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  • Writer's pictureScott Rotella

Pizza Sauces: Great pizzas start with awesome ingredients

Updated: Jan 8

Pizza sauce ready to go
Pizzeria Style Sauce

When planning for pizzas, there are a handful of components to consider: crust, sauce and toppings. I break that down a bit further into:

  • Crust: Whether you use store-bought, same day dough or a long fermented dough, this is a large part of the pizza experience.

  • Sauce: From basic olive oil to the trusty cooked “American Pizzeria” sauce, the sauce plays a critical role in the flavor of your pizza.

  • Meats: I tend to only use cured meats (salami, prosciutto, pepperoni, etc.), or cooked meats (such as sausage) as I do not want to contaminate the toppings on my station and want to ensure it is cooked.

  • Vegetables: From peppers or onions to less typical ingredients such as broccolini, veggies can play a critical role in the taste profile of whatever flavor you are trying to obtain. It does depend on the vegetable, but I tend to precook things such as mushrooms to add flavor and harder/denser vegetables to ensure they are tender.

  • Cheeses: You can think way beyond mozzarella here. I love certain style pizzas with cheeses like gorgonzola or even feta. I even make a melty cheddar that gives an American cheese vibe with an increased flavor

  • Drizzles and Sprinkles: Starting with the most basic olive oil, to drizzles like balsamic glaze, truffle oil, curry honey, hot honey and basil oil; drizzles put a nice finishing touch and a punch of flavor to your pizzas. The same goes for sprinkles like cilantro, fennel pollen, fresh thyme, rosemary or even chopped pistachios.

When most think about pizza sauces, it is a cooked tomato sauce. You know, the kind you get on a NY style pizza, Detroit style pizza, bar style pizza or most takeout and frozen pizzas. Of course, there are many more types and styles of pizza that use a cooked sauce. There are also many pizza purists that are very aligned with the simple and fresh uncooked tomato sauce. That is a must for a true Neapolitan style pizza. Some feel it is the only tomato based sauce. Not me! Pizza dough is a blank canvas to build all types of flavorful creations. I take inspiration from other foods that we eat when creating a new pizza. Those inspirations don’t always work with a tomato sauce. I will share my favorite cooked tomato sauce, but I will also dive into a couple of other sauces that I use when making different pizza combinations.

In future posts, we will go into specific pizzas that will reference these sauces.

Raw Tomato Sauce (Neapolitan Style)

Raw pizza sauce ready for use
Neapolitan Style Pizza Sauce

This is the simplest and most basic of sauces. It is literally canned tomatoes, salt and olive oil and is ready in minutes. To make a pizza that conforms to Neapolitan standards, you must use canned whole San Marzano tomatoes. My goal is to make flavorful pizza and not to necessarily conform to standards. This is really about making the best pizza for you and your palate.


  • Whole canned tomatoes: If your goal is to make an authentic Neapolitan, then use DOP certified San Marzano Tomatoes. Otherwise, use San Marzano style or plum tomatoes. Why not start with crushed tomatoes? Whole tomatoes taste much more fresh where crushed tend to have that “canned flavor”. My favorite is California grown Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes. They are low in acid, low in seed, low in water, naturally sweet and are canned at the peak of ripeness. They cost more than many, but make an excellent pizza sauce.

  • Olive Oil: It is just a splash, but use a quality and pure olive oil for this.

  • Salt: I use sea salt or Diamond Crystal salt. If using table salt, cut the quantity in half since it is saltier.


  • If the canned tomatoes appear watery, you can pour off a small amount of the water that is floating on the top. Just make sure you preserve the juice.

  • Place the contents of the can of tomatoes in a bowl and crush them by hand. I like to go through this very carefully so that there are no large pieces of tomato in the sauce. Some folks use an immersion blender. I just don't like the resulting texture and color.

  • Mix in your oil and salt.

Classic American Pizza Sauce (Cooked)

Cooked pizza sauce
Classic Pizzeria Style sauce

This is my go-to tomato pizza sauce. It is flavorful and simple.


  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Use your favorite cooking oil here. I use extra virgin olive oil.

  • Yellow onion: I like to grate the onion on the medium holes of a box grater. The goal is to add flavor and not necessarily texture.

  • Garlic: You want this to dissolve into the sauce. Finely grated on a zesting microplane works well. I use Dorot's frozen garlic here to save myself from grating the garlic.

  • Tomato Paste: This is a great application for a tube of tomato paste. No need to open up a can for a small amount. The tomato paste deepens the flavor of the sauce.

  • Whole Canned Tomatoes: Again, I use Bianco DiNapoli here.

  • Oregano: If you can, use Greek oregano or oregano from Southern Italy here. They are different and we are after the best flavor.

  • Fresh Basil: I grow basil outside and on my kitchen windowsill. If you have access to Trader Joe’s, they have the best price on live basil. To use, just snip the top of the stem off right above branches / leaves below. This will keep it growing.

  • Red Pepper Flakes: Add a pinch to your liking. I like a little heat, but not too much so that it does not interfere with the flavor of the toppings.

  • MSG: This amplifies the savory aspect of the sauce. MSG has an unfounded bad reputation. Just like most things, there is a very small population that has a specific allergy to MSG, but it is very uncommon. It is found naturally in many foods we eat such as mushrooms and Parmigiano Reggiano. It is also added to most snack foods and many canned and boxed processed foods.

  • Parmigiano Reggiano Rind: This adds an amazing amount of flavor to the sauce. When I buy a new wedge of parm, I immediately wash the rind, cut it off and store it in a zip top bag of rinds that is in my freezer. Throw a piece into any of your soups, stews and sauces. You will thank me later! Just don't forget to wash the rind as it is the outer packaging of the cheese and has been subject to dust and handling from Italy to your home.


  • Crush the tomatoes by hand or use a potato masher or the medium disk on a food mill. I use a food mill as it leads to a consistently smooth sauce.

  • Using a heavy bottom stainless steel pan, heat the pan over medium heat and then add the oil. A hot pan with cold oil prevents sticking.

  • Add the grated onion and cook until they are translucent. This should take about five minutes.

  • Add the red pepper flakes and the tomato paste and stir over medium heat for about 1 minute.

  • Add the garlic and continue to stir for an additional minute.

  • Add the remaining ingredients and simmer on low heat for an additional 30 minutes.

  • Allow the sauce to cool and then discard the parm rind.

  • If desired, process the sauce using a medium disk on a food mill. This will create nice smooth pizza sauce with no visible pieces of onion.


Pesto and ingredients
Basil Pesto

Pesto is a versatile ingredient. It adds a bright, fresh herbal flavor to any dish. Not only does it make a good base sauce for pizza, it is also great with pasta and as an addition to soups, stews, salad dressings, dips and sauces. I will even use it as a base to make a chimichurri sauce and just add some additional fresh herbs, crushed red pepper and some more olive oil.

I like to make a thick pesto with just a bit of oil. That is the more traditional preparation. Oftentimes, what we buy in stores is full of oil. The oil helps preserve the pesto, but I often do not want all of that oil in certain uses. If I want to add a bit to scrambled eggs, I really do not want all of the oil. But if I want to top a pizza with it, I will mix some with oil in a separate bowl. For pasta or gnocchi, I want more oil and some additional pasta water and cheese to make a creamy sauce.

I make this by hand using a mortar and pestle. I find that high speed blades of a blender or food processor makes olive oil very bitter. If you are using a blender or food processor, add the oil and cheese at the end, but at a low speed and very quickly. Or you can stir it in. You may need a drizzle of oil to help the process in the beginning, but add only as much as you need.

I actually use a Mexican molcajete for this. I like that the sides are a little rough which helps tp quickly breakdown the basil, nuts and garlic.


  • Fresh Basil Leaves: This is leaves only. Compost the stems. Trader Joes has clam shell packages of Basil that are a great price. They also have live plants as previously mentioned.

  • Walnuts / Pine Nuts: Pine nuts have become very expensive, so I often use walnuts. Whenever I see a good price on pine nuts, I buy them and throw them in the freezer. They tend to spoil before I can use them. Walnuts are a great alternative.

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: This is the time to use good quality olive oil. The flavor is prominent, so make it a good one.

  • Garlic: Again, I use pre portioned frozen garlic. But it is just as easy to use fresh garlic once you remove the husk.

  • Parmigiano Reggiano: As always, use the real stuff from Italy. There is no substitute.

  • Salt: Go light with the salt. This is really an abrasive to help process the pesto. We are getting enough salt from the parm.


  • Roast your nuts in a small oven until they begin to be fragrant (about 2 minutes at 325F). Keep an eye on them as pine nuts can burn very quickly.

  • In a mortar, crush your basil leaves with a pinch of salt. Do this until it is reasonably crushed and you have room to add the nuts and garlic

  • Add the cooled nuts and garlic and continue to process by hand until you have a fine paste. If needed add a drop of oil to help with the process.

  • When you have a paste, stir in the remaining oil and the cheese.

Garlic Oil

Garlic oil ready for use
Garlic Oil

This is a simple way to upgrade a white pizza base that is just olive oil. I like to drizzle this on my pizza dough as a base before the topping on many pizzas. Think about using this on pizzas where you want the toppings to shine. I like this for things like a four cheese pizza or a simple mushroom, broccolini, sausage and mozzarella pizza.


  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil:

  • Shallots

  • Garlic

  • Fresh Rosemary

  • Salt

  • Black pepper


  • Finely mince your garlic. Add a bit of the salt to it and grind it into your cutting board with the side of a knife until the garlic is a paste consistency.

  • Finely mince the shallots

  • Mix all ingredients together and store in a small container

Ricotta Garlic Cream Sauce

Garlic cream ready for pizza
Ricotta Garlic Cream Sauce

This is a base for a truly white pizza. My favorite is topped with various roasted vegetables, diced sun dried tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella and finished with a balsamic reduction drizzle when out of the oven.

You can also easily change the taste profile by adding other ingredients. As an example, you can throw in some hot sauce or fresh herbs.


  • Ricotta

  • Heavy Cream

  • Garlic

  • Italian flat leaf parsley; chopped

  • Salt

  • Black pepper


  • Finely mince your garlic. Add a bit of the salt to it and grind it into your cutting board with the side of a knife until the garlic is a paste consistency.

  • Mix all ingredients together and store in a small container in the refrigerator. Allow at least 3 hours for the flavors to bloom prior to use.


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