A Caveman’s Guide to Homemade Italian in Just 20 Minutes!

italyIn this busy world, so few of us have the time to make Italian gravy the good old-fashioned way; where we can let the flavors simmer for hours.  Years ago, my old friend Peter M. shared a trick to prepare a quick red sauce and have it taste as if it was cooked the day before.  In this article you will learn this technique.

I called this article, “A Caveman’s Guide…” because Circle and Spear was originally a “men’s interests” magazine and this post was geared to guys who can’t cook. As it has turned out, many busy women have appreciated the tips issued, too.

Here’s the original article:

Few things are more romantic for a woman than when her man prepares and serves up a delicious Italian meal accompanied by a succulent Italian red wine, soft music, and candlelight. Okay, guys, even if you can only cook like a caveman = heat stuff up in a microwave, you’ll soon be able to serve a delizioso Italian meal. From this moment on, you will have proven once and for all that there’s nothing you can’t do! Well, possibly.

My dear Mom, an Italian girl from Brooklyn, naturally makes a great red sauce. She calls it gravy.  She always said that a sauce tastes better when you cook it the day before. It is because the garlic flavor has time to saturate into the gravy. Even if you can’t boil water, I’m going to have you cooking an Italian sauce close to Mom’s, in twenty minutes!


1. One bulb of fresh organic garlic (Yes, organic is sweeter….and make sure there’s no purple in it.  The purple means it’s too pungent.)

2. One 28 ounces can of Italian crushed tomatoes (I like to use either Red Pack or Scalafani)

3. Berio Golden Olive Oil ( or any golden yellow olive oil)

4. Fresh Oregano (jarred will work fine) for a Winter sauce. Or, Fresh Basil for a Summer sauce, again, organic, if you can get it.

5. Dried Bay Leaves

6. Fresh Block of Parmesan Cheese (is from cow milk), or Pecorino Romano (is from Goat milk)

7. Don’t forget the pasta! Try Ronzoni’s Ziti Rigati first. Be sure to follow the directions on back label. They’re very clear. That’s why I choose Ronzoni for you. Use your cell phone timer.


Chef’s Knife (it’s the big one)

Cutting Board

Large Saucepan

Small Saucepan

Long wooden spoon

Colander (a strainer)

Cheese Grater

Okay! Here we go, step by step!

1. From the garlic bulb – Pop off about six medium sized cloves. If they’re big cloves, then use less, if smaller then use more. In a quick sauce like this, more is better than less.

2. Using a chef’s knife, cut off each end of the cloves

3. Now, take the flat side of your knife, hold above the garlic clove, and smash it down so that the peel is released. Take off the loosened peel with your fingers.

4. Slice the clove lengthwise with the grain. It helps retain the juice. The garlic is prepped!

5. Now, open the can of tomatoes. (This is a good time to start the boiling water for your pasta. For your first time, use Ronzoni’s Ziti Rigati and follow the directions on the back label. Use the timer on your phone.)

6. Find a large saucepan and heat over a medium-high flame. Throw a tiny splash of water, with your hands, into the pan. When it evaporates, you know that your pan is hot.

7. Now, lightly drizzle, in a circular motion, the olive oil into the pan. Spread the oil by tilting the pan.

8. Toss in the prepped garlic and spread out with your wooden spoon.

9. As soon as you smell the flavor releasing, and there are some signs of light brown then it’s time for the next step. (BTW, this is where you could add a couple ounces of red wine if you so choose and let the alcohol cook off for about 15 seconds.)

10. Add about 4-6 ounces of the tomato sauce from the can and add either 3-4 pinches of oregano and a couple bay leaves or for the Summer sauce add a few basil leaves.

11. Cook this all together with an occasional stir until the hue darkens and starts turning into a paste.

12. Now, simultaneously pour and stir (fold) in the remainder of the crushed tomatoes. You are now spreading that thick concentrated paste, infused with intense garlic, into the newly added crushed tomatoes. When this is done, lower the flame on the burner once it’s all together.

13. If the sauce becomes too thick, you can add a little water from the cooking pasta. (As with soup, never add cold water.) *This is where my mom might add a pinch of sugar…only if there’s a hint of bitterness to the sauce. But, I find, that if the garlic is fresh and sweet, the sauce won’t need the sugar.

14. After you strain the water from the pasta, heat the small saucepan.

15. Add a portion of pasta and 1/2 cup of sauce. Mix for 30 seconds in the pan.

16. Spoon onto a plate and grate the cheese on top

17. Enjoy! Abbondanza!


…If you’re fortunate enough to have a garden with ripe tomatoes, then even better! (Or, you could use vine-ripened organic tomatoes, from your local produce market. Just make sure that they have a good taste, before using them for your sauce.) Core the ends out of 6-8 tomatoes, dice them into about one inch pieces. (Dice: means to cut into small manageable pieces.) Instead of Step 10.- use a can of tomato paste. Then add all of your diced fresh tomatoes and continue by soon lowering the flame. Continue from Step 12.



You could add cooked chuck-chopped sirloin (maybe with diced onion, too – like in this photo), or browned lamb cubes, or browned sweet Italian sausage. (My mom makes meatballs with ground lamb, beef, and pork and then cooks the meatballs into the sauce.)


You could also make a seafood red sauce. Add any combination of seafood to your base sauce. Use: shrimp, scallops, lobster, fish, crab, clams, muscles, scungilli, or oysters in their shells (Be sure to clean the shells with cold water and then let them soak for a few hours, in a covered bowl of filtered water, inside the frig. This allows them to self-clean.)


You can finely dice fresh carrots. Carrots are great for sweetening any sauce.

You can also add a whole package of fresh baby spinach. Cover and let the heat reduce the spinach. Remove the lid and stir into sauce.

Also, you could always add caramelized onions (Goes well with meat sauce.) You can add slices of sauteed mushrooms or zucchini and yellow summer squash.

For a Fra Diavolo Sauce (Hot and spicy!) add crushed dried red pepper flakes or red hot chili peppers. Get creative.

Remember, a big part of cooking is to use fresh quality ingredients. Also, just as important is to be sure to prep everything before the burners go on, stay with the food while cooking, pay attention and enjoy the process with a calm, peaceful pacing. I’ve always found cooking to be gratifying, as well as a great stress reducer. Hopefully, you will too!


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James Finn

Author: James Finn

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