This “Iconic” Jarred Pasta Sauce Has People Saying It’s the Best (And No, It’s Not Rao’s)

published Feb 7, 2024
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Spaghetti with chicken parmesan on top.
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Supermarket tomato sauce has come a long way. I grew up in a proudly Southern Italian/Sicilian pocket of New York where seemingly everybody’s family had their own passed-down recipe for tomato sauce. Contrary to what the domestic icon Ina Garten says, store-bought was not fine. 

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Today, ready-to-heat sauces — particularly by restaurants — are all the rage, thanks, in part, to spots like Rao’s and Carbone’s in New York. But decades before the nation went wild over these internet-famous, critically acclaimed sauces, my native suburb was quietly buying up glass jars by another NYC original. I’m talking about Vincent’s Clam Bar, first of Little Italy and now best known as a local gem in nearby Long Island.

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What You Should Know About Vincent’s Clam Bar

Its greatness begins with a colorful back story. According to co-owner of the now-classic Long Island restaurant, Anthony Marisi, the original Vincent’s Clam Bar established in 1904 was “a street cart selling clams, scungilli, mussels, and calamari with mild, medium, and hot [tomato] sauce.” 

“That’s all they did!” he says. And boy did they do it exceptionally well. This simple menu was enough to convert the cart into “a little corner space on Mott and Hester Streets;” 10 locations followed, including a small one in Carle Place, NY.

Decades later, Marisi (a server at the time), his brother, and a few fellow servers “begged, borrowed, and stole” to buy the restaurant from the “interesting characters” who owned it. That scrappy wiseguy-turned-gentleman braggadocio (they didn’t have managers and continued to wait tables) is still the core of the business today. It’s widely considered one of the most lauded and beloved Italian restaurants on the island, synonymous with celebration and huge family-style portions, enormous desserts, and LI accents heavier than a loaded lasagna.

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What’s So Great About Vincent’s Medium Tomato Sauce?

Available for sale since the late 1970s, Vincent’s Clam Bar was one of the earliest restaurants to offer customers a jarred taste of its restaurant and, as Marisi puts it, “way ahead of its time.” The mild, medium, and hot tomato sauces are different from its — or any other brand’s — classic marinara and its own chunky (and even more outstanding) tomato basil sauce.

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Vincent’s Clam Bar’s signature sauces are more reddish orange than crimson, and because they’re tomato paste-based, have a smokier, sun-dried tomato sweetness to them. They’re smooth, silky, and concentrated — more like a taste bud-coating, satiny tomato gravy, Marisi confirms; the better to cover and cling to seafood, as they were intended to. 

You won’t find chunks of tomatoes or visible herbs in the original trio as you will in Vincent’s other, more traditional plum tomato-based sauces. What you will find is a smooth, subtle heat that discreetly comes in at the back of the bite, thanks to a process where red pepper flakes are sauteed in oil and gradually layered in increments.

Because of this, it has its own specific flavor profile and texture that’s gained a loyal following for those in the know.

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What’s the Best Way to Use Vincent’s Medium Tomato Sauce?

The most obvious way is to drench mussels, scungilli, clams, and calamari in it, whether individually or all together as a frutti di mare — how Vincent’s originally intended. This can be with or without pasta, which is the second-most obvious way to use this sauce. (I suggest bronze-cut like Barilla’s ultra-textured Al Bronzo Mezzi Rigatoni.) Picky kids love the mild for its sweetness and lack of surprises.

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I also literally beef it up with Pound of Ground beef crumbles or use thin-skinned cheese-stuffed pastas like Woodstock Organic Four Cheese Tortellini for a no-thaw meal in minutes. (Bonus: It also brings out the umami in the sauce.) For something lighter, fresh egg-based pasta and zoodles or spaghetti squash work, too.

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I add it to soups and veggies, and spoon it over frozen pizzas to give them more oomph and up the tomato factor. Because of its consistency, I can also use it to dip mozzarella sticks, garlic bread, pizza rolls, or chicken tenders. It’s also heavenly in an Eggs in Purgatory brunch.

Buy: Vincent’s Medium Tomato Sauce, starting at $4.99 for 16 ounces at LaMonica Fine Foods, plus Uncle Giuseppe’s, North Shore Farms, King Kullen, Stop & Shop, ShopRite and other regional grocers; also available in bulk at Amazon and at Vincent’s Clam Bar

This article originally published on The Kitchn. See it there: This “Iconic” Jarred Pasta Sauce Might Be Better than Homemade (No, It’s Not Rao’s)