Sure marinara can be plain old tomato sauce. But there are ways to make it a delightfully stylish topping. Here's a very simple Italian marinara recipe to get you started down that road. Then you can go to the fancy styles and flavor the marinara with all sorts of condiments.
Wash and dry the basil leaves, then crush the garlic. Fry the garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes until it browns. Chop the tomatoes and puree for 10 seconds in a blender. Throw in the spices and pour into a sauce pan.
Simmer for about 20-30 minutes.
Now let's spice it up even more.
Start as before, but before cooking add 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper from some hot peppercorns. To add a bit of vegetable, try some green onions, finely chopped. Add a teaspoon of dried oregano.
An alternative method uses some beef to bolden up the sauce. A bit of stew beef is just the thing. Cut them small, brown them, and add the chunks to the sauce. To really go wild, add a few cubes of finely cut green pepper.
A little history of marinara sauce
Since the name derives from the Italian word for sailor, it's common to think of marinara as part of seafood dishes. But its use on spaghetti alone is enough to disprove that. Familiar from a million mediocre spaghetti dinners, just about anyone will groan when you tell them what's for supper. But it need not be so. Marinara can be exciting, different, even astounding.
One way to see that is to compare and contrast marinara with some of its cousins north and south. From Campania hails the spicy puttanesca. Peppercorns and garlic give it oomph, while basil and black olives provide a traditional Neapolitan flavor. By comparison, the sauces of Northern Italy tend to be smoother and less spicy. Butter is prominent in a creamier northern sauce, such as a Bolognese ragu or an alfredo.
But a good marinara can combine both qualities, the spicy zest of the south, where tomato-based sauces are more common, with the sweet, creamy texture of the north. Basil, garlic, and oregano give it that Italian character, but a nice hot chili pepper can keep it from being boring.
Plain marinara is the base for a family of Italian tomato based sauces.
Want to smooth it out and add extra flavor? Here's an opportunity to use that special white wine you've been saving for just such an occasion, a 1/2 cup will do fine. A Gewürztraminer would be overdoing it, try a delicate dry Chenin Blanc.
While marinara hails from Naples in the south, it is truly a universal Italian sauce found in hundreds of dishes from all regions. Far from being bland, it can provide a zesty character to your table. Let your imagination run wild. The Italians do!
About flavored marinara, don't worry about violating tradition or producing something that isn't authentic. All these variations are not just American inventions, but hail from areas all over Italy. It's a diverse land influenced by cultures as different as the French, the Greeks, and several northern Arab tribes.