Norwalk, Conn.-based grocer Stew Leonard’s vodka sauce retails for $3.99.
A good jarred pasta sauce is hard to find.
Or is it?
These days, the pasta aisle at every food retailer, from Wegmans to Walmart to Albertsons, seems to be overflowing with shelves full of branded and owned brand pasta sauce.
Shoppers are having to choose from among a dozen or more brands, and smart retailers are positioning themselves to win in this category by prioritizing innovation and value in developing their owned brand sauces.
Even smaller grocery companies such as Warrensville Heights, Ohio-based Heinen’s are offering private brand pasta sauce lines with options ranging from “premiumized” organic jars with fancy labels and flavors, to plain and simple five-ingredient marinara. And it makes sense. Private brand pasta sauce sales are booming. According to recent data from market researcher Information Resources Inc. (IRI), sales of private label Italian sauces are up nearly 4%. Meanwhile, sales for national brands are slightly down.
But not all private brand pasta sauces are created equal when it comes to appearance, texture, ingredients and taste.
Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Companies and Cincinnati-based The Kroger Co. have some amazingly innovative sauces made with black truffles and Barolo wine, respectively. Trader Joe’s private label sauces have their own cult following and “power rankings” on Reddit. Other store brands might not be as popular, and might require a little “hacking” to bring out the flavor: a little sautéed onion, some spices, maybe a pat of butter. Others are tasty only as a dipping sauce for a warm slice of Italian bread. And then, some private brand sauces taste like you are sitting in a gourmet trattoria in New York City, or maybe your Italian grandmother’s kitchen. One such amazing product is Stew Leonard’s Homemade All Natural A La Vodka Sauce.
At first glance, the Stew Leonard’s Homemade All Natural A La Vodka Sauce glass jar doesn’t really stand out on the shelf. No fancy package design: just a rustic picture of tomatoes, garlic, basil and cheese, along with nutritional information on rough, yellow paper. When you turn the jar around and look through the glass, the sauce looks chunkier and creamier than other jarred vodka sauces, which tend to be thin and runny. Opening the jar rewards you with an aroma that is pleasant but not overpowering. Warming up the sauce on the stovetop is easy, and the first taste, well, that’s when you know you have stumbled upon a fantastic product.
Norwalk, Conn.-based grocer Stew Leonard’s has produced a pasta sauce so velvety, so creamy, so alive with crushed tomato and slow-cooked basil that it will remind you of your Italian grandmother’s Sunday sauce (if you had an Italian grandmother, that is!). The sauce stuck to ravioli, linguine and even my fork with effortless grace, hitting me with a slight caramel sweetness and an astonishing depth of flavor. The sauce is bursting with the flavors of cream, basil and Parmesan, and not too much vodka. It has a delicate sweet to salty to tart balance, and it complements rather than overpowers any pasta dish.
Overall score: 98/100
Tested: June 2019
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