Buttery Tomato Pasta

My mom insists that the trick to the tomatoes is the sugar, and I agree. Tomatoes are naturally acidic. You need to add sugar to balance the acidity and this particular dish should be a little on the sweet side, which is why we add sugar.

Use the best quality canned tomatoes available. We recommend Muir Glen brand or San Marzano. The sauce has so few ingredients, it's important that the tomatoes you use are high quality. Cheap, generic canned tomatoes just will not taste as good.

  • Prep time: 5 minutes
  • Cook time: 20 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4


  • 1/2 pound of fusilli pasta or elbow macaroni
  • 1 14 ounce can of good quality whole tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 teaspoons sugar (more or less to taste)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Pinch of dried basil or fresh sliced basil (optional)


1 Half fill a 4 quart pot with water. Add a tablespoon of salt. Bring salted water to boil. Add pasta. Cook until al dente, tender but still a little firm.

2 While the pasta water is heating and the pasta is cooking, prepare the tomatoes. Shred the canned whole tomatoes with your fingers as you put them in a small saucepan. Add any tomato juice left in the can to the pot. Add the butter. Heat to a simmer and stir to melt the butter. Simmer gently while the pasta is cooking. Stir in sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. If you have fresh basil, thinly slice a couple leaves and stir in. If not, if you want you can add a pinch of dried basil.

3 When the pasta is done, drain it. Stir in the cooked tomatoes and put in a serving bowl.

Serve immediately.

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  • Josie

    Found this on huffpost! I made it with fresh tomatoes and red peppers tonight for dinner. So simple and delicious!

  • Sandy

    We must be related, my grandma made this all the time for all the kids usually with elbow noodles and there was never any leftovers!!! Never had sugar in ours as she was a diabetic but i’m sure gonna try it. Thanks for giving me this goofy smile on my face and thinking of simpler times.

  • Judy K.

    So my mom made something similar; she would crisp up chopped bacon, add chopped onion, then the tomatoes. No butter, just the bacon fat. LOVED it. But I think this would be really tasty too!

  • Milena

    This sounds delicious! I am planning to make it for dinner. Thank you!

  • Mara

    I used brown sugar and added chili flakes instead of basil, and it tasted great! Thank you!

  • Katie

    This sounds so wonderful and simple! I can’t wait to try it. We are planing it for dinner tomorrow night. This is a great back pocket throw together with things from the pantry sauce. Thanks so much for sharing! I love your website.

  • Linda W

    *** Love ***

    I crave this simple and delicious pasta recipe at times. Super comfort food. I could eat the whole batch :) yum yum yum!!! Thank you for sharing your family’s recipes. We enjoy every one we try. God bless!!

  • Greg

    Great recipe. I used brown sugar instead of white and it turned out excellent! Thanks!

  • Alejandro Ortega

    Elise, I’ve made this four times now, and my family loves it! We never have leftovers. I made a double portion today, let’s just say we ate more than half of it. Thanks!

  • Annie

    Oh, my goodness! I don’t have an Italian bone in my body and I’ve spent my entire life hiding pasta, ketchup and margarine as my guilty childhood pleasure. I substituted butter for the margarine on my own as soon as I discovered the difference. My kids were still grossed out, though. I didn’t make it often – mostly when I wasn’t feeling well, like my mother used to do – but I will have to make it now that you’ve shown me it’s a real recipe using actual food, lol. Thanks, Elise!

  • Audrey

    This recipe reminds me of a recipe from an old Mama Leone’s Kitchen cookbook. I am German, not Italian, and the recipe seemed so decadent, but is still in my rotation 30 years later because it is so fresh and good:
    1 stick butter, melted in small sauce pan
    4 ripe tomatoes, boiled 1 minute, peeled & crushed
    simmer together for 1/2 hour
    add 1 6 oz can Italian tuna in oil (don’t know if it was supposed to be drained or not)
    1/2 c ricotta

    stir in the tuna and then the ricotta right at the end.

    You then put lots of Parmesan cheese on top (I think on the individual servings, not sure) and broil for a few minutes. I skip this step, and yet this recipe is one of my all time favorites. It never fails to please.
    Thanks for your wonderful recipes!

    PS on the Mama Leone’s recipe:
    It is supposed to be put on mini shells, then broiled. The mini shells
    so far seem the best pasta to hold the sauce.

    Love the sound of it, thank you for sharing! ~Elise

  • hrl

    Another simple and yummy looking recipe. Thanks!

  • ajmitolo

    thanks for a quick and easy, did i mention easy pasta dish. thumbs up from three of my children, one doesn’t like red sauce thanks to his older sister and a goosebumps episode:)
    BTW i love your blog, so happy to have stumbled across your site.

  • Chef dePaprika

    This recipe look very tasty.
    Simple but delicious like all Italian treats.

  • pws

    when i was young, my very asian grandmother used to make me spaghetti with a big dollop of butter mixed into the tomato sauce. to this day, i still will mix a pat of butter into my sauce for that extra something. this recipe brings back a lot of fond memories, i will definitely be making it soon!

  • Lucia

    This is nearly the same ‘quickie’ recipe I use for pasta when I am not feeling like making a 4 hour sauce. Only difference is I brown a few cloves of minced garlic in olive oil first, then add the tomatoes and spices. Or sometimes I brown a lb of lean hamburger along with the garlic, then add the tomatoes and spices and you’ve got a hearty one-dish meal :-)

  • Michelle

    This went over well with my picky eaters (4 boys ages 10 & under)! I think of one the boys even told me it was amazing. I served it with burgers & watermelon. Love this recipe (and all the others I have tried from your blog)!! Thanks for helping me become a better cook.

  • Mary

    Made this last night. Used whole wheat fusilli and basil from the freezer. My teen-ager who will not eat marinara from a jar loved this. Thanks for a healthy and quick meal suggestion. Like all the recipes I have tried from Elise’s site, the directions and measurements were right-on. Thank you.

  • Linda

    I’m cooking up a batch of buttery tomato pasta as I type.

    I just love reading your commentary/reflections. It sounds like you have such a lovely family. So happy to find your blog. Thanks for creating it!! :)

    You are very welcome. Thank you for reading it! ~Elise

  • Annie

    I hope this doesn’t come off as a promotion, but I just wanted to recommend Di Napoli ground tomatoes in puree for sauces. They are pretty sweet already and probably the best canned tomato I have ever had.

    I think it is a San Jose based company, so I am not sure exactly how far they distribute.

    Really interested to try this on a lazy night.

  • Deborah

    We made this for supper last night. As a mother of a few children, I make pasta often. They really enjoy it with jarred marinara sauce & mozzarrella cheese. I was glad to find this recipe that is less expensive & really good for a change.

  • Ruth

    I’ve had this open in a tab on Firefox since you posted it and tonight I finally had time to make it. It’s just fabulous and really really easy!

  • Row

    Simple and delicious… the perfect meal! Thanks for sharing! :)

  • Jayne

    I love simple pastas like these. Easy and quick to whip up when the carbo cravings hit.

  • Tamsin

    A meal we had a lot in my childhood was spaghetti tossed with butter and topped with mozzarella, salt and pepper. I remember thinking of it as being pretty fancy, and only realized as an adult that we probably had it a lot because it was quick, easy, and above all, inexpensive for the parents of young children to make. I am going to have to try it out with my own family!

  • Sylvia

    So simple yet so delicious!! This turned out great, I don’t know why I haven’t tried it before. The sugar tames the tomatoes nicely and the butter gives it just enough richness. The basil gives it just an extra hint of flavor. I won’t have to rely on jarred pasta sauce ever again. Thanks Elise!

  • Laney

    Another way you can make a sauce sweet is by grating in some carrot. My tomato sauce is always a little on the chunky side so you never see it or notice it.
    My mother also used to grate zucchini into tomato sauce to sneak in some more veggies when we were little.

  • Rebecca

    I made this today with the Provencal tuna salad from the Splendid Table and we all loved it. It made the 11 year old want more tuna salad & it was easy enough for her to make by herself. Thanks for the pairing suggestion.

  • Sharlene

    I’d love to try this recipe. We live in Canada near Toronto. Can anyone in the area suggest a really good quality brand of canned tomatoes and where to buy them? Thanks!

  • Sylvie (A Pot of Tea)

    I love hearing about other people’s really simple childhood comfort foods. One of mine is fried potatoes with a fried egg.

  • Cecilia Gunther

    This is the favourite feed of my husbands children. They ask me for it every time and i am always a bit embarrassed when out of my repertoire of quite wonderful food they want ‘pasta and red sauce’..which is ridiculously easy to make.. lovely c

  • Ruthie Nieto

    Planning on making this for supper, any ideas other than fish that i could make with this? maybe some ground beef added in??

  • Dinah

    Made this exactly as it said. I always like to do that first. It was great. So simple and so yummy! Next time I might add onions and or garlic. Why gild the lily though.

  • Kori

    Thanks for reminding me of this—I love Hazan’s simple tomatoes + butter + onion recipe, but it was off my radar, out of the dinner rotation. I made it last night and got raves from the hubby and kiddo. So simple, so delicious. YUM!

  • Patty Kosley

    My Mom also made this for the 6 of us kids…it was our Favorite. As I read in one of the comments above, she also used to saute some onions in butter before adding tomatoes and she skipped the basil but added a bit of whatever cheese she had handy. No one had to call us twice to this table! I also remember spots of black pepper in it.

  • Bob Y

    Alas. My mother’s version of this was ketchup and margarine. Of course, we loved it as kids. Go figure….

  • Patty Citrowske

    This is delicious! We were hungry for a snack last night. Instead of reaching for the chips, I made this instead. My husband loved it! He is a tomato fanatic anyway. It was light, tangy, sweet, and satisfying all at the same time. Thanks.

  • Chelle

    im from SC.. and a regular meal for us was tomatoes rice and ham.. we canned our own tomatoes, which we would use in everything but one of our favorites growing up and now.. was tomatoes over rice topped with a pat of butter and some baked or fried or what ever kind of ham you prefer on the side!!! humm think i know what im having for lunch tomorrow now.. lol

  • Christian Gehman

    Maybe a bit more butter? And it works (of course) better with peeled and seeded fresh from the garden tomatoes – preferably with heirloom tomatoes that have some flavor. You might at least suggest organic canned tomatoes. They really do taste better. So do tomatoes imported from Italy.

    A light tomato sauce on pasta with hash brown potatoes added can also be scrumptious. Thank you, Elise!

  • Buwaneka

    I am a Sri Lanka tourist hotel General Manager.I accompanied this Buttered Tomato Pasta with pouched Seer Fish in main course for Italian group of guest. It was superb guest comments for tasty and healthiness was very high at 85%. Thank you for receip.

  • lynn @ the actor's diet

    buttery tomato pasta? sign me up.

  • KariVery

    My mom made something similar to this, but she chopped sweet yellow onions very finely, and sauted them in the butter (quite a bit of butter, as I recall) on low heat until they were well cooked, but not browned before she added the canned tomatoes and cooked macaroni. She didn’t put sugar in hers, but the onions seemed to add sweetness. Might have to make this tonight to go with grilled Italian sausage!

  • Linda In Washington State

    Hi Elise,

    I will have to try your recipe. I think it would be a good potluck dinner item. I buy a lot of Muir Glen brand tomatoes to make my pasta sauce and pizza sauce. Did you know they are grown in WA State?

  • Je Ae

    And here I thought this was a Southern comfort dish! We just called it macaroni and tomatoes, and the butter/sugar is an absolute must. Typically I cooked it using shells pasta, since it would capture the sauce inside the shell, but the spiral looks good too. Oh goodness, it brings back memories of learning to cook this from my MIL.

  • Tina

    Thank you, Elise. We just enjoyed this for a quick lunch with a side of broccoli- so easy and satisfying. I didn’t even need Parmesan cheese! The stories you tell make your recipes that much more delicious- and also get me to try them right away. I remember another tomatoes-and-butter recipe, “Marietta’s Spaghetti” from Marion Cunningham’s Learning to Cook. This one uses oven-roasted plum tomatoes and fresh herbs- delightful when you want to feel summery but don’t quite have perfect tomatoes. I found a link here: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Mariettas-Spaghetti-101712

  • Amanda

    I made Marcella Hazan’s recipe just this last week! Interesting twist on it. :-)

    I discovered Marcella’s recipe when I was looking for other recipes from food bloggers to link to from this one. It’s similar in that the onion would provide some sweetness to the tomatoes. ~Elise

  • Lisa

    MY mother made this all the time. I never made it, assumed it was simple, but never took the time… thanks for the memory!

  • Denise

    Gosh, I have been making this for years now without any idea that this would be considered such a ‘special’ comforting meal ! Always thought it was really good- but ‘cheap’. It is, and I love it. I don’t recall my European parents making this, nevertheless, it’s a good one. Chow !

  • Steve-Anna

    What a great comfort food dish!

    For a gluten-free meal, I use spiral quinoa pasta – it’s high in fiber and protein, too. I can easily imagine jazzing this dish up and making it an entree. You could add some capers and anchovies and top it with a little Parmesan reggiano, or grilled chicken. Love the addition of the butter to the tomato sauce.

  • David Jackson

    This brings back memories for me as well. As a kid growing up in Massachusetts, we were from Texas, but my mom’s best friend used to make macaroni and tomatoes. I hated tomatoes, but I would eat them in this dish. I was the only one in my family that always requested it and mom would always make it for me. I’m making this tonight! Total comfort food. Thank you!! I love this site.

  • Melanie

    Is it possible to make this sauce with fresh tomatoes, instead of canned?

    Yes, in season (late summer) when the tomatoes are sweet and ripe. Blanch them first in boiling water, remove the skins, then cut up or mash up and cook. You probably need to cook them longer than what I’ve described here, as this recipe starts with canned tomatoes that are already cooked. ~Elise

  • Marzia

    Yes, in northern Italy we occasionally make a soffritto of butter and onions before throwing in the tomatoes… or add a nub of cold butter to tomatoe sauce made with olive oil… it naturally sweetens the sauce.

  • Karen

    Did you use salted or unsalted butter? I know it wouldn’t normally matter, but you seem pretty particular about getting the seasonings right in this one, so I just wanted to check! :)

    I used unsalted butter. If you use salted butter, you probably don’t need to add salt. ~Elise

  • Lorenz

    Sounds very tasty: you can’t go wrong with simple tomato pasta! Using butter is more common in northern regions of Italy and bordering countries, usually.
    Note: its “fusilli” not “fusili”… :)

    Good catch, thank you! ~Elise

  • Katrina

    Love this quick and easy meal. Yum!

  • Natalie

    This looks so simple… but so delicious! I wish I had this recipe when I was in college, could’ve skipped the Ramen LOL. I have a skillet lasagna recipe that can be whipped up pretty fast. It probably requires a little more effort than this though. Great recipe :)

  • Debbie

    Have you tried stirring in a bit of baking soda (to neutralize the acidity of the tomatoes and heighten their natural sweetness) instead of sugar?

    Yes with other sauces, not with this recipe. This particular recipe, the way my family makes it, requires sugar, or very sweet tomatoes. ~Elise