How to Make Lilia Chef Missy Robbins’s Simple, Supercharged Red Sauce at Home
Missy Robbins is New York’s reigning queen of pasta.
She presides over the kitchen at Lilia in Brooklyn, a place that’s become an obsession with a huge swath of the city, including Trumps and multiple Goldman Sachs executives. One of its best-sellers is rigatoni diavola with San Marzanos (tomatoes), chiles, oregano, and pecorino.
It’s based on a recipe Robbins only recently mastered: a luxurious tomato sauce, rich with oil and loaded with sweet caramelized garlic and a hit of heat.
For a long time, Robbins didn’t even serve tomato sauce. It wasn’t on the menu when she cooked at Spiaggia in Chicago (where she was a favorite of the Obamas)—the upscale Northern Italian restaurant didn’t serve red sauces. Nor was it offered at A Voce in New York, where she won Michelin stars. It wasn’t until Robbins took a few years off to get a respite from the intensity of restaurant life that she began perfecting tomato sauces in her home kitchen. When she opened Lilia, in early 2016, one of the first dishes on the menu was the rigatoni in spicy tomato sauce.
In her new cookbook, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner … Life: Recipes and Adventures from My Home Kitchen (which came out in September), Robbins reveals her favorite version of an all-purpose tomato sauce, one that’s replete with the sweet flavor of caramelized garlic. Her 30-clove sauce (adapted below to 20 cloves, to make it a little quicker to cook at home) tastes like a dish that’s simmered on the stove for hours in a Sicilian kitchen. Robbins’s 40-minute version can be prepared in a little more than a half-hour, by virtue of a couple of tricks. “It’s my comfort food,” she says, simply.
“This is one of the most satisfying sauces to make,” she continues. “Everyone loves it because it has that extra hit of flavor from the toasty garlic. If you’re having a dinner party, there’s no one that will not be thrilled with it.” It’s also one of the most versatile sauces to make, she asserts, ticking off the options: “You can make it spicier. You can make it into a fake Bolognese by adding browned meat. You can make it heartier vegetarian with mushrooms.” It also goes with almost any pasta, though Robbins favors it with shorter shapes such as rigatoni, ziti, and radiatore.
It also improves on classic tomato sauces by featuring sumptuous pieces of tender garlic that are first cooked in a generous olive oil bath, which simultaneously tenderizes the garlic and flavors the oil before the tomatoes are added. In most tomato sauces the garlic is finely chopped; if it’s not, it’s discarded. Robbins believes in the allure of garlic that’s tender and sweet and perfumes the sauce. “Why throw out the garlic? Why not celebrate it?” she asks. And for those who plan ahead, the sauce can be frozen for as long as six weeks. If you don’t want to count out all those garlic cloves one by one, she says, just use “what would normally be an outrageous amount of garlic, and you should be covered.”
Asked if she would ever sub in a jarred sauce in an emergency—after all, there are several good options out now, like Rao’s—Robbins laughs. “I never, ever buy jarred tomato sauce. Why would you, when you can make something so satisfying so quickly. You instantly become an Italian grandma when you make this luscious sauce. There’s nothing that compares to it.”
Cooking cloves whole, and slowly, is definitely not conventional. In Italy, cooks frequently remove the garlic after sweating it, so it’s not physically in the sauce. The version below celebrates the garlic. But don’t worry: The olive oil poaching softens the stinky edge, so the next day, your breath won’t betray that you.
40-Minute, 20-Garlic Clove Tomato Sauce With Pasta
This recipe is adapted from Missy Robbins’s new cookbook, Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner … Life: Recipes and Adventures from My Home Kitchen. It’s good for just about any shape of pasta you can find.
Serves four, plus leftover sauce.
2/3 cup olive oil
20 garlic cloves (about 1½ heads of garlic), peeled (see tip below)
Two 28-oz. cans of whole peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tsp crushed red chile flakes
2 basil sprigs
1 lb. dried pasta (Robbins prefers short shapes, like rigatoni)
In a large, heavy saucepan, warm the olive oil over moderately low heat. Add the garlic cloves, and gently simmer until softened and just beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, drain the canned tomatoes in a colander. Transfer the tomatoes and any purée in the colander into a food processor and pulse two or three times until the tomatoes are very roughly chopped. (Tester’s note: If you like using your hands, squeeze the tomatoes to break them up into large chunks.)
Using a fork or the back of a spoon, crush half the garlic cloves in the oil; leave the remaining cloves whole. Add the tomatoes, fennel, and chile flakes to the saucepan and simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened, about 20 minutes. Add the basil, season well with salt, and simmer for about five more minutes, until the sauce is richly flavored.
Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling water, cook the pasta until just al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta cooking liquid. Cook the pasta in about 2 cups of the sauce, basting the pasta, until al dente; add a little pasta cooking water if necessary. Refrigerate or freeze the remaining sauce for another use.
Garlic tip: To quickly peel garlic, put the separated cloves in a large bowl. Invert another large bowl on top and shake hard for several seconds. This will release the skins from the cloves. Discard the skins.