Two local brands of pasta sauce to elevate your home cooking

Having a jar of tomato ketchup in your pantry is a secret weapon. Sure, you can whip up a quick weeknight meal just by adding some noodles, but if your sauce is made with quality ingredients, it can do so much more.

Chef Mario Carbone | Photo by Nicholas Koenig

But here’s something we never thought of: Mario Carbone, the Michelin-starred chef behind Boston’s upscale restaurant Contessa and the new Burlington outpost of his unofficial red sauce joint, Parm, is using splotchy sauce—which has recently been popping up in New England in markets like Shaw’s and Whole’s. Foods – Instead of a Bloody Mary mix for a brunch favorite.

“I use an arrabiata, because I like it spicy, and I add some Tabasco sauce, too,” says the chef, noting that he prefers tequila as the primary spirit. Shake it all up with ice, pour fresh cubes with whatever garnish you want, and it’s going to be a Sunday surprise.

Of course, if you’re going to drink pasta sauce, you should start with the highest ingredients. “We go through a lot of trouble finding the absolute best,” says Carbone. “I’ve been to where the tomatoes come from in Italy, I’ve met the pickers and I’ve met the owners, and I’ve been in the fields.”

The carbon jar sauce even uses fresh oregano, rather than dried, which means separating the leaves by hand from the stems. “Oregano is a very small leaf,” he says. “It’s a long process.” But he argues it’s worth it. “It’s a completely different experience when you unclog the jar and get the scent of fresh herbs.”

David Valicenti, owner and chef at Valicenti Pasta Farm in Hollis, New Hampshire, goes one step further. Not only does he know the growers, but in many cases he’s actually the grower of the vegetables that go into pot sauces—red gravy, golden gravy, pesto, and pizza sauce. It also produces pasta made from locally ground grains and ravioli filled with local dairy and produce.

Valicente Ranch Pasta Sauces | Photo courtesy of Valicenti Pasta Farm

“It’s a seed for the sauce,” says Valicenti, whose commercial kitchen is in a converted apple barn in the town where he grew up, across the road from his parents and steps from his gardens. “I make it from our farm produce—it’s actually like you grow it, make it, and put it out for the winter. That’s what we do.”

Indeed, while Valicenti spent his early career in fine dining, even moving to New Orleans to work at the famous Arnaud’s, a bountiful harvest of fresh tomatoes and a homemade salsa recipe set him down a different path. He originally hoped to open a farm-to-fork restaurant in that barn, and cook up some salsa to sell at the local farmers’ market to help fund it. The first batch flew off the shelves, and the rest is history. From its beginnings, selling at farmers markets in Newburyport, Marblehead, and Cambridge, it now hits 34 markets, plus a presence at Whole Foods and Natural Grocery stores up and down the East Coast. The demand is such that his kitchen-turned-commercial kitchen is bursting at the seams, and the chef is looking forward to his next move, hoping to expand into a larger space.

Like Carbone, Valicenti thinks outside the pasta box. He likes to use the sauce in many dishes. “I like to cook a big thick piece of sea bass or halibut with red sauce, some wine, fresh fennel and cracked olives, in the oven.”

Another favorite dish, perfect for the winter months ahead, involves cooking dried beans in a mixture of batoto (an Italian flavoring base similar to what the French call mirepoix), tomato sauce, and water over several hours. “It’s a very tasty meat casserole dish, really, really good.” Valicenti’s mom likes to add chicken broth to his golden gravy—a rich, buttery squash-based sauce—to make a soup, finished with prosciutto and a dollop of fresh cream.

The combination of fine dining skills and family traditions shared between the two chefs is incredibly diverse, and adds up to a superior product. You can’t often grab something off the shelf that’s made without compromising on ingredients or techniques.

Chef Carbone sees the growth of the premium pasta sauce market as an indication of larger trends. “I think it’s a demand for higher quality products,” he says. “It’s asking the customer to know where their foods come from.”;

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