Several years ago, I decided that I'd start the lengthy process of becoming an Italian citizen. Several years later, I sat in an aggressively hard chair at the Consulate General in Philadelphia, waiting patiently while a woman whose English was better than my Italian (and my English) thumbed through the stack of birth, death, and marriage certificates that outlined my connection to her home country.
I was OK'ed and the next month I was back in Philly, handing over a tiny photograph that made me look like Jim Henson's dumbest Muppet so that they could make my Italian passport. And that was it. There was no ceremony, no pledge of allegiance, no test about the country's history or customs. At the very least, I'd expected to have to share my family's best recipe for marinara sauce.
I pride myself on knowing how to make a good sauce and have been known to spend an entire Saturday making my own Bolognese from scratch. But there are times when that's just not feasible, like when work gets insane or when it's 11:30 p.m. and I'm standing over my own sink, eating ribbons of fresh fettuccine straight out of the package. ("I'M TANGELA!" I occasionally scream at my own reflection. And, yes, I live alone, thank you for asking).
So yeah, I buy a lot of pasta sauce off the shelf — and there's honestly only one brand I'm ever putting in my cart. Last weekend, my boyfriend Jeff (I KNOW! I'm as surprised as you are) and I decided that we'd jog our memories with a taste test of some of the most popular sauces, just to make sure that we were still spot on with our top choice.
We poured samples of 10 marinara sauces into ramekins and then dipped gnocchi into each one, like a fondue party at Chef Boyardee's house. We wrote and compared our own tasting notes and both decided that most of them tasted ... like they came out of jars. That's not to say that they were bad; Newman's Own and Bertolli would both make excellent bases to add your own blend of spices to.
After we'd finished our gnocchi and put our forks down, we were in total agreement: Nothing comes close to Rao's. It has such a distinct, almost buttery taste and we love it as much for what it doesn't taste like as what it does. Some of the big brands either have an overly tart, acidic flavor or they've overwhelmed the tomatoes with too much spice. Jeff compared them to an episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Andy eats three back-to-back-to-back spaghetti dinners and all three home chefs confess that their secret ingredient was oregano. "They really ... committed to the oregano," Jeff said, in-between underwhelming forkfuls.
Buy: Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce, $8.50 for 24 ounces
But Rao's Homemade Marinara Sauce is perfection. We both wondered out loud what gave it its rich flavor and, after reading its eight ingredients (whole peeled tomatoes, olive oil, fresh onions, salt, fresh garlic, fresh basil, black pepper ,and dried oregano), we're still not sure. There's some kind of marinara-based sorcery — saucery? — going on there. It does have significantly more fat per 1/2 cup serving than the other brands we tried, probably because of that olive oil, but it's worth every gram. (Rao's has 8 grams, while all other brands had less than 3.5 grams).
Fun fact: Rao's is also Kitchn editors' favorite marinara! It made our top 100 list of grocery essentials in our Kitchn 100 program.
The only other downside is the cost. At my local supermarket, a 15.5-ounce jar of Rao's is $6.99, while the second most expensive brand (Buitoni refrigerated marinara) was $4.19. All of the other 24-ish-ounce jars were three bucks or less. But — BUT — this is legit a restaurant-quality sauce. If you approach it from that angle, then $6.99 (or $8.29 for a larger, 24-ounce jar on AmazonFresh) is still a money-saver. (Yes, I'd be glad to help you justify the cost of any grocery purchase).
Rao's is so good, it's made me consider shelving my own recipe for a while. Now that I know that the Consulate isn't going to quiz me on it at, I might as well.
What's your go-to brand of marinara sauce?