The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
As all its loyal shoppers know, the “sauce aisle” at Heinen’s offers a feast of tasty options, bursting with more than 40 brands, most of which come in multiple styles.
That extensive selection is a point of distinction for the grocer, confirms Heinen’s category manager Katie Wilson. While brand loyalty is a reality, she says, Heinen’s customers are also known for their eagerness to try new items. “That’s one of the things that makes our sauce selection so special!” says Katie.
Choice is good, of course. But with sauce styles ranging from delicate truffle cream to meaty Bolognese, how can a shopper know which one – or two, or 10 – will best suit their tastes and culinary ambitions?
We recently put together an informal panel (consisting of two culinary professionals and one enthusiastic eater) to taste-test seven popular sauce brands on Heinen’s shelves – some local, some national, and several on the grocer’s Best Sellers list – in an attempt to offer a little guidance. After observing, sniffing, and tasting the sauces straight from the jar, we heated each of them according to the manufacturer’s directions and spooned them over meatballs, chicken Romano, and DeCecco’s farfalle pasta; we also did our share of saucy sopping, aided by warm slices of crusty Pain Paillasse bread from Heinen’s bakery. After all that, we happily share these sensory impressions, along with some suggestions for possible use.
1. Cleveland’s Own Little Italy Tuscan Parmesan (32 oz., $6.99)
Ingredients: vine-ripened tomatoes, water, heavy cream, onion, extra virgin olive oil, imported Romano cheese, salt, spices, natural flavors, Parmesan cheese, citric acid
This locally based company traces its origins to 1920, when the family behind the sauces immigrated to the area from the small Sicilian village of Sant’Agata di Militello. Manufactured in Cleveland by Murray Hill Foods, Cleveland’s Own Little Italy’s saucy lineup ranks high on the list of Heinen’s best sellers.
Our Impressions: Smooth and slightly creamy in body, the Tuscan Parmesan sauce presents with a pleasant, pinkish color that emphasizes the presence of dairy products. We found the flavor to be mild and less tomato-forward than most of the other sauces we sampled; this feature makes it an accommodating backdrop for your own added flavor notes – spicy Italian sausage, meatballs, or an assortment of veggies, say – as well as a particularly good choice for families with youngsters, tomato-phobes, or other picky eaters.
2. Carbone Marinara (24 oz., $9.99)
Ingredients: Italian tomatoes (whole peeled tomatoes, tomato puree, sea salt, basil), onions, olive oil, sea salt, basil, garlic, oregano
One of the newer options on Heinen’s shelves, Carbone sauces originated in the kitchen of Chef Mario Carbone – Culinary Institute of America grad, Food & Wine’s “Best New Chef in America” winner, and James Beard Foundation nominee – and are a staple at his acclaimed Italian-American restaurant, Carbone, in New York City. Despite being a recent addition to Heinen’s shelves, sales have already propelled Carbone’s sauces onto the Top 15 list. Katie says she expects Carbone to become a chart topper.
Our Impressions: Thick, rich, and rife with the aroma of fresh tomatoes, this is a beautifully balanced marinara that is neither too sweet nor too acidic. Its simplicity and purity of flavor make it a versatile option, perfect for either topping a tangle of spaghetti or slathering over chicken Parmesan. While it is already plenty thick to stick to pasta, we think the marinara could be simmered down a bit further and used as a delightful pizza sauce.
3. Ohio City Pasta Puttanesca (24 oz., $6.99)
Ingredients: vine-ripened fresh tomatoes, fresh basil leaf, salt, calcium chloride and naturally derived citric acid, oil-cured Moroccan olives, black and green olives pickled, capers, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, anchovies, salt, black pepper
Based in Ohio City, with retail facilities at the venerable West Side Market, Ohio City Pasta (OCP) has been hand-crafting pasta in small batches since 1990, earning a reputation as the preferred fresh pasta provider for professional kitchens. In recent years, the company has expanded its reach with “accessories” – butters, pesto, and sauces – all sharing the same dedication to handcrafted quality. No wonder OCP sauces hold a spot among the top 10 on Heinen’s Best Sellers list.
Our Impressions: The second you open the jar of OCP Puttanesca, the piquant aroma of oil-cured olives wafts through the air. Together with those fragrant olives, the presence of capers and anchovies (not individually detectable, but playing solid supporting roles) imbue this robust sauce with powerful umami. We think it would be an especially delicious topper to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
4. Mid’s True Sicilian Pasta Sauce Mushroom & Roasted Garlic (32 oz., $5.19)
Ingredients: tomato puree, mushrooms, sugar, sea salt, olive oil, onions, Romano cheese, garlic, citric acid, spices, roasted garlic, paprika
Produced in Navarre, Ohio, Mid’s sauces are based on family recipes stretching back to Sicily in the late 1800s. Named after founder Mideo, who brought the recipes to America in 1938, Mid’s sauces are kettle-simmered in small batches and feature fresh ingredients, earning them a spot on Heinen’s best-seller list.
Our Impressions: Fungi fans, rejoice! Even before you twist open the cap, you can see the abundance of thickly cut mushroom slices that make Mid’s Mushroom & Roasted Garlic sauce a standout. No finely diced “suggestions” of mushrooms, here: These are the real deal! And thanks to its bright red color, an unmistakable aroma of fresh tomatoes, and a mild, well-balanced flavor, this sauce is a great topper for any type of pasta. But we think it would also be a perfect layering sauce for lasagna, where its plentiful mushrooms would be a labor-saving bonus and the mozzarella, ricotta, sausage, or ground beef in the dish would make its flavor pop.
5. Truff Black Truffle Pomodoro (17 oz., $15.49)
Ingredients: tomatoes, tomato puree, olive oil infused with black truffle essence, yellow onion, Truff chili blend (red chili peppers, vinegar, organic sugar, garlic, salt), organic agave nectar, water, garlic, basil, tomato paste, sea salt, black truffle salt (sea salt, dried truffle, natural flavors), oregano, black winter truffle (tuber melanosporum), black pepper
Perhaps best known for its kicky hot sauces, Truff also offers an assortment of flavored oils, mayos, and pasta sauces, including this bright Truffle Pomodoro. All of the products are made in America and are gluten-free and vegan.
Our Impressions: While Truff’s website claims that the Black Truffle Pomodoro sauce has “no heat at all,” we must demure, based on our recent tasting. Not that its zesty zip is a flaw: Adventurous taste buds are likely to adore this non-traditional sauce, featuring a South-of-the-border flavor profile that would give a killer twist to all sorts of staid recipes. Our best idea so far? A “Buffalo wings meet chicken Parmesan” mashup, including chicken nuggets, blue cheese sauce, and plenty of Pomodoro, slathered on top or used for a dip, depending on your heat tolerance. Heck, you could even put that combo on a bed of pasta, if desired – and don’t forget the ice-cold beer!
6. Rao’s Homestyle Premium Traditionally Crafted Bolognese Tomato with Meat (24 oz., $5.99)
Ingredients: Italian whole peeled tomatoes, Italian-style meatball crumbles (beef, pork, Romano cheese, water, salt, soy flour, spices, garlic, natural flavorings, parsley), onions, carrots, olive oil, celery, uncured pancetta crumbles, garlic, salt, citric acid, black pepper, thyme, parsley
Created for Rao’s legendary New York City restaurant, this premium sauce features wholesome ingredients like pure Italian olive oil, and hand-picked, naturally ripened tomatoes from Southern Italy. What it doesn’t contain is notable too: no tomato blends, no pastes, no water, no starch, no filler, no colors and no added sugar. That must be why it holds the No. 1 spot on Heinen’s best-seller list.
Our Impressions: Don’t bother ever making your own meat sauce again: Thick, chunky, with a pronounced beefy flavor, this product provides the honest, homemade flavors that all meat lovers crave, in a fraction of the time it would take to make it. A slight tartness underpins the sauce’s fragrant tomato aroma; besides making it the perfect topping for a hearty pasta dish, we think this would also be delish as a dip for fried mozzarella sticks. And be sure to have some crusty bread on hand: Each and every savory drop cries out to be sopped up.
(As a personal friend of Chef Dante Boccuzzi, Heinen’s writer, Elaine Cicora, could not help but include a review of his artisan Truffle Crema)
Dante Pasta Sauce Truffle Crema (15 oz., $8.39)
Ingredients: light cream, water, Parmesan cheese, Romano cheese, enzyme modified egg yolks, butter, truffle oil (olive oil, white truffle aroma), modified corn starch, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt, black pepper, disodium phosphate, and xanthan gum
Created by Cleveland’s own Dante Boccuzzi – Michelin-starred chef, two-time nominee for the James Beard House Rising Star Chef Award, and Robb Robert nominee for the Next Generation Culinary Master – this line of four locally crafted sauces are all about what the chef calls “simple, clean products and ingredients.” In fact, he trusts the quality of his sauces so implicitly, he uses them in his restaurants. “Just open the jar and you’re ready to go!”
Our Impressions: Even a solid home cook would be hard pressed to create a Truffle Crema sauce as sleek, satiny, and fragrant as this one. The taste of white truffles – earthy, musky, and garlicky – shines through; black pepper notes on the finish help cut through the richness. The sauce is ideal for pasta, of course, as its lush creaminess easily sinks into all those nooks and crannies. But it would also be a delight with baked fish, breaded chicken, Swedish meatballs, a vegetable gratin, white pizza, macaroni and cheese … any dish, in fact, that could profit from a touch of luxe.