Why It Works
- Letting the tomato mixture sit briefly after seasoning allows salt to draw out moisture from the tomatoes to help build the sauce and allows the aromas of the garlic and basil to infuse the olive oil.
- Ripe summer tomatoes are the name of the game here: This pasta will only be as good as the tomatoes you use.
Spaghetti with raw tomato sauce is a celebration of the sweet acidity of the juiciest, ripest, preferably peak-of-summer tomatoes you can find. Outside of the very short time that is ideal tomato season, you can sometimes make a good version of this no-cook sauce using the best cherry or cocktail tomatoes, but those are some of the only options that might be flavorful enough out-of-season to warrant the effort. Otherwise, mark your calendars and wait.
This sauce is so simple—just diced ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, extra-virgin olive oil, and garlic—there are only a few things that need to be said about it beyond stressing the importance of the quality of the tomatoes. The first is about peeling and seeding the tomatoes. Some recipes for sugo di pomodoro crudo will call for this slightly laborious task, and if you want to, you can follow their lead. But I've never eaten some pasta al pomodoro crudo, spat it out, and angrily exclaimed, "Who, pray tell, left the skins and seeds on these tomatoes?" The full tomato has never bothered me in a pico de gallo, it's never bothered me in bruschetta, and it doesn't bother me here. Frankly, there's a lot of flavor in those seeds and it'd be a shame to waste it.
Next, let's talk garlic. I've seen some videos coming out of Italy in which the cook combines both raw garlic and raw onion or shallot in the sauce. This is, in and of itself, slightly surprising, since it's more typical to choose one or the other, not both, in quick sauces like this. Exceptions abound to such generalizations, so I tested it out, and the combination produced way too pungent of a sauce, at least for me. I prefer it with just raw garlic, but feel free to use minced raw onion or shallot instead; use both only if you know what trouble you're stirring up. No matter what you do, I beg you not to grate the garlic. This recipe is one of those cases in which aggressive grating will yield a throat-scorching garlic intensity. It's much better to finely mince the garlic with a sharp knife for this recipe.
Unlike so many of our other pasta recipes, where we've stressed the importance of building a silky emulsion with the starchy pasta water and sauce, that's not really important here. This is less of a hot pasta dish with a silky sauce that coats each noodle, and more of a salad in pasta form (except still warm from the heat of the pasta, because, as everyone knows, traditional cold, vinegary pasta salad is gross*).
As long as your tomatoes are juicy and ripe, and your olive oil is extra-virgin, your spaghetti will be perfectly dressed and delicious. Oh, one last thing: This sauce is best when you combine the ingredients, add salt, and let it sit for 15 to 30 minutes before mixing in the pasta. The brief wait gives the salt time to draw out some of the tomatoes' juices, softening them and helping to build the sauce, and for the flavors of the basil and garlic to infuse into the oil.
- 1 1/4 pounds (565g) summer-ripe tomatoes (about 7 plum tomatoes; see note), cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 1/2 cup (120ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 to 4 medium cloves garlic (about 1/2 to 1 ounce; 15-30g), finely minced by hand
- 25 fresh basil leaves (25g), torn into small pieces
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound (450g) dried spaghetti
In a large mixing bowl, stir together tomatoes, olive oil, garlic (use fewer cloves if you want a more mild garlic flavor, and more if you welcome a stronger one), and basil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, stir to combine, and let stand for at least 15 minutes and up to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a pot of salted boiling water, cook spaghetti until al dente. Using tongs, transfer pasta to tomato mixture, reserving pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 1 cup (240ml) pasta cooking water, then transfer to bowl with tomatoes. Stir well to dress pasta with tomato mixture. If pasta becomes too dry, add reserved pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (15ml) increments as needed to dress the pasta. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to individual serving bowls, and serve.
Virtually any variety of tomato will work for this recipe, whether fleshy plums, juicy beefsteaks, heirlooms, or cherries; what's most important is that they be fully ripe. If using larger tomatoes, core them before dicing.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This pasta is best made right before serving, though it's pretty tasty at room temperature as leftovers. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days.