The Pasta Sauce Ina Garten Always Keeps In Her Pantry

Ina Garten may be known for creating homemade dishes for her cookbooks, TV shows, dinner party guests, and beloved husband, Jeffrey, but she still understands the value of a good store-bought item. The Barefoot Contessa even uses jarred pasta sauce occasionally, but she swears by one brand: Rao's. If you're not familiar with this pasta sauce brand, it's the premium one with the off-white label that will (these days) set you back about $9 per jar. Despite its price tag, there are reasons why Ina (and many others) like it so much — unparalleled taste, simple ingredients, and an inspiring brand story.

To appreciate the history of Rao's, we have to go back to 1896 when Rao's originally opened as a New York City tavern. It evolved, over the years, into a more established eatery, focusing on fine Italian food, but truly gained prominence when Frank Pellegrino Sr. began his tenure there in 1975. His mission was clear: use simple, quality ingredients and prepare them well –- and patrons ate it up. In 1992, Rao's started jarring and selling their signature sauce, allowing customers to enjoy a taste of Rao's at home. Fast forward to 2017, and Sovos Brands took over the sauce-making operation, which was then acquired by Campbell's Soup in August 2023 for a whopping 2.7 billion dollars, according to a Campbell's press release. Along the way, the sauce maintained its tidy ingredient list and robust flavor, making it a favorite of busy home cooks, yes, even celebrity chefs.

Ina's love affair with Rao's

Perhaps it came from her connections in the New York food scene, or just a shared love of high-quality ingredients, but Ina's expressed fondness for Rao's goes back at least more than a decade. In 2012, she filmed a portion of a Barefoot Contessa episode titled "Restaurant Rules" at the original Rao's location in East Harlem. And in the opening of the segment, Ina mentions the allure of the restaurant and its infamous waitlist. The dining room boasts walls full of celebrity patrons where they and other members of high society "own" tables, making it nearly impossible to get a reservation. Luckily, Ina managed to snag an exclusive spot. Later in the episode, she learned to make peas and prosciutto and pollo alla limone from Frank Pellegrino Sr. himself, giving viewers an exclusive glimpse into the acclaimed eatery.

In the intervening years since the episode was filmed, Ina has gone on to mention Rao's — especially their jarred pasta sauce — numerous times. She includes the sauce in her recipe for roasted Italian meatballs and name-drops it in a 2019 Today Show segment, highlighting it –along with some other favorites — as a solid and convenient option.

Store-bought is fine, according to Ina

While this culinary queen advocates for making certain items from scratch, such as chicken stock, shredded parmesan, lemonade, chocolate chip cookies, and cooked beets, she's also fond of select store-bought items. Ina frequently discusses her preferred packaged choices, as seen in her "Store-bought is Fine" episode on Food Network and a feature about a store-bought Thanksgiving on her website. It's not a huge category for Garten, but as far as store-bought products where the difference in quality between what you can make is negligible, it doesn't get much closer than Rao's. Garten recommended pantry staples on the 'Shop' page of the Barefoot Contessa website, and naturally, you'll find Rao's there. 

In addition to the marinara sauce, Ina's recommendations for premade foods include puff pastry, pure vanilla extract, jam, ketchup, mayonnaise, nut milk, and peanut butter. Her endorsements hinge on the quality and the ingredients used in these products. Ina is likely to approve if a product is made with top-notch, wholesome ingredients — like the "good olive oil" she often suggests. This approach reflects her practical yet discerning approach to cooking, balancing the care of home cooking with the convenience of ready-made staples.