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I'm Still Searching for Authentic Italian Tomato Sauce

by Mark-John Clifford about a month ago in cuisine

Of all places in Fresno & Clovis, CA

Photo Courtesy of NY Times Cooking Newsletter

Do you have any idea what's it's like for an Italian/Sicilian to find a great tomato sauce in Fresno?

I'm sure some Italians, Sicilians, and other nationalities are reading this and know what I mean.

Tomato sauce is the crucial ingredient to making pasta taste great. Pasta alone doesn't have that much taste unless the chef over-salted the water, then you have salty pasta, but that's it. I mean, pasta is just flour, water, salt, eggs (sometimes), oil (sometimes), and that's usually it.

Sometimes they'll make spinach pasta, but the taste doesn't stand out until you add the tomato sauce, just like every pasta.

Some people feel that pasta sauce can hurt the taste of pasta, which it can if it's not a good tomato sauce.

Pesto Sauce Photo Courtesy of The Olive Tomato

Granted, tomato sauce isn't the only sauce around. There is pesto sauce, alfredo, oil & garlic, squid ink sauce, and various other sauces chefs come with daily.

There are hundreds of sauces that can be used with pasta, but the most famous of all is the tomato sauce, and you would think chefs want that sauce to be perfect. That's not always so, though.

Patti and I have spent considerable time tasting sauces from around Fresno, Clovis, and the valley restaurants over the years, and today I'll give you a list of the best sauces we've had.

This list is in no particular order, and it is only tomato sauce we tried and tasted. I wanted to find a tomato sauce that was as close to homemade as possible, and I tried to find a tomato sauce that tasted as close to my grandmother and mine as possible.

Here's the spoiler. We found only one restaurant that I felt was as close to homemade as a restaurant could come, and that place was at the time the littlest place of all.

Mama Mia-Fresno

When I went to Mama Mia, I didn't know what to expect. It was a tiny hole in the wall next to where Patti had her hair trimmed at one time.

Photo Courtesy of Mama Mia, Fresno, CA

It is located in Fresno, and I had never heard about it from friends or family, but there it was on that sunny day, waiting to be tested.

I wrote about Mama Mia in another review, but we're talking tomato sauce only for this review.

Mama Mia tomato sauce is the best I've tried in Fresno since I moved here from back east. It's the closest thing to an authentic homemade New York City Italian grandmother's sauce I've had. It's almost as good as my grandmother's, but that would be pushing it.

What makes it authentic? It's the tomatoes and spices that they use. I didn't go back to the kitchen to ask about their recipe. I just went with my taste buds and made this decision.

I asked the server about the restaurant and chef, and at that time, the owner was the chef, and the server said he was from New York. So that explains some of the reasons the sauce was excellent.

The server told us that the sauce was made fresh daily and the chef/owner simmered the sauce for hours before serving it on any pasta dishes.

A Good Tomato Sauce

Whether professional or at home chefs, most know that a good or excellent tomato sauce needs to simmer for hours. Without that simmering, the sauce doesn't have time to release its natural flavors of tomatoes and spices. Plus, if you add wine like a proper authentic sauce typically has, you want time for that wine to integrate with the tomatoes, and that takes a little time.

A tomato sauce used for pasta should taste nothing like a tomato sauce used for pizza. I have found most Italian restaurants in Fresno, Clovis, and the valley thinks it's okay to use a pizza sauce for pasta. It isn't.

Below are two restaurants that don't follow that rule. They make sure that their pizza sauce never dons a plate of pasta. More restaurants should follow that rule. We'll be sharing other restaurants that follow that rule in future reviews.

Back to Mama Mia

The ravioli dish I had was fantastic. The meatballs that came with it were good, but nothing was as great as the sauce. I could've just dunked bread in the sauce and been happy. To me, that's a great sauce.

When I can make a meal of Italian bread and tomato sauce, I'm a pleased Sicilian and want others to know about my find.

Go to Mama Mia and enjoy some sauce with your pasta. You won't be sorry.


Again I reviewed this restaurant in a previous post on NewsBreak, but as above, this is about the sauce. Tomato sauce, to be exact.

Every restaurant and chef believes their sauce is not only the best but more authentic than any other restaurant. I've heard it dozens of times over the years.

Fish Sauce at Andiamo's Photo Courtesy of Andiamo's Clovis, CA

From back east to the midwest to California, every chef and restaurant believes their tomato sauce is authentic.

I'm here to say that isn't so. Sorry, but the only restaurants that I have found to be authentic are the ones in Italy or Sicily. But of course, that would be the case.

Unless a chef at a restaurant around here is from Italy, has the resources to get the exact ingredients they use in Italy, can a sauce be genuinely authentic tasting. That's a tall order for any restaurant here or anywhere around the world.

Andiamo's does a great job at making their sauce as authentic as I have tried in Fresno, Clovis, and the valley.

Between the sauce at Mama Mia or Andiamo, you could almost believe you're in Italy at a little corner cafe eating homemade pasta with tomato sauce, nearly that is.

I won't go as far as saying this is the best, but when it comes to Fresno, this is as close as you'll get without a California influence, even though the restaurants are in California.

I've written about the California influence on Italian food here and around the valley. Well, that California influence also applies to the sauces at most of the restaurants in town.

Andiamo's seems to stay clear from that influence, and that's what makes their sauce close to authentic.

I judge a close to an authentic sauce by whether I could eat the sauce with some Italian bread and be happy, and I can do that with the sauce from Andiamo.

I mean just ripping a hunk of Italian bread off the loaf and dipping it repeatedly in the sauce and aking a meal of that: no pasta, no meat, just sauce, and bread.

Sauce or Gravy

By the way, there is an argument that has been going on for years between Italians and others about whether it's gravy or sauce. When I was a kid, my grandmother said gravy was brown, and sauce was red or whatever she made it with, but gravy was always brown.

I don't care what you call it, that's your decision. All I know is I want the sauce or gravy to be as close to authentic as possible so that I can enjoy a dish.

Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor

Back to Andiamo

I know that finding authentic tomato sauce isn't going to happen in my lifetime, or at least I don't think it'll happen. It's hard for anyone to create authentic tomato sauce if you don't have authentic ingredients, and I understand that. But a chef/owner can put their best efforts into making their sauce authentic, and Andiamo does just that.


I haven't been to these restaurants for a little while, but I hear from others who have gone based on my recommendation, and they have all agreed about the food and especially the sauce.

Photo Courtesy of Author Dining at Andiamo's

I check in with diners every so often or hear from them about their dining experience, and so far, no one has disagreed with my recommendations, and some of these diners are Italians from the old school. They know their tomato sauce.

So go and mangiare. Buon Aptetito!


Mark-John Clifford

Family comes first. I love to cook or bake, mainly bread, and sometimes think I'm good at both. I was born in Catania, Sicily, then lived on the east coast for most of my life, till I moved to California.

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