It's the ultimate test for every Italian cook, every Italian restaurant: How is the marinara sauce? Reputations have been made (or lost) on less.
So why shouldn't Italian celebrity chefs and restaurants be subject to the same scrutiny? Newsday put eight celebrity marinaras to the test to determine, as they say on "Iron Chef," whose sauce reigns supreme.
Nine of my colleagues and I sampled eight widely available marinara sauces purchased at supermarkets in Nassau and Suffolk. Half bore the images of their celebrity creators, television chef-restaurateurs Lidia Bastianich, Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali and actor Paul Sorvino. The other half hailed from celebrated Italian restaurants, Rao's and Patsy's of Manhattan, Il Mulino of Manhattan, Roslyn and 11 other locations, and Holbrook's own Mamma Lombardi's.
Our tasters sampled each of the sauces on Barilla medium shells. All the pasta was cooked in the same pot to ensure consistency in terms of doneness and saltiness. The drained pasta was mixed with equal amounts of each sauce and put into numbered bowls. No one -- not even I -- knew which sauce was which.
Tasters were asked to rate each sauce on a scale of 1 (the worst) to 4 (the best). For each sauce, all the individual scores were added up for a total score. For example, if a sauce received four 1s, two 2s, three 3s and one 4, its total score would be 21. A sauce that all 10 tasters had awarded the highest score of 4 would get a total score of 40.
The highest scoring sauce was Rao's with a 26; the lowest was Mamma Lombardi's with a 17. But each sauce received at least one taster's lowest rating and most of them received someone's highest as well.
The most interesting finding was that while there was real divergence when it came to whether people liked a sauce, there was unanimity about the character of the sauce. For example, almost every taster noted that Emeril's sauce was sweet. I found it objectionably sweet and gave it a 1, as did one other taster. But two tasters gave it their highest scores: They liked sweet sauces. In the end, Emeril scored third.
My favorite sauce, by far, was Paul Sorvino's, which ranked fifth. To me it screamed "tomato," and I loved its acidity. But another taster, whose comments were "tomatoey," and "acidic," gave it a 1.
We found no relationship between price and quality. The two cheapest sauces, Emeril's and Lidia's, scored in the top half of the rankings; the two most expensive sauce, Il Mulino and Mario Batali, scored in the bottom.
1. RAO'S HOMEMADE MARINARA SAUCE (scored 26)
Price: $6.49 for 24 oz.
Tasters' comments: "like from scratch," "fresh flavor," "like the tomato chunks"
2. PATSY'S MARINARA (scored 25)
Price: $6.99 for 24 oz.
Tasters' comments: "chunky," "herbal," "mild," "bitter," "spicy finish," "pleasant"
3. EMERIL'S MARINARA (scored 24)
Price: $3.99 for 25 oz.
Tasters' comments: "sweet," "really sweet," "very sweet," "too sweet"
4. LIDIA'S MARINARA (scored 23)
Price: $4.99 for 25 oz.
Tasters' comments: "garlicky," "oniony," "onion chunks weird," "fresh tasting"
5. PAUL SORVINO FOODS AUTHENTIC NEAPOLITAN MARINARA (scored 22)
Price: $5.99 for 25 oz.
Tasters' comments: "tomatoey," "tastes like tomatoes," "acidic," "bad aftertaste"
6. MARIO BATALI PASTA SAUCE MARINARA (scored 21)
Price: $7.99 for 24 oz.
Tasters' comments: "balanced," "raw," "olivey," "super-bland," "average in all ways"
7. IL MULINO MARINARA SAUCE (scored 19)
Price: $8.99 for 24 oz.
Tasters' comments: "artificial garlic taste," "kind of sour," "stale spices"
8. MAMMA LOMBARDI'S MARINARA SAUCE (scored 17)
Price: $4.99 for 26 oz.
Tasters' comments: "watery," "canned taste," "garlicky," "underseasoned"
Film a wide skillet with 1 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil and, over medium heat, cook some peeled cloves of garlic until they just begin to color. If you have a sprig or two of thyme or rosemary, saute them along with the garlic. Pour in a can of tomatoes and break them up with a fork or a potato masher. Add a good pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper and simmer for about 10 minutes, until sauce has thickened slightly. Remove garlic cloves and herb sprigs. Off the heat, add some chopped parsley or basil, if desired. There. Your water hasn't even come to a boil yet, has it? -- Erica Marcus