Francesco Mazzei’s Italian masterclass

The perfect tomato sauce

The reason we all love Italian cooking is its simplicity. Often it is little more than an assembly of good produce – a peach here, a creamy ball of burrata there – that somehow combines on the plate to become more than the sum of its parts. That’s not to say that a great chef can’t make the ingredients sing even more, and few are more skilful than Francesco Mazzei, who provides a masterclass in rustic Italian food.

Let’s start with his tomato sauce, or “the queen of Italian cuisine”, as he describes it. “People think it has to be made with fresh tomatoes or else it’s no good, but I don’t agree,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with tinned. You just have to cook them right.” The secret is to choose the right tomatoes – he favours the Mutti brand, which you can find at Waitrose, or Cirio – and to take your time, at least a couple of hours over a low heat.

As to pasta, he prefers larger shapes such as paccheri, rigatoni or penne, which will keep their bite. The rule here, as well as using lots of salted water, is to finish cooking the pasta in the sauce so that it absorbs some of the latter’s flavour. By adding a ladleful or two of starchy pasta water, you not only stop the sauce drying out, but you can create an emulsion without having to add lots of butter or oil.

Francesco Mazzei is chef owner of Sartoria, London W1; Radici, London N1; Fiume, London SW8 (

tomato sauce

serves 4-5

makes about 775ml

300g onions, very finely sliced
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1kg tinned tomatoes
Sea salt
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
20g basil leaves

1 Place the onions in a saucepan with 2 tbsp oil and let them sweat slowly over a low-medium heat for around 15 minutes, until soft but not coloured. If it looks as though it might catch, add a splash of water to the pan.

2 Add the tomatoes and season with salt. Simmer, covered, for 2 hours, until the tomatoes are thick and rich, adding a little water if the level of the liquid gets too low. Remove from the heat.

3 Put the remaining 2 tbsp oil in another pan with the garlic and cook over a low-medium heat. When it’s almost golden brown, add the basil leaves and stir. Pass the oil through a sieve into the cooked tomato sauce.

4 Pass the sauce through a mouli or wide-holed sieve resting over a bowl and use the back of a ladle to extract a smooth mixture. Check the seasoning and adjust as necessary. Serve with your choice of pasta.