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Dec 21, 2008 05:47 PM

What is marinara sauce?

Every recipe I see is garlic tomatoes and basil. But when I go to great Italian restaurants it always tastes better than that. What is the secret ingredient(s)?

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  1. Anchovies. Marinara = mariner = fisherman. Without anchovies, marinara lacks umami.

    16 Replies
    1. re: alanbarnes

      I agree with Alan that the secret ingredient is likely anchovies. Anchovies when diced up and sauteed with something seem to disappear and leave people saying, what is that yummy taste (often these are people who would insist they hate anchovies). They are a pantry staple I think,

      1. re: cassoulady

        Yep...they melt into the good...I can't stand them by themselves (sons love them on their caesar salads and on pizza -- aaaaccckkk!) but they do add that lovely dimension in marinara sauce.

        1. re: Val

          Val, if you have a gourmet shop near you, I suggest trying white anchovies, they are amazing on toast ( I love anchovies, but the white ones are a whole different thing).

          1. re: cassoulady

            I bought a tub of white anchovies last Christmas to serve to my husband's family, who love anchovies. They hated them, although I thought they were great. I figured out that they like the taste of the salt more than the taste of the fish.

        2. re: cassoulady

          OK - help me out here.
          I'm one of those that think they don't like anchovies.... though I know I've had them in dishes I've loved as you describe. My previous experience with them are as extremely pungent, salty, overpowering things on a pizza.

          I'll concede that I do, in fact, like them in certain dishes and preparations - but are they different from the pizza topping? If so how? Are they a better brand or treated and prepared differently?

          I like to think that I can eat almost anything and enjoy it - so I'm game if you can help me out.



          1. re: ArizonaDave

            Arizona dave, It may be a texture thing rather than a taste thing, keep in mind there are anchovies in worcestershire sauce. Caesar dressing without anchovies does not have that "kick" but because they are blended up, you dont have the texture issue. I would start warming up to the anchovies by sauteeing them diced with garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes and diced tomato, then tossing with pasta and parmesan- perfect pantry dinner. Chances are, you love the flavor, just not the texture of a whole anchovy.

            1. re: ArizonaDave

              Anchovies are just fish. They can be cooked fresh or preserved in a multitude of ways. They are very oily, so they're never going to be mistaken for, say, tilapia. But they can be quite good.

              If you can find them, fresh anchovies are incredible. (Confession: my favorite source for really good fresh anchovies is the live bait station at the Berkeley marina. You get a fair number of sardines in a half-scoop, too.) But you have to cook them within hours - preferably minutes - after they leave salt water. Based on your moniker, I assume that's not an option.

              As far as canned anchovies, I second cassoulady's recommendation for white anchovies, or boquerones. Premium white Spanish anchovies, packed whole in oil - delicious. Apparently the bones are edible, but I like to fork off the fillets and put them on slices of crusty bread. With some olives and marcona olives, they're the perfect accompaniment to a glass of fino.

              You can also get salt-packed anchovies, but if pungent, salty, and overpowering is a problem, you don't want to go there. They're a great ingredient, but I don't care for them by themselves.

              IMHO one of the problems with the anchovies served at pizzerias is that they tend to sit around a little to long and get slightly rancid. So you might enjoy high-quality - but otherwise ordinary - anchovies straight from the can. But I'd go for something a little outside your aversion neighborhood first.

              1. re: alanbarnes

                Anchovies in glass jars are so superior to the ones in cans, and I'm sure all pizzerias use canned.

                1. re: coll

                  The container doesn't matter, it's what's inside. There are some spectacular anchovies in steel cans, and some mediocre ones in glass jars. I prefer a jar, but only for ease of re-sealing.

                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    Well I'll stop being so prejudiced then! But only in an Italian market. The ones in my grocery store in the tins are not so great. I was happy when it started getting easy to find the glass ones everywhere.

                    1. re: coll

                      If you get a chance, try Ortiz Reserva de Familia Anchoas del Cantabrico. They come in a can, but are certainly not the stuff you find at the grocery. At $20+ for a couple of ounces, they're definitely a splurge, and it would be sacreligious to put them in a marinara sauce. Just lay a fillet on a slice of crusty bread. Maybe a little finely-sliced roasted red pepper and chopped parsley for garnish. Glass of Rioja on the side. Oh, yeah.

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        Thank you, I'm on a mission now. If I can't find them here, I'll go into the city. We like them plain too, mixed in large quantities into antipasta and eaten with crusty bread: but I'd also like to see how these anchovies would be in my non-authentic aglio e olio, where I use 8 or 10 of the little suckers. The white anchovies didn't do it for me.

                        1. re: coll

                          The "Reserva de Familia" are especially large, and are hand-processed, but any anchovies from Cantabria are going to be pretty special. Problem is that anchovy catches in the Bay of Biscay have been fluctuating, so availability is spotty.

                          If you can't find Cantabrian fish, try some from Catalonia (more specifically, from the port of L'Escala). Also delicious.

                        2. re: alanbarnes

                          thanks alan! i am going to check my local italian grocer for them.

                  2. re: alanbarnes

                    The Berkeley Marina! What a great suggestion! I have been craving for fresh anchovies that you can eat raw (sort of carpaccio style with vinegar, lemon, olive oil and salt/pepper). I am going there now. They are so, so good.

                    As far as the preserved ones, they can be very expensive here in the US. I find great ones at a very good price at Trader Joe's.

                    Speaking of anchovies, I am told by a vietnamese friend that the best fish sauce in the world is made in Sicily and it is called "colatura di alici" (see

              2. re: alanbarnes

                Marinara does not necessarily mean with fish. The "mariner" part comes from the fact that it doesn't have meat in it, as meat would go bad on a fishing voyage of more than a couple days. The sauce is also fairly simple, definitely a plus on a ship. But yes, many marinaras are flavored with fish, so if you're looking for some extra oomph, it's probably that.

              3. Marinara may or may not have anchovies - that's not why it's marinara. It's Marinara if it's a quick sauce - not cooked all day, but made in minutes. Marinara means "of the sea", but not because it has seafood, but because it was made by sailors who had no meat or refrigeration.

                My favorite is David Rosengarten's recipe - and rather than anchovies to enhance the flavor, he uses pre-cooked eggplant parm - cutlets of eggplant slices, breaded and fried. I always make extra cutlets and keep my leftover in the freezer, ready for marinara.

                Start with evoo - a good amount in the pan. Slice peeled garlic thinly, drop in pan and let sizzle and then take back out, (you're flavoring the oil). Put in chopped up eggplant parm, then use a potato masher or equivalent to mash up in the oil. Put in some basil chiffonade. Throw in a can of san marzano whole tomatoes - squish up with your hands. A can of tomato sauce. S&p to taste. Cook a bunch o fpasta at the same time, drain and toss in the sauce. That's it. Quick and easy.

                You don't taste the eggplant - same as the anchovies. You just get a much deeper flavor overall - umami.

                3 Replies
                1. re: applehome

                  the addition of the eggplant parm sounds delicious, but that certainly isn't traditional.

                  fry chopped garlic in plenty of olive oil til it's aromatic. (it doesn't have to be extra-virgin if you prefer something lighter tasting.)
                  add 1 can san marzano tomatoes.
                  mash up the tomatoes
                  simmer for about 20 minutes
                  add slivers of fresh basil if you have it, or a pinch of dried oregano
                  salt and pepper to taste.

                  that's it.

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    Rosengarten wrote a really great article about the eggplant. It is in fact traditional in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn where he grew up and also in certain Long Island neighborhoods. He tracked this down to a common area in Italy where many of these folks had come from. Very interesting article - I wish I had kept it. But it got me using this method, and I have to say that it is really, really scrumptious - highly recommend it, next time you have the chance.

                    ETA: I did keep it! It was his February 2007 issue of The Rosengarten Report - an issue devoted to eggplant. Email me at the address in my profile is you want more info. Oh - and you were right - he doesn't add the can of tomato sauce, that must have been my own need to extend the sauce at one time or another.

                  2. re: applehome

                    Brilliant. Am going to do that. Don't even need to look back at your post - it just makes sense.

                  3. If anybody knows of the Belmont Tavern in NJ they have a dish called shrimp beeps. It is shrimp in tomato sauce. The sauce is so good. Some people say it has a lot of grated cheese in it

                    1. It's most likely the EVOO that restaurants use; or, more specifically, the copious amounts of EVOO that restaurants use.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Many restaurants also add a pat of butter to the olive oil.

                      2. be sure to add wine and a good cheese

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: janetms383

                          there is no cheese in marinara sauce. wine is optional.

                          this really is one of those sauces of quickness and convenience. something simple, prepared with pantry staples and ready in the time it takes to prepare the cooked pasta. it needs not to be overthought.

                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                            Guess it depends on the Italian. There is cheese in MY marinara!!