It was obvious that some of these cooks were slipping a little sugar into the tomato sauce, and I wondered where that tradition started. I started leafing through a few of my cookbooks, and, sure enough, the Italian authors advocated sugar in their marinara recipes: a pinch here, a tablespoon there and, in one terrifying example, a half-cup. That wouldn't be a pasta sauce, in my book — it would be a dessert topping. A tomato is, after all, a fruit.
Jasper Mirabile Jr. — chef and co-owner of Jasper's Restaurant (1201 West 103rd Street) — has traveled extensively through Italy, so I called him to ask about sweeter tomato sauces.
"A lot of the Italian immigrants that settled in Kansas City were Sicilian," Mirabile told me. "And they were sweetening the sauces back in the old country, even sprinkling a little sugar on fresh tomatoes. I've always felt that one of the reasons that Sicilians added sugar to their sauces is that they cooked the sauces too long, which made them slightly bitter, or they used tomato paste, which is concentrated and probably needed a little extra sweetness."
Mirabile makes his marinara with fresh tomatoes and fresh herbs and cooks it for only an hour and a half, so it doesn't need sweetening. "You can tell when a marinara has too much sugar in it," he said. "It's a very dark sauce and gets darker as the night goes on and it simmers, because the sugar caramelizes."
I was surprised to find out that Lucia's Tony Gallo also adds a bit of sugar to his sauce, along with fresh garlic, onion and sweet basil. "I hate adding sugar to the sauce," he told me, "because I don't like the taste myself. But my customers love a sweeter sauce."
And as we all know, the customer is always right.