Spicy Tomato Sauce

This image courtesy of Joseph DeLeo

Salsa arrabbiata—literally, “angry” sauce—is a tomato-based pasta sauce made in countless versions in Italy, sometimes with meat, sometimes without, but always with some kind of hot pepper. I like bits of meat in my sauce, either thick bacon or, even better, prosciutto “end” (see box on the facing page). The heat here comes from small whole pickled peppers, packed in jars of vinegar, labeled peperoncini or peperoncino (the same term I use for red pepper flakes). Though these are milder than pickled “cherry” peppers, they provide plenty of spice—especially peperoncini Toscano, which I hope you can find. The sauce should have a pleasing play of textures as well as tastes, providing nice and distinctive bites of all the ingredients. Cut the onions, peperoncini, and prosciutto (or bacon) thick enough so that they don’t get lost, or lose their shape in the tomato sauce.


A fine substitute for bacon in this recipe and others is small pieces cut from the end of a prosciutto. This is a chunk of dense and flavorful meat (with a layer of flavorful fat) at the shank end of a prosciutto, all that’s left after the rest of the ham has been sliced paper-thin, in the traditional manner.

The next time you are in an Italian deli or grocery, ask if they have one to sell you; it’s a useful piece of meat to have on hand (and much less expensive than regular prosciutto). With the skin on, it will keep for a long time in your refrigerator or freezer, and you can use small amounts of the salt-cured meat to add flavor to sauces, soups, and pasta, wherever you would use bacon. Remove skin before cutting the prosciutto. You can also slice off a piece of the skin and use the layer of fat underneath to lend flavor to dishes. Just rub the fat over a frying pan, or the surface of a grill, to apply a thin film of grease.

3 to 4 cups of sauce, enough to dress 1 pound of pasta



Total Timeunder 1 hour

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Coursemain course

Five Ingredients or LessYes


Taste and Texturesalty, sharp, spiced

Type of Dishpasta sauce


  • 3 cups (one 28-ounce can) canned San Marzano or other Italian plum tomatoes, with juices
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions sliced in ¼-inch-thick “half-moons (about 1½ cups)
  • About 6 ounces (1 cup) prosciutto ends (see Note) or thick bacon cut in 1/2-inch strips
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 8 to 10 whole Tuscan-style peperoncini in vinegar, drained, seeded, and sliced in strips (½ cup), or more to taste
  • Hot water from the pasta-cooking pot
  • ½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste
  • A 12-inch or larger skillet
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano


  1. Dump the tomatoes and juices into a large bowl, and squeeze the tomatoes into small chunks with your hands.

  2. Pour the olive oil into the skillet, toss in the onion slices and the prosciutto or bacon strips, and set over medium-high heat. Stir well, toss in the bay leaves, and cook, stirring and shaking the pan occasionally. If using bacon, start over medium heat and turn it up as the bacon releases its fat.

  3. After 5 minutes or so, when the onions have softened, drop the peperoncino strips into a clear part of the skillet, and toast them in the hot spot for a minute. Pour the crushed tomatoes into the pan; rinse out the tomato can and bowl with 1 cup of pasta-cooking water, and pour it into the skillet too. Add the salt, stir well, and rapidly bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat so it is bubbling steadily.

  4. Cook at a gentle boil for 8 to 10 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and reduced by a third or so. The onions and peppers should be cooked through but still retain their shape and texture to the bite.

  5. Remove bay leaves, then toss and cook the pasta together with salsa arrabbiata. Remove the skillet from the heat, and toss in the cheese just before serving.

  6. Good With: I like a dry pasta here—linguine, ziti, campanelle, radiatori, or capellini.


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