafood.

It is simply a sauce made with a good amount of virgen extra olive oil and generously seasoned with salt and sometimes fresh or dried herbs or two of three cloves of garlic.

So why is the best sauce ever created for pasta and pizza called ‘marinara’ if it doesn’t smell or taste of the sea?

Actually, this sauce does have an ever so tiny connection with the sea. Or, rather, with a great Italian port.

When Columbus brought back tomatoes from the New World at the end of the 15th century, it was known they are members of the belladonna family, which contain a poisonous compound called atropine, used in medicine as a muscle relaxant.

So in the 15th century the plant, with its dark green leaves and fruits that can be green, yellow or red, was used only for decoration.

Neapolitans took almost 300 years to find out the tomato was not only non-poisonous but that it had a great future as a kitchen fruit.

Once this discovery was made, it didn’t take them long to see that tomatoes would make an ideal sauce for their beloved spaghetti.

Neapolitan fishermen soon realised this sauce made with tomatoes was just what they needed for making an easy peasy dish — either on the high seas or on the quayside when they were in port.

This sauce became so much associated with the fishermen that Neapolitans started to call it salsa marinara. Today it is still made as it was done at the end of the 18th century.

Those Neapolitan cooks who make a point of never breaking with tradition, do their marinara sauces with fresh plum tomatoes finely chopped, slowly simmered in virgen extra olive oil and seasoned with generous amounts of salt. And nothing else.

Fettuccine in a marinara sauce with mussels.
Fettuccine in a marinara sauce with mussels.

But cooks from other parts of Italy sometimes add fresh or dried herbs of their choice and two or three plump cloves of garlic.

When making a plain tomato sauce for pasta I would normally recommend using Mallorca’s ramellet variety and, if it’s not available, fresh plum tomatoes, called tomates de pera in Spanish.

But I am breaking with my own traditions to suggest you use canned plum tomatoes. That’s what Neapolitan fishermen do and it works very nicely every time.

Mediterranean fishermen work in small boats and those who do the cooking have minute galley space, few utensils and no time for frills or fancy presentation.

One-plate meals tend to get thrown together, quite unlike those carefully cooked by conscientious Italian housewives.

But even so, the fisherman who is doing the cooking manages to turn out tasty marinara sauces for pasta even when he takes an essential short cut such as using canned plum tomatoes instead of fresh.

The method is really simple. The canned plum tomatoes are emptied into a saucepan in which a generous amount of good olive oil is being heated.

When the oil, tomatoes and their juices come to the boil, the tomatoes are crushed with a fork until reduced to small pieces.

Ravioli served on a bed of marinara sauce.
Ravioli served on a bed of marinara sauce.

The sauce is bubbled briskly for five minutes, then the heat is reduced and it is simmered for an hour, with the lid on, until it becomes thick and somewhat jammy.

But the marinara isn’t ready yet. Neapolitan fishermen and most Italian housewives add a secret ingredient about 20 minutes before the sauce is ready: two tablespoons of concentrated tomato purée, from a can or a tube.

This little trick adds taste and body to the sauce and gives it a true Neapolitan touch. The tomato purée isn’t really a secret ingredient: all Italian cooks and housewives know about it, but it is never mentioned in cookbooks.

If you do the recipe exactly as described, a 450 grs can of plum tomatoes will make enough sauce for 300 grs of spaghetti.

Don’t be tempted to add herbs or garlic to the sauce and certainly no stock or even white wine. Any of these ingredients will produce quite different results and it won’t be an authentic marinara.

You can add dried or fresh herbs of your choice and as much garlic as you fancy to the cooked pasta when it’s in the mixing bowl.

Stir in a generous amount of virgen extra olive oil before tossing the spaghetti with the sauce. This will give the finished dish even more succulence, which is never a bad idea.

One slight variation on the traditional marinara sauce exists and Neapolitan fishermen and Italian housewives use it.

When the olive oil is being warmed in the saucepan a little chopped up anchovy fillet is added and stirred around until it melts into the oil.

The little fillets don’t give the sauce a taste of anchovies, but they do give it a certain richness it wouldn’t have without the anchovies.

If you are making the marinara with a 450 grs can of plum tomatoes, use two plump anchovy fillets. I like a marinara with the addition of anchovies and if I have any in the fridge I usually use them.

The plain marinara is ideal for making a dish of spaghetti or fettuccine as a starter when your mains is something light, perhaps an omelette or a fillet of fish.

If you have a marinara sauce in the fridge you’ll always be able to put a light lunch or supper on the table in less than 15 minutes. That’s what Italian nonnas do for those occasions when they get a surprise visit from their grandchildren.