Tomato sauce: the great garlic vs. onion debate

best puttanesca recipe

Above: Puttanesca sauce is just another variation on classic pomodoro (tomato) sauce. The difference is that anchovies, capers, and pitted olives are sautéed with the garlic before the tomato is added. For our basic pomodoro recipe, please click here.

Anyone who’s lived in northern Italy knows that pomodoro (tomato) sauce is regularly made using finely chopped onions and garlic in the sauté (the soffritto in Italian, similar to the French mirepoix).

But when you travel south of Rome, you’ll find that home cooks religiously omit onion from the recipe. In fact, the mere thought of using anything more than garlic in the soffritto is considered sacrilegious to those living south of Italy’s capital.

In Naples and Campania (the region that forms the “shin” of Italy’s boot and claims Naples as its capital), classic pasta al pomodoro is made exclusively with garlic.

Some would attribute this to the fact that the warmer climate in the south produces richer garlic than in the north, where temperatures are colder and other species of Allium, the onion genus, are easier to cultivate.

In the period after the second world war, when canned tomatoes and dried pasta began to be sold across Italy, pasta al pomodoro went from being a southern Italian dish to being a pan-Italian, national dish. Indeed, today pasta al pomodoro is served regularly throughout Italy and is widely considered one of the symbolic dishes of Italian national cuisine, despite its true origins in the south.

It’s kind of like pesto. In Liguria, home to true pesto, the dish is prepared almost exclusively with a pasta shape called trenette and Pecorino, sheep’s milk cheese, is used. In the rest of Italy, pesto is prepared with Parmigiano Reggiano (from Emilia-Romagna) and spaghetti are commonly used.

When you make your pomodoro, do you use onion and garlic? Or do you use just garlic?

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