Grandpa’s Christmas Eve Spaghetti Sauce

24 Dec

Grandpa Joe

For as long as I can remember my family has happily eaten the same dinner on Christmas Eve; a meatless marinara sauce that lists Italian tuna fish packed in olive oil as the star ingredient. Because we grew up on it, my siblings and I never found the combination of marinara sauce and tuna fish odd. As a matter of fact, we would beg for the “Christmas sauce” on other special occasions as it was a rare treat for us. Over the years as we have added family members through either marriage or birth, some may have initially been reluctant to try the dish, but one-by-one they’ve been won over.

The ritual of a meatless Christmas Eve is popular in many parts of Italy and is certainly where the tradition of this dish originated. My mother’s grandparents immigrated from Italy through Canada. Mom recalls her grandfather, Bill, making the sauce. My Grandpa Joe (pictured) continued the ritual until his death in 1995. Mom made it every year I was growing up and continues to do so to this day. Now that my siblings and cousin are of sauce-making age, the recipe has truly been handed down through at least 4 generations.

I’ve made the sauce myself on a few occasions. There has only been one Christmas I haven’t been able to spend with my parents. Based on the splattered fax of the recipe my Dad sent me in December of 1996 that I just pulled out of my pantry, I’m guessing this was the year. I may have been in New Orleans, but Christmas just isn’t Christmas without the sauce!

I’m not certain that the sauce really needs to cook for so many hours. However, to honor the tradition I am posting the recipe true to the way it has been cooked in my family from time immemorial.

I would love to hear about any Christmas Eve traditions you have. Please post a comment for me!


  • one small onion, finely chopped
  • three cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • one 6 oz can tomato paste
  • two 28 oz cans tomato sauce
  • 2 bay leaves
  • one tablespoon Italian herbs (basil or oregano or both)
  • 1/2 cup sturdy red wine (Chianti or burgundy)
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • High quality grated cheese (Asiago, Parmesan or Romano)
  • One 6 oz can Tonno (tuna packed in olive oil), drained well


  1. Heat olive oil in a large sauce pan or dutch oven until fragrant. Add onions and garlic; saute on medium heat for about five minutes. Add the tomato paste and mix well. Saute over low heat for about five minutes, stirring frequently so the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn.
  2. Add the tomato sauce and stir well. Cook over low heat for about 2 hours. Watch closely so that the sauce doesn’t burn.
  3. Add the wine, butter and a handful of the grated cheese. Stir often and continue cooking another hour or so.
  4. Add the tuna to the sauce and cook one more hour.
  5. Serve over a sturdy pasta like gemelli, fusilli or penne. Garnish amply with freshly grated cheese.

Serves four.

Kat’s tip: Double or triple the recipe for larger quantities and for leftovers. Seriously if you’re going to cook something for several hours you may as well. Freezes well.


Posted by on December 24, 2011 in Holiday, One pot cooking, Scratch cooking


Tags: ,

5 responses to “Grandpa’s Christmas Eve Spaghetti Sauce

  1. Kathy Terian

    December 24, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Oh Kathryn, I so remember your Grandpa Joe and his delicious sauce. In fact, that picture was taken at our home and it was wonderful to see it made first hand. Thank you for sharing all of your beautiful family’s recipes and traditions. Merry Christmas & hugs to all of the K’s. Love, Mrs T

    • Kathryn

      December 24, 2011 at 2:52 pm

      Thanks, Mrs. T. I wondered where the photo was taken. Its been hanging on my sister’s fridge for years. Merry Xmas to you and all the T’s.

  2. Mom

    December 25, 2011 at 11:46 am

    To see my Dad’s picture on-line after all these years is nostalgic, maybe even a little bitter-sweet.
    Can you send to Doris in Buffalo. She would appreciate this.

  3. jeanne

    December 25, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    It is definitely a unique combination but I have had my share of unique combinations as I grew up New Orleans. I love the picture of Grandpa Joe, it is as much a treasure as your family recipe. Thank you for sharing.


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