Italian Tomato Sauce – Onion & Butter, with Gnocchi

5/5 - (7 votes)

I have been avidly reading Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. I saw a very simple recipe for an Italian tomato sauce flavored with butter and onion in the book. The simplicity of the recipe immediately appealed to me. Marcella also suggested gnocchi to go with the sauce, so I decided to make both.

I have eaten gnocchi only once before, and I found it heavy and stodgy. However, Marcella’s recipe promised soft and fluffy gnocchi, so I was eager to try them. The instructions for both the sauce and the gnocchi emphasized the importance of the ingredients. For the sauce, the type of tomato was crucial to achieve the absolute best flavor. Using fresh tomatoes was also suggested, but Marcella mentioned that canned San Marzano tomatoes worked well too. In fact, the recipe would work with any tomatoes, whether canned or fresh.

Regarding the gnocchi, Marcella stressed the importance of using the right type of potatoes since the recipe didn’t include egg or egg yolks, which many people use to bind the gnocchi. She warned that using egg or egg yolk tended to make the gnocchi tough. Marcella recommended using Desiree potatoes (in the UK), which are red-skinned potatoes. Since they were unavailable at the moment, I used another red-skinned variety. In North America, she mentioned that Russet potatoes worked well. Potatoes that were too floury might require an egg yolk, but the recipe didn’t call for it.

Italian Tomato Sauce - Onion & Butter, with Gnocchi
Italian Tomato Sauce – Onion & Butter, with Gnocchi


The recipe had two distinct stages. First, making the sauce involved skinning and milling the tomatoes into a puree or chopping them into small chunks. Then, they were cooked with the onion and butter, with a little salt for seasoning. After gently simmering the sauce for 45 minutes, the onion was removed and discarded (or used for something else). If the sauce was too liquid, it could be reduced to thicken it.

For the gnocchi, the potatoes were boiled until tender and then skinned. They needed to be mashed or riced. Flour was gradually mixed into the potatoes, and the mixture was kneaded into a soft, slightly sticky dough. The dough was then rolled into 1-inch ropes and cut into 3/4-inch pieces, which were shaped using the tines of a fork or a ridged board. The gnocchi were then cooked in a large pan of boiling water in batches until they rose to the surface. They were left for about 10 seconds before being removed, and a test could determine whether a few seconds longer were needed to ensure the flour was fully cooked.

To serve, the sauce was plated with parmesan sprinkled over it, and the gnocchi were added along with more sauce and parmesan. The whole thing was stirred and then served to be enjoyed. I must say I found the whole process of making the sauce and gnocchi most enjoyable. The main enjoyment, though, was in the eating. The sauce was simply magnificent, and the gnocchi were, as Marcella promised, soft and fluffy. Altogether, it was a most enjoyable experience.

Italian Tomato Sauce – Onion & Butter, with Gnocchi – Video

Another lovely recipe is Beef Stroganoff – Quick & Easy.

Italian Tomato Sauce – Onion & Butter, with Gnocchi

Recipe by Marcella Hazan(slightly adapted)Course: Stove top recipesCuisine: ItalianDifficulty: Medium


Prep Time


Cooking time




  • Tomato Sauce
  • 1.8kg(4lbs) ripe San Marzano, or other plum tomatoes – see note below for canned tomatoes

  • 2 medium onions, peeled and cut in half

  • 150g(10 tbsp + 2 tsp) unsalted butter

  • Salt to taste

  • Grated parmesan, to personal taste

  • Gnocchi
  • 1350g(3 lbs) Desiree or Russet potatoes, or similar

  • 340g(2 1/4 cups, based on scooping packed flour into a 250ml cup) plain flour

  • Salt for cooking water


  • Place the whole tomatoes into boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes. If not using a mill see note 2 below.
  • After 10 minutes carefully pass the whole tomatoes through a mill to make puree.
  • Place the puree into a large pan and add the onion and butter.
  • Place the pan on the heat and gently simmer the sauce for 45 minutes, seasoning to taste with salt.
  • Remove the onions and, if necessary, reduce the sauce to thicken.
  • Boil the potatoes, skin on, in a large pan of water until they are tender.
  • Drain the potatoes and carefully remove the skins.
  • Mash or rice the potatoes.
  • Add most of the flour to the potatoes and work together into a dough, adding more flour as necessary.
  • Knead the dough until it is soft and slightly sticky.
  • Cut the dough into several pieces and roll each piece into a rope about 1 inch thick.
  • Cut the ropes into 3/4 inch pieces.
  • Hold a fork withe the handle pointing away from you. The tines should be pointing upwards.
  • Place a piece of dough on the tines and use a finger to flick the dough along the tines so it drops off the fork. The dough piece will have a dip on one side and ridges on the other side.
  • If you have a ridged board you can simply roll the dough pieces on that and create the gnocchi.
  • If necessary keep the gnocchi lightly floured to preven them sticking together.
  • Bring a large pan of water, about 5 litres/5 quarts, to a boil and add about 1 tbsp of salt.
  • Drop a couple of the shaped gnocchi into the water and cook until they rise to the surface.
  • Leave them on the surface for 10 seconds and then taste. If they are flourly cook for a further few seconds until they don’t taste floury.
  • Cook the remaining gnocchi in batches, for the length of time determined in the previous step.
  • Place some sauce into a serving dish/plate, and add some parmesan.
  • Spoon drained gnocchi on the top and add more sauce and parmesan. Gently stir and serve.


  • To use canned tomatoes try to get San Marzano. You need about 1 kg(2.2lbs)
  • If using ripe tomatoes but without a mill, simply immerse the tomatoes in boiling water for 10 seconds and then carefully remove the skins and chop the tomatoes into small pieces.
  • If using canned tomatoes use the entire contents of the cans, and chop into small pieces.

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