There's a battle going on among the cheap jars of Prego and Ragu in your grocery store's pasta sauce section. Fancy, expensive brands of marinara are vying for your money, and a new contender has emerged in an effort to dethrone the sauce with the biggest cult following: Rao's.
Home cooks, food critics, and even chefs swear by Rao's store-bought marinara sauce — myself included. It's the only brand of jarred pasta sauce I'll buy anymore. So I was more than a little curious when I heard rumblings that Carbone, a line of jarred pasta sauces that debuted in 2021, was just as good if not better than Rao's.
There are a ton of similarities between Rao's and Carbone. Both are named for the hard-to-book New York City Italian restaurants they come from, believe it or not, and both are about the same price point. So in an effort to see if there is a sauce that can unseat Rao's, I bought a jar of each marinara and did a side-by-side taste test. I heated the sauces up and tasted them straight from the pan, as well as mixed with penne pasta.
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Is Rao's Marinara Sauce Really That Good?
Yes, the hype around Rao's jarred marinara sauce is well deserved. You could easily serve this sauce to guests and no one would think it's store-bought. It tastes like it's homemade with the best tomatoes you can buy — sweet and not too acidic. The fresh flavor of the tomatoes is what really shines through in this marinara, with the garlic and fresh basil playing a backup role. This is a gentle, subtle, and mellow sauce that stands out because of the quality of its few ingredients.
As for texture, there are plenty of chunks of tomato, just like if you crush your own whole canned tomatoes by hand at home. This is clearly not a pasta sauce made from tomato paste, as many brands are. It's not runny, it doesn't separate much, and it's almost creamy thanks to the olive oil.
Is Rao's Sauce Worth It?
Rao's marinara sauce costs between $7 and $10 for a 24-ounce jar in most supermarkets. It's also available at Sam's Club in a two-pack of 22-ounce jars for $10. I purchased mine at Costco in a two-pack of 28-ounce jars for $12. Depending on where you buy it, it can cost between 21 cents and 42 cents per ounce.
I have gladly paid $7 per jar for Rao's in the past and think it's totally worth the price for the time and energy it saves. Once I found it at Costco, though, I never looked back, and now I stock up whenever it's on sale.
Is Carbone Marinara Sauce Good?
Carbone's marinara sauce hits your tongue with an immediate punch of flavor. It's acidic and a little harsh up front, but it mellows out quickly after taking a bite. It's got a short list of ingredients, but it's the oregano listed last that stands out the most in flavor and appearance. The color is a deep red, and it tastes like it's been cooked down for a couple hours.
The consistency backs up the theory that it's been simmered for a while, as well: It's thick and a little paste-y, with a homogenous texture that reminds me of cheaper jarred sauces. It'd probably be pretty good if you added meatballs, sausage, or other meat to it, since it's very rich and deeply flavored already.
Is Carbone Sauce Worth It?
I paid $9 for a 24-ounce jar of Carbone marinara at my local grocery store. That's about 38 cents per ounce. It's not yet available at warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam's Club, so you'll just have to be on the lookout for sales at your local grocery store. If it becomes as popular as Rao's, sales should happen pretty regularly. Even at $9, Carbone's marinara is light-years better than cheap jarred pasta sauce and worth the price.
Rao's vs. Carbone: The Winner
Both Rao's and Carbone are very good, high-quality pasta sauces, and they're so similar that many people would probably not be able to tell them apart in a pasta dish. I would choose either one over pasta sauces like Ragu. For me though, Rao's beat Carbone in this head-to-head taste test. I much preferred the fresher, more subtle flavor of Rao's to Carbone's comparably harsh acidity, not to mention it is less expensive than Carbone (for now).
For comparison sake, Rao's is what I'd use in a light vegetable lasagna, while I might opt for Carbone in a meat lasagna. Rao's will always be my go-to for dipping purposes, but Carbone was much better once it was mixed with pasta. Either way, you can't go wrong with either Rao's or Carbone marinara, so you might as well just grab whichever is cheaper.