If there is oregano, garlic and tomato, then it is a marinara! The “marinara” recipes, in Italy, bring together a series of preparations and variations of which the most popular is the marinara pizza: the cheapest option present on a pizzeria menu since there is no mozzarella cheese on it, and the sure-fire choice for those who love simple flavours or, maybe, people who are vegan or lactose intolerant and, therefore, to the mozzarella of the classic margherita.
Pasta alla marinara is decidedly less mainstream in our country, even if it is part of this same concept and it is cooked with the same, identical ingredients. However, if this were to make you imagine an Italian intent on cooking a first course using an American-style sauce in a jar… rewind the tape in your mind, because it is an (almost) impossible eventuality! It is much more likely that my tail will grow tomorrow.
It’s not a matter of being picky (maybe), nor of being Nazi-cooking (really?): it is just that, in Italy, these ingredients are easily available, super cheap and incredibly genuine, because they are grown locally. Moreover, we are talking about a sauce that is cooked in just a few minutes and which, therefore, would not make sense for us to get pre-cooked.
So to put it simply, in Italy when people talk about “alla marinara sauce” most people think of pizza rather than pasta topped with that sauce.
But why is it called “marinara”?
“Marinara”, in Italian, is a term that refers to maritime life. It would have been Neapolitan fishermen, in the eighteenth century, who invented the marinara pizza, eager to put something hot, tasty and quick to prepare in the stomach during the nights on the boat (here, the fresh fish market comes to life at dawn).
At first, in fact, local bakers prepared focaccias that were very different from those we know today, seasoned with anchovies or other small fish usually protagonists of mixed frying; that is why, in some modern variants, marinara can also include a seafood ingredient.
According to another theory, the sailors would have chosen this type of pizza also because it was easy to store and prepared with readily available ingredients: initially tomato was not even included.
Pasta alla marinara: a weird idea to look for in an Italian restaurant
In Italian restaurants, ask for a pizza or focaccia alla marinara or meat alla pizzaiola (later I will explain what it is) and you will be immediately understood and satisfied. I doubt you will get the same result by ordering a pasta alla marinara dish; not because it is a concept unknown to us but, more than anything else, because it is not part of our culinary tradition. And then, are you really sure that this kind of order in Italy would meet your expectations?
The American marinara sauce, indeed, includes very different ingredients from the Italian sauce that have the same name: oregano is often replaced by celery and onion takes the place of garlic. Pretty much another thing!
What marinara is NOT
I know, I know, we Italians have built an entire culinary universe around tomatoes in which it is as easy to get lost as in a labyrinth. I will give you a small diagram, which can be very useful if you find yourself in my country:
- tomato sauce – is what we simply call “sugo”, obtained by cooking the tomato pulp in extra virgin olive oil;
- tomato puree – it is the classic tomato-based food preserve (raw, therefore canned/jar/bottled);
- alla marinara – tomato sauce cooked with salt, oregano and garlic; occasionally it can also host anchovies. It is the same you can find on pizza;
- ragù – it is a typical Italian recipe that requires the slow maceration of the meat in tomato sauce, made with different ingredients according to the regional variants;
- alla pizzaiola – it is a preparation, generally based on meat, which includes oregano, extra virgin olive oil and tomato slices/fillet/sauce;
- puttanesca – typical Neapolitan recipe based on tomatoes, olives (black), capers and oregano.
It is a lot of stuff, I know. In Italy we cannot even conceive carbohydrates for too long separated from the tomato and many of these culinary proposals seem to resemble each other and really differ in just a few elements. Take a minute’s break, re-read this handbook carefully and I assure you that everything will become clearer to you!