Grandmother’s Recipe – Ooma Tesoro turns ten, but its marinara recipe goes way back
Michael Tesoro’s grandmother grew up in Brooklyn where her marinara sauce came to be known as the most delicious, simplest, and truest to the region of southern Italy from which she hailed. Among the myriad Italian grandmothers, it was agreed: Ooma Tesoro’s sauce was the best.
The versatility of marinara—a simple sauce named for the sailor of Naples—was originally prized for its good storing qualities at sea in the absence of meat, fish, or dairy. Neapolitan fisherman questing for swordfish habitually left port with few provisions save for bait—they favored squid—and the jarred sauce. If there were no swordfish to be found, for supper the marianaio would bread their bait, fry it on deck, and dip it into the ruby-hued sauce, hence the now marriage of fried calamari and marinara.
Blending this rich heritage and the memory of his grandmother, Tesoro and his wife, Robin, launched their family business a decade ago. Demand for their small-batch sauce, made in the Berkshires, remains as high as the product’s history is deep—promising comfort, connection, and consistency in every jar.
“I learned everything I know about cooking from her,” says Tesoro of his grandmother, who never had a recipe book, not even an index card file. “What she taught me, more than anything else, is an appreciation for how ingredients blend together.” Tesoro’s grandmother likely learned from her grandmother, and generations later, it still contains nothing more than ripe plum tomatoes, fresh onions, garlic, olive oil, black pepper, and spices. Production continues to be a family affair: Michael and Robin fine-tuned Ooma’s recipe in the kitchen of their circa 1836 Windsor home, and the cooking takes place in the now decommissioned Berkshire Trail Elementary School in Cummington, where both their children—Francesca, 14, and Nicholas, 11—were students prior to its closure in 2015.
“We knew the kitchen, we had used it,” says Robin in a nod to a slew of spaghetti dinners they hosted there over the years. The transition from previous digs in Greenfield was a no-brainer.
Ooma Tesoro taught her grandson well: Fresh tomatoes are for the salad; tomatoes you put up are for the sauce. Pomodoro, which translates to “the golden apple” in Italian, are native to the high, arid deserts of Central America. The flavor profile of the Italian San Marzano tomato—the world’s version of the finest sauce tomato—is what Tesoro is going for, but he decided on a California plum tomato noted for its extreme consistency in terms of sweetness and acidity. “There is a softening of the acidity that happens in the canning process,” Tesoro notes, adding that fruit grown in the blistering hot sun develop the sweet plumpness that makes for good sauce. The high-water content in east coast tomatoes is not conducive to making sauce.
Tesoro’s marinara begins with fresh, sweet onions—he favors Vidalias in early summer, and Empire sweet onions from New York state come fall—which he browns with garlic in a fragrant Italian olive oil. Then come the tomatoes, a whopping 1,200 pounds in every 160-gallon batch of sauce. Tesoro is adamant about two things: First, there is no oregano to be found in his recipe. (The herb he does favor is a proprietary ingredient which he prefers not to divulge.) Second, there is not a seed to be found. “We make our own puree by extracting all the seeds, stem and peel from the whole plum tomato,” he explains. The payoff? A uniquely smooth texture, with no weird chunks, hence its popularity among kids. Removing the seeds takes out much of the bitterness and yields a sweeter sauce, eradicating the need for added sugar. The selected protein in tomato seeds is said to cause inflammation—a known fact among those who associate tomato products with irritation, acid reflux, and heartburn.
Not Ooma Tesoro’s. “Just try it,” Tesoro urges skeptics. Which, coming from someone who grew up on marinara sauce, is evidence of an authentic flavor profile.
“Ooma Tesoro was a great old soul who took me under her wing and showed me so many things,” Tesoro recalls of their time spent together in the kitchen. The family used what they had during harvest time, and this sauce was a staple; Ooma Tesoro made it once a week, and it found its way into almost every dish. He suggests simmering blanched green beans in the sauce or adding it to the vegan kale and mushroom bowl he serves at the Freshgrass Festival at MASS MoCA—a marriage of four different types of local kale, four different types of mushrooms simmered in sauce with sautéed garlic and onions. “It’s definitely not just for spaghetti,” he emphasizes.
Ooma Tesoro’s has bucked the trend of food consultants whose orthodoxy revolves around the creation of multiple products. As a business, they have remained firm in the midst of customers’ urging that they expand. Instead, the Tesoros have stuck to their bidding: making the best marinara on the market and building their brand. “After nearly ten years of being highly focused on a single product, we may be considering something new to the mix,” says Tesoro with a smirk. “Perhaps to mark our tenth anniversary in November?” We’ll keep our eyes, and tomatoes, peeled.