This authentic penne pomodoro recipe is a light Italian pasta dish simply made by combining fresh Roma tomatoes, garlic, basil and pasta. I'll walk you through the step-by-step on how to make a pomodoro sauce from scratch that's deep in flavor, heavenly creamy and although takes some time to cook down, so easy to prepare!
We have been eating this authentic penne al pomodoro recipe over and over again.
I have made other quick tomato pasta recipes for the blog, such as this hearty marinara and this vegan creamy tomato sauce. Believe me, these are amazing for when you are in a rush with hungry kids running around and need something quick.
But, there is just nothing that can replace an homemade classic Italian basil tomato sauce. Penne pomodoro is not just a meal, but a full Italian experience!
So what's the trick? Well, to get that outstanding creaminess and rich tomato-y flavor that's unique to an authentic pomodoro sauce, then you need fresh plum tomatoes (instead of cans) and... time. (for a quicker pomodoro using canned tomatoes, check out this bucatini pomodoro recipe!)
This recipe is actually a very simple Italian pasta dish that requires only 4 ingredients (+ salt), but the amazingness from this red sauce relies on the quality of the ingredients and also, it needs to slowly simmer for a little while. The sugar from the tomatoes slowly caramelize and their water evaporates gradually to create a sauce that's left with so much texture and deep flavors. So worth the effort!
What does pomodoro means?
Pomodoro means "tomato" in Italian. So, when we say for example "penne al pomodoro", we actually simply means "penne served with a tomato sauce".
Although this is pretty straight forward, there is more meaning to it. In Italy, a Pomodoro sauce is made using fresh tomatoes (traditionally "golden apple" tomatoes) with garlic, basil and olive oil. It combines only a few ingredients, but simmers for a while to create a smooth tomato sauce that's very rich in flavor.
What's the difference between a marinara sauce and a pomodoro sauce?
So, both marinara and pomodoro sauces are simple tomato sauces made from very similar ingredients, so what's the difference then? The difference is mostly in the way you make the sauce and thus, the resulting final texture.
A marinara sauce uses chopped tomatoes and is cooked for a shorter period of time, usually about 30 minutes. This does not leave enough time for the tomatoes to cook or break fully, which results in a chunkier sauce with more texture. It also has a more saucy or even watery feeling to it.
A pomodoro sauce uses tomatoes that are peeled and broken down (manually or using a food processor) and cooked for longer than a marinara, which results in a creamier and more uniform textured tomato sauce.
You can learn more about tomato sauces and their differences in this "Pomodoro vs Marinara: What Is the Difference Between These Two Red Sauces?" article from Chowhound.
Ingredients you'll need
- Fresh tomatoes
- Fresh garlic
- Fresh basil
- Olive oil (optional)
What kind of fresh tomatoes to use
I highly recommend to use fresh Plum Roma tomatoes. They are oval shaped, rather smaller compared to regular round or heirloom tomatoes and they are less watery with more flesh. Their meaty nature is amazing to make sauces as they cook down better to create a red sauce that's deep in flavor with a creamy texture. You can find Plum Roma tomatoes in any grocery store and they are available most of year, although much better when in season.
How to make penne pomodoro pasta from scratch
This sauce is super easy to make and please, don't be spooked away by the tomatoes prep steps! To summarize, you simply have to blanch tomatoes quickly to remove their skin and then, cook the tomatoes without much effort until cooked down to your liking. The longer it cooks for, the better your sauce will be!
Step 1- Prep the fresh tomatoes
Start by warming a large pot of water on high heat until it boils.
While the water is warming up, use a knife to mark an 'X' on the edges of each tomatoes, just deep enough to go through their skin.
Step 2- Blanch the tomatoes
Once the water is boiling, transfer the tomatoes to the pot, cover it and bring back to a gentle simmer. Watch the tomatoes and once their skin starts to curl or peel out, then they are ready to be removed (somewhere between 1-3 minutes on an active boil).
Remove the tomatoes from the boiling water and transfer right away to a large bowl containing cold water with ice cubes. Let the tomatoes cool down for a few minutes.
Step 3- Peel the tomatoes
Once the tomatoes are cold enough to handle, using your hands, remove their skins simply by pulling on them starting where you made the 'X'. Also, use a small knife to remove the edges with the node, which will make a smoother sauce.
One more thing: you could remove their water/seeds interior if you want an extra smooth sauce. I don't do that step as I love the seeds in that kind of red sauce, but feel free to do it if you want, it's pretty easy. Check out my video on how to make tomato tuna to see how to remove the seeds of a peeled tomato.
Step 4- Make the pomodoro sauce
Now that you have your tomatoes all ready to go, then get started on the sauce.
Warm up a small amount of olive oil in a large pot and cook the garlic for about one minute while stirring often. Don't cook any longer than that or the garlic might turn bitter. (As a side note, I prefer to cook without added oil, but in this case, using a small amount of oil helps SO MUCH for the garlic to cook nicely without burning.)
Then, add the tomatoes whole to the pot. Let them warm up slightly and soften just for a bit and then, use a hand masher to crush them right in the pot. Mash as much as you want, keeping in mind that as they cook longer, they will keep breaking up.
Stir well, turn down the heat to low-medium and keep uncovered. Cook, while stirring on and off for as long as you need to create a sauce with the desired consistency. I'll usually cook for at least 45 minutes, but it could be even longer depending on how high is your heat and the initial water content of the sauce.
Once your sauce is done, then add the fresh basil and salt to taste. Stir well and stop the heat.
Step 5- Cook the penne noodles and combine
When your sauce is getting close to the be at the right texture, then cook your penne al dente. Depending on how saucy your want your penne pomodoro to be, then you might want to cook more or less noodles. I usually cook a whole box of 1 pound, but then will only add as much as I need depending of the final volume of my sauce.
Add the al dente penne noodles to the pot of sauce, stir and serve right away.
Watch how to make it
Tips to make the BEST penne pomodoro recipe
- Cooking the garlic alone first is essential to develop its flavor before adding the tomatoes, but also is tricky as it can burn quickly. And burnt garlic is no bueno! So, once you add it to the pot, stay around, stir constantly and keep your eyes on it while cooking for no more than one minute (undercooked garlic is better than the opposite). Don't let it turn brown too much and be ready to add your tomatoes. And if you burnt it, then start over!
- If you have a dutch oven kind of pot, then use it. It will help create more flavor to the sauce!
- Make sure to cook your penne noodles al dente as they will keep cooking slightly after combined into the tomato sauce.
- Fresh tomatoes are the star of this dish, so obviously, your sauce will be better when the tomatoes are at their very best! You can make large batches of pomodoro sauce at the end of the summer and freeze for later in the year.
- And time is your best friend when making a classic pomodoro sauce. I make this sauce when I'm hanging out home and don't feel rushed to cook dinner. Then, I can keep the heat low and let the tomatoes cook really slowly for a longer period of time, this is the secret to make the BEST tomato sauce!
Can I use canned tomatoes?
I have done this recipe using canned tomatoes and although it is not as authentic per se and the final texture not as creamy, it is still a good option especially when the tomatoes are not in season. So, if it is more convenient for you, make this tomato sauce using 2 x 28 oz canned of whole peeled tomatoes. In that case, I highly recommend you use San Marzano Plum tomatoes as they are tastier and will make your sauce deeper in flavor.
Also, when I use canned tomatoes, my sauces often turn slightly more acidic than when using fresh Roma tomatoes. So, taste your sauce and feel free to add 1-2 tablespoons of maple syrup (or any other sweetener) to balance out the flavor as needed.
How to make this sauce quicker (within 20 minutes)
- Adding less water to the tomatoes will allow you to cook this sauce quicker. So, you can take a few extra minutes up front and remove their interior seeds and watery content before adding the tomatoes to the pot.
- Break up the tomatoes nicely so they cook quicker. You can just mash them real good using a hand masher or even, blend your seed-less peeled tomatoes in a food processor first before adding them to the pot.
- The best flavor will be created by cooking longer at lower heat, but if you have less time in front of you, you can cook at a slightly higher heat, always uncovered, but be sure to stir often so it does not stick to the bottom of the pot.
Variation to the recipe
This recipe is very basic made with only a few ingredients, but shockingly filled with flavors, so I usually eat it as is and it is a bliss. But, here are a few ideas on how you can personalize this recipe:
- Make it spicy: you can add chopped fresh chili peppers when you add the tomatoes so they will cook and soften as the sauce simmers. Also, you can add a pinch of dried red pepper flakes into the sauce or at serving.
- Make it creamy: add a dollop of vegan cashew ricotta or homemade vegan mascarpone at serving. The contrasting cold vegan creamy mixture is so delicious with the tangy warm tomato sauce.
- Make it veggie-packed: you can use this pomodoro sauce as a base and incorporate cooked zucchini, carrots, leafy greens, mushrooms, onions and so much more. Dried herbs would also add some more flavor.
- Make it higher-in-protein: add some tofu, cooked lentils or tempeh for a healthy chewy bite, but also to make it more filling and hearty.
Penne pomodoro serving suggestions
The penne combined with the sauce stays pretty good for a day or two in the fridge, but for longer storage, then it is best to keep the sauce apart from the noodles. Keep the sauce alone in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 4-5 days.
The pomodoro sauce can also be frozen (without the noodles) for up to 3 month.
As a side note, every time I make this sauce, I always wonder why I did not double/triple the recipe! You will start with what looks like a lot of tomatoes, but they cook down so much that you will be left with not that much sauce at the end. And it is so good, I assure you that you will want more! So don't hesitate to double or triple the recipe and freeze the leftover sauce for later. Or use the extra sauce to make pizza or pomodoro bruschetta.
Other delicious tomato pasta recipes you might like
- Quick creamy vegan tomato pasta
- One-pot tomato and cabbage spaghetti
- Tofu bolognese sauce
- Homemade marinara sauce
- Vegan baked ziti
- Blended vegetable tomato pasta sauce
- Vegan Cajun Pasta
- Vegan lasagna roll-ups
- Vegan American goulash
- TVP bolognese pasta sauce
- Gnocchi marinara skillet
I hope you enjoy this homemade penne pomodoro recipe as much as we do! If you try it, please leave a comment below and rate the recipe to let me know how it was. Your feedback is so helpful!
Penne Pomodoro (4-Ingredient Easy Pasta Recipe)
- 4-5 pounds fresh Italian Plum Roma tomatoes - (about 15-20)
- 4-5 garlic cloves - crushed
- 15 fresh basil leaves - plus more for serving
- salt - to taste
- penne noodles - cooked al dente
- vegan parmesan cheese - optional, for serving
- Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. While the water heats up, make an 'X' on the edge of the tomatoes just deep enough to go through their skin. Also, prepare a large bowl with cold water and ice cubes.
- Once the water is boiling, add the tomatoes to the pot, cover and bring back to a gentle boil. Let them boil for about 1-3 minutes or until their skins are starting to peel off where you marked the 'X'.
- Remove the tomatoes from the boiling water and transfer right away to the bowl with iced water. Let the tomatoes cool down for a few minutes.
- When the tomatoes are cold enough to handle, then pull on their skin using your hands. Also, use a small knife to remove their nodes (this makes the sauce creamier). You can remove their seeds and watery interior as well if you don't want any seeds in your sauce (I usually don't remove them). Transfer the prepared tomatoes to a large bowl as you prepare them and set them aside.
- Once the tomatoes are all ready to go, then warm up a small amount of olive oil in a large pot (use a dutch iron pot if you have one) and then, add the crushed garlic. Keep cooking on medium heat and stir constantly while watching the garlic so it does not burn. Cook for maximum one minute and then, add the peeled tomatoes whole to the pot. Stir well and keep cooking on medium heat. Once the tomatoes have softened slightly, then use a hand masher to crush them to a desired texture (they will keep breaking up as they cook).
- Turn down the heat to low-medium, keep uncovered and cook while stirring often for at least 45 minutes (even longer). Watch the sauce to adjust the heat as it cooks and cook as long as it needs until it becomes smooth with not much water left.
- Add some salt to taste and the fresh basil, stir well and turn off the heat.
- Transfer the cooked penne to the sauce and stir until all combined and warmed up. Serve warm with vegan parmesan cheese and more fresh basil.
- Don't hesitate to make double/triple batch of the pomodoro sauce. You will start with what looks like a generous amount of tomatoes, but they cook down so much you won't be left with so much sauce.
- Store any leftovers in the fridge for up to 4-5 days. I find that the sauce and noodles keep better when apart from each other, so if you expect some leftovers, then consider combining only the penne and tomato sauce that you need.
- This sauce is much better when using fresh in season Plum Roma tomatoes. But, if you must make it when these tomatoes are less available in the winter, then consider making it with canned tomatoes. In this case, use 2 x 28 oz of canned peeled whole San Marzano Plum tomatoes.
- Cooking this sauce on a low heat for longer creates the best flavor. Plan accordingly and aim for cooking the sauce for up to 1 hour.