Back in 2005, I was a lowly sous chef at an Italian vegetarian restaurant in the Umbrian countryside, throwing together staff lunch meals while simultaneously prepping for that evening’s dinner service. In contrast to the complex and artistic four-course meals we served our patrons, our “family meals” consisted of simple dishes, like orecchiette with pesto or pasta al forno. Then again, this was Italy, so the pesto was vibrant and fresh, using basil that grew with terrifying abundance outside the restaurant’s back door, while the leftover cheeses we used in the baked pasta were a jumble of scamorza, montasio, and freshly crumbled castelmagno.
Breakfasts and dinners were generally eaten standing, with large mouthfuls quickly ingested between healthy gulps of strong cafe lattes in the mornings, and house pinot gris in the evenings. Lunches, however, were taken in quiet and peace around a communal table consisting of the head chef Malu, her husband, three sous chefs, and two servers. We’d pass large serving platters of pastas, salads, and ciabatta, softened and dusty with flour from the bread cabinet, while sipping Peroni beers or, depending on the strenuousness of the day, gin and tonics. Gorgeous and fragrant olive oils were always kept at the ready to add a finishing drizzle to nearly everything.
What stands out about these casual meals was the head chef’s staunch belief that even the most simple of dishes should have integrity, such that we as cooks and eaters could take uninhibited pride and pleasure in even the most common fare, at least once a day. This meant that we had to use the best ingredients we had on-hand, and were not allowed needless cheats, like sweetening tomato sauce with sugar to heighten palatability. To do so was tantamount to scandal.
Though I don’t check nutrition labels on store-bought foods as much one probably should, I do find myself doing so with jarred tomato sauces because of Malu’s Italian-inflected voice that perpetually resides in my head even now. And I rarely purchase premade jarred sauces — partly because they so frequently contain such high quantities of sugar, partly because my pride would not allow me to do so. I would sooner invite another woman into my home to cook for my husband, I thought, than resort to store-bought marinara!
But then…I got pregnant, and neither my ego nor my commitment to Malu and the old country could compete with day-long morning sickness and fatigue. Suddenly I was spending my evenings face-planted on the couch, nauseated and repulsed by anything that didn’t smell of mint or lavender. For the first twenty weeks of my pregnancy, I forbid any form of cooking in my tiny New York City apartment, which retained smells as though it were a live-in Ziploc bag. From my recumbent position in the living room, I would stare with tremendous sadness at the back of my husband’s head as he’d sit at our butcher block dining table, peeling back the plastic cover sealing his sodium-heavy frozen dinner that he had selected from our online grocery delivery service.
In the time it took me to fully recover from morning sickness, I had also dialed back my prejudice against jarred tomato sauce. I quickly returned to luxuriating in long hours in the kitchen but also appreciated the ease with which I could get a superb grilled pizza to the table with a prepared marinara.
What has not changed, however, is requiring a beautiful sauce without preservatives or sugar, which is surprisingly hard to find. While nothing can replace the evocative pleasure of standing over a saucepan stirring a sauce made from start to finish with gorgeous and whole ingredients, I was deeply impressed by the purity and taste of Victoria Premium Marinara Sauce.
Without meaning to, my husband and I had tried the sauce before checking the ingredients. Tasting from the spoon I had used to scoop the sauce from the jar, we both tilted our heads to the side and raised an eyebrow at each other, as those who are unexpectedly impressed tend to do. Before I had turned the jar around to look at the quantity of sugar I was sure I would find, my eyeballs were already halfway to a full eye roll. Then I saw that just a few ingredients were listed, none of which were sugar. Huh. Surprised again. Cue eyeball return to rightful positions — I had found a sauce comparable to my beloved Malu’s.
I tossed half the jar of Victoria Marinara with a simple gnocchi that I had made, also learned from my time in Italy, and finished the dish with a drizzle of olive oil and transparent shavings of heavenly Piave cheese. The other half, I used for a basic Neopolitan-style pizza with mozzarella, basil, a dusting of black pepper and oregano, and olive oil, which my husband and I made on our outdoor gas grill with great haste, as is required when dressing grilled pizzas.