In most parts of Italy, canned tomatoes and tomato paste aren't used nearly as often as passato di pomodoro
, a delicious and versatile product that's not well known in this country. The homemade version is made by simmering ripe, peak-season tomatoes to a pulp, then passing them through a sieve to strain out the seeds and skins and make a smooth puree. Traditionally, the puree would then be canned, though these days it's more likely to go in the deep freeze. But most modern Italians just buy the stuff at the supermarket.
The best brand avaialble locally is Pomi (made by Parmalat, best known for its milk products), which is 100% tomatoes, no salt, preservatives, or seasonings. Even homemade sauce made from peak-season plum tomatoes would be hard-pressed to match the intense, rich flavor of this puree, which is superior to any canned tomatoes or tomato paste I've had, imported or domestic. Pomi's skinned and seedless chopped tomatoes are similar but have a chunky rather than smooth texture. Both come in 750-gram (26 oz.) boxes. Most places charge around $4 a box, but shop around and you can find it for closer to (and sometimes under) $3. I don't recommend the Pomi marinara sauce.
A good way to appreciate the flavor is with this super-simple pasta sauce:
Simple Tomato Sauce
2 tbsp. finely diced onion
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 box Pomi strained or chopped tomatoes
a few basil leaves or sprigs of marjoram, oregano, or thyme (optional)
salt to taste
Saute the onion in the olive oil until translucent. Add the tomato,
herb, and salt. Simmer gently for 20 minutes, uncovered. Adjust salt. Serve on spaghetti with freshly-grated Parmesan.
Variations: crushed red pepper and/or garlic with the onion; add 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley with the tomatoes.