penne with tomato sausage sauce

Penne with tomato sausage sauce

2 March 2011

To me the best recipes are brilliantly simple, like this favorite from my culinary heroes, Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray of London’s famed River Cafe. It seems like so many other recipes – tomato, sausage, onion, pasta – but the fresh rosemary, the aromatic bay leaf, the well-cooked crumbled sausage and the touch of cream come together to make a perfectly special version of an everyday dish. I like to lighten mine up with poultry sausage instead of pork and whole milk instead of cream so I can eat a hearty dinner and still have room for dessert.

Rogers and Gray are fanatics for the best ingredients – theirs get flown in from Italy – and the quality of each component is what makes their simple food so extraordinary. It pays here to use good quality canned tomatoes and sausage. Good quality pasta is widely available and inexpensive; the key is to cook it properly. Pasta cooked al dente (“to the tooth”) provides a satisfying chew but also has a lower glycemic index than pasta cooked until soft. Salted water for cooking – salty like the sea, say the Italians – is also important to bring out the flavor of the pasta.

The outstanding River Cafe cookbooks are no longer in print in the US, but you can still buy them through Amazon. New paperback copies of the first cookbook, The River Cafe Cookbook, shipped from the UK, are available for $6 including shipping on Amazon, but I don’t know if the imported version has US measurements. The same book was published as Rogers Gray Italian Country Cook Book in the US, and used hardcover books are available on Amazon for around $16.

Ruth Gray died of breast cancer at age 71 this time last year. I remember her delightful spirit from the wonderful program called “The Italian Kitchen” made by Rogers and Gray which aired on PBS here ten years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t find it in any recorded format. Those of you in the UK can stream episodes here.

And now back to the recipe…

Remove sausage from casing. With a sharp knife, split the casing from end to end, making it easy to peel off from the sausage meat.

Saute onions.

Add sausage meat. Break up meat as it cooks. When meat is crumbled, add rosemary, bay leaves and crushed red pepper. I was in a hurry here to get the sauce done before the sun set, so I forgot to add my herbs until later.

Cook until well browned and crumbled. Well-cooked sausage makes a big difference to the final sauce.

Add tomatoes. Muir Glen are my favorite and are definitely worth the extra dollar or two if you can find them – also because they just stopped using BPA lining in their cans. Trader Joe’s also sells very good organic diced tomatoes at a great price (one of these days I’m going to taste test to see if they are private-labeled Muir Glen).

Stir in tomatoes. When sauce comes to a boil, cover and reduce to simmer.

After 15-20 minutes the tomatoes will be soft and breaking down, like this.

The original recipe calls for cream to be added after the sauce is done cooking. I use whole milk because I always have it on hand, and I because I like to save some calories for dessert. With milk I like to use a bit more and cook off some of the excess liquid if necessary. Heating the milk before adding seems to help prevent it from separating in the sauce.

A subtly creamy sauce. Or go to town and make it as creamy as you like.

Cook penne in a generous amount of salted water. Add your perfectly salted, perfectly cooked penne to the sauce.

Stir penne into sauce, adding a bit of the cooking water as necessary to loosen the sauce. The pasta will continue to absorb the sauce, so the extra liquid comes in handy to create a light glossy coating.

Tossing the pasta before serving allows the sauce to get into the tubes and makes for a more integrated dish. Rogers and Gray recommend adding half the Parmesan while tossing the penne. I always forget and end up sprinkling it on top.

Serve hot. My eager daughter was in line for this first bowl, which explains the size. Adult portions in our house are not this tiny. Even adults need a full dinner before they can have dessert.

Penne with Tomato Sausage Sauce
This is one of my favorite pasta recipes, adapted from the great Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of the River Cafe in London.


  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 lb fresh Italian sausages (pork or poultry), skinned
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary (or 1 teaspoon dried)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
  • Crushed red pepper, to taste
  • Salt, to taste
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • 2/3 cup cream or 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 lb penne
  • 4 oz Parmesan, grated


  1. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium heat and saute onions until light brown.
  2. Add sausage meat, breaking it up with a spoon.
  3. Add rosemary, bay leaves and crushed red pepper. Cook until sausage is well browned and crumbled – cooking the sausage well makes a difference. Drain excess fat (may not be necessary with poultry sausage).
  4. Add tomatoes and bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until tomatoes soften and begin to break down.
  5. If using cream, remove sauce from heat and stir in cream. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
  6. If using milk, heat milk in microwave (this seems to help the milk from separating when you add it to the tomato sauce). Add hot milk to pot and stir. Simmer gently for a few minutes if the sauce seems too thin. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
  7. Cook penne in a generous amount of boiling salted water (salty like the sea). Cook penne al dente – it should still have a bit of chew at the core. Reserve a cup of the cooking water before draining pasta.
  8. Toss pasta in sauce, adding a bit of the reserved cooking water as necessary to loosen the sauce. Add half the Parmesan.
  9. Serve with the remaining Parmesan.

Serves 4.


  • Heavy cream, light cream, half-and-half or whole milk will all work in the recipe, with varying levels of creaminess in the end result. I use whole milk because it’s what I have on hand and because I like to save my indulgence ration for dessert. Use what you have and what you like.
  • To skin sausages: use sharp knife to slice sausage casing from end to end. Then peel off the casing from the meat.
  • A bit of kick is great in this sauce. You may not need extra crushed red pepper if your sausages are already spicy. The dairy offsets the spice a bit.
  • You can easily make this sauce a day ahead. I’ve never had trouble with the dairy separating when reheated, but it’s safest to refrigerate it before adding the cream or milk. Then when you are cooking the pasta, you can reheat the sauce gently on the stove and follow the directions above for adding the dairy.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Joy 6 March 2011 at 1:04 am

This makes me hungry at midnight!


Brooke 2 August 2013 at 1:56 pm

Love, love,love this recipe. My WHOLE family ate it! I even got to have left overs. Such a treat!


Carol 14 August 2014 at 6:33 am

I “have” The Cafe Cook Book and you have prompted me to re-read it. Found it on my shelf and will be lookin at it w/new interest. Thanks!


cg 30 August 2014 at 5:06 pm

hi carol – it’s a good one! i need to try more recipes from it too – my kind of food.


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