This $10 Marinara Sauce Is Worth Every Single Penny

updated Jul 23, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

There are countless ingredients clamoring for space in your kitchen. Taste Makers are the ones that actually make a dish amazing. Each month, we’re exploring one ingredient that has earned its place in our small kitchens and will make even simple food taste spectacular.

When you marry an Italian American from New Jersey, you’re marrying into strong opinions about sauce. My husband will wax poetic about what constitutes a good sauce, and even though he compliments mine, we all know it’s never going to be as good as his grandmother’s. That’s okay, though, because I, too, have found a sauce that is far superior to any other. It’s called Nellino’s Pomodoro, and boy is it special.

What’s most surprising about my sauce discovery is that it comes in a jar. I’m usually a bit fussy about jarred sauces — you can either blame this on my husband or years of growing up with versions that tasted of stale spices. No matter, though, because this sauce is so good that I wouldn’t even bother trying to make it better on my own. It’s bright, fresh, and has just two little secrets that make it the fanciest tomato sauce around.

Lavender & Thyme Are the Secrets to the Fanciest Jarred Tomato Sauce Around

The ingredient labels on most jars of tomato sauce read pretty similar: tomatoes, garlic, onion, basil, and maybe some oregano. Nellino’s Pomodoro sauce forgoes convention; yes, it’s made with tomatoes, olive oil, black pepper, basil, but it also contains lavender and thyme.

When I first came across this sauce, I was confused. I love the aroma of lavender, but if not used correctly, it can make food taste perfume-y. One spoonful of this sauce, though, and I was hooked. It’s tomato-forward, without garlic or onion masking its sweet, fresh flavor. In the background, there’s the tiniest hint of something more. At first, you’re not quite sure what it is. Then, you suspect a hint of earthy thyme before getting the most delicate note of floral lavender. These two spices, typically featured in herbes de Provence, whisk this tomato sauce off to the French countryside.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Nellino’s Pomodoro Sauce Is Occasion-Worthy

The mastermind behind this special tomato sauce is Neal McTighe. He makes a small line of artisanal tomato sauces in Raleigh, North Carolina, but the Pomodoro is easily the most unique. After living and studying in Italy, he fell in love with the cuisine’s history of innovation and was inspired to create the Pomodoro sauce. “It was only after experimenting with countless herbs and spices that I settled on lavender,” he says. “I tried star anise. I tried sage. I tried juniper. You name it. But the moment I wed lavender and tomatoes I knew I had something.” He most definitely does — the sauce is elegant yet understated, and sure to leave people guessing what the secret ingredient is.

With such small production, this sauce has yet to grace every grocery store — at least for now. Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Ingles carry the Pomodoro sauce throughout the Southeast and parts of the Midwest. If you happen to be Neal’s neighbor in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, Weaver Street Market also carries it. It’s also available on Amazon.

My Favorite Ways to Use Nellino’s Pomodoro Sauce

  • Toss it with frozen ravioli or tortellini. I love keeping frozen cheese ravioli or tortellini on hand for quick weeknight meals. Tossing either in the Pomodoro sauce instantly makes them worthy of an impromptu dinner party.
  • Use is as a sauce for gnocchi. Potato gnocchi, ricotta gnocchi, and even cauliflower gnocchi are perfect matches for this delicate sauce.
  • Stir it into ratatouille. The French aromas of lavender and thyme make the classic dish of stewed eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes even more French. Swap in a few spoonfuls of the sauce for one or two of the fresh tomatoes.
  • Bake chicken or fish in it. Pour half the jar into a casserole dish. Nestle in a few chicken breasts or fish fillets (I particularly like salmon, cod, or halibut), and pour the remaining sauce over them. Cover loosely with foil and bake at 375°F until the sauce is bubbling and the chicken or fish is cooked through. Serve in shallow bowls over rice or with crusty bread on the side.
  • Make a fancy summer tart. Thaw a sheet of frozen puff pastry. Spread a thin layer of Pomodoro Sauce on top and layer on slices of heirloom or beefsteak tomatoes. Sprinkle with goat cheese crumbles and thyme leaves and bake at 400°F for 30 to 35 minutes until the pastry is golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Your turn: What’s your favorite underrated ingredient in your pantry? What do you reach for when you want to elevate your cooking quickly and easily? Tell us in the comments below! We may give it the star treatment in an upcoming edition of Taste Makers.