A New Orleans Nana’s Tomato Sauce

Elizabeth M. Williams’s new book invites readers to pull up a chair at her grandmother’s Creole Italian kitchen table

Photo: Courtesy of LSU Press

When Elizabeth M. Williams was growing up in New Orleans, a pot of simmering tomato sauce was a fixture on her Nana’s (or grandmother’s) stove. Balancing just the right amount of sweet—gained from grated carrots rather than sugar—and savory—thanks in part to dissolved anchovies at the base—the sauce adorned the pastas, chicken stews, roasts, and sausages made by her grandmother, who immigrated from Sicily in 1910 when she was eighteen years old. “And now I cook the sauce all the time,” says Williams, a founder of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. In fact, Williams deems the recipe so elemental that she gave it a place of honor within her new book, Nana’s Creole Italian Table, in both the condiment section and on the cover. 

“In Sicily, tomato sauce is pasta,” she says. “Wherever you are in Italy, tomato sauce is thought of as Sicilian. This is a quintessential thing.” In New Orleans, that sauce became inevitably creolized and morphed into a roux-based red gravy, which Williams’s Nana would tolerate, though only for certain uses, like meatball or sausage po’ boys. “[Nana] drew the line at no red gravy on pasta,” Williams says. “That was her inviolate rule.” 

Through recipes for both sauces, as well as other Creole Italian classics including bruccialuna, barbecue shrimp, oysters and pasta, and a litany of stuffed vegetables, Williams’s book tells the story of how Italian immigrants in New Orleans revolutionized the city and its cuisine. 

“When I started out, the book was going to just be about growing up and having this fabulous access to the Sicilian community in New Orleans,” Williams says. “We would go to big parties where people would be playing the mandolin and singing old-fashioned folk songs and eating Sicilian food. That went away as people died off, and now I have children and grandchildren who don’t have this connection. I was thinking that someone had to tell this story, and as I started to tell it, I realized it was a food story.” 

For Williams, it’s these food stories that make her hometown great. “New Orleans absorbs the food of the different cultures who settle here,” she says. “If we were to say: after some arbitrary date, whatever food that comes into the city isn’t really New Orleans food, that would kill us. Our dynamism is what keeps our food alive and thriving.”


  • Nana’s Basic Tomato Sauce (Makes about 2 quarts)

    • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

    • 1 anchovy, mashed

    • 3 large onions, finely chopped

    • 5 cloves garlic, minced

    • 2 carrots, grated

    • 1 stalk celery, minced

    • 1 small can (4 oz.) tomato paste

    • 5 lbs. tomatoes, put through a food mill or 3 (15 oz.) cans crushed Italian tomatoes

    • 1 cup red wine

    • 2 bay leaves, whole

    • 2 tbsp. dried oregano

    • ½ lemon, zest and juice

    • Salt and pepper to taste

    • For serving: hot spaghetti and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil over medium heat. Slowly sauté anchovy until it dissolves. Sauté onions, garlic, carrots, and celery until soft. Add tomato paste and continue cooking until caramelized, about 15 minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, and bay leaves. Stir. Cover and simmer at least an hour. (Cooking time for fresh tomatoes is longer.)

  2. After an hour, continue simmering, uncovered, until thick. Add oregano, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Cook 15 minutes more. Serve tossed into spaghetti and topped with cheese.