Raised by a Sicilian mother morally opposed to jarred sauce, I rarely ate premade jarred tomato sauce unless absolutely necessary. Her admonishment of “too sweet” or “ketchup-like” brands common in the US were enough to fuel my avoidance for the entirety of my college career, despite limited time to cook.

A semester spent in Italy meant direct access to decadent tomato sauces and handmade pasta mere meters from my doorstep. Each bite of penne elevated my pasta standards as I ate my way through cities and tiny towns across the country. I was surprised to find myself indulging in Bologna’s version of store-bought marinara simply given the quality. Free from copious additives, the clean ingredients meant a flavor akin to my childhood dinners and homemade creations. Instead of simmering tomatoes for 30 minutes, grocery store jarred tomato sauce made for speedy meals — a routine I eagerly adopted between classes and constant travel.

Returning to the States, I longed for the convenience of the premade sauce I used in Italy, without skimping on taste. So when Michael Angelo’s reached out offering a $50 gift card to Walmart and a challenge to create a home-cooked meal with their new line of jarred tomato sauces, I accepted. I was skeptical, given my well-developed pasta palette and life-long aversion to jarred sauce. But armed with the gift card and an open mind, the brand’s matriarch Nonna Foti’s “secret recipe” sauces usurped my implicit biases and have since become a steadfast part of my weekly meal plans.

Determined to bring each sauce to life, my Walmart haul consisted of an array of Italian-inspired products and some of my favorite ingredients from abroad. A jar of kalamata olives, boxes of pasta, pizza crusts, chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes and white and red beans were all obvious pantry options. In terms of produce, I opted for eggplant, cherry and whole tomatoes, kale, broccoli, fresh herbs, lemons, red and white onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, celery, carrots and plenty of garlic. All together, my groceries came to $47.56, an impressive feat considering the amount of food we packed into the car.

Available in four satisfying varieties — Marinara, Tomato Basil, Garlic and Spicy Marinara — Michael Angelo’s newest addition to their Italian lineup is a must-have for budget-conscious college students. At less than $5 a jar, each ready-to-eat sauce proves that sophisticated flavor doesn’t have to break the bank. All four sauces are free from preservatives, tomato paste and added sugar, allowing the vine-ripened tomatoes to shine through.

Throughout the week, I experimented with each of the four sauce flavors using various preparation methods. Stewed chickpeas with the Tomato Basil sauce over rice reminded me of nights in Bologna, while fusilli with Spicy Marinara and lemon roasted broccoli was a consistent crowd pleaser. My favorite creation was easily a pizza made with the brand’s classic Marinara, piled high with onions, olives, mushrooms and sliced tomatoes. Amidst a stressful quarter in the throws of Chicago winter, the warm hug of pizza was exactly what I needed.

Nixie Strazza

What set Michael Angelo’s sauce apart from other jarred varieties was the lack of sweetness typically associated with American-made tomato sauce. The few times I’ve used jarred sauce in the past, I’ve always added olive oil, red wine, pepper, and a handful of herbs to mask the tinny, sugary aftertaste. Upon first bite, I was genuinely surprised to find that Nonna’s secret recipe didn’t require any zhuzhing up (I had kept the oregano, salt and pepper close by just in case).

The Marinara was satisfyingly simple; the Tomato Basil true to its name with visible flecks of herbs; The Spicy Mariana was actually spicy, flavored with red pepper flakes to rival a traditional Arrabiata; and the Roasted Garlic delivered just that. Given the lightness of the sauce itself and clear usage of recognizable ingredients, I didn’t end dinner feeling uncomfortably full nor did I regret the easy option.

Of course, I will miss the hand-pressed marinara I ate in the winding streets of Perugia, but for now, I can make do. Michael Angelo’s marries convenience, taste, and price that I can more than get behind. As I transition back to life away from Italy’s many carb-loaded wonders, I’m happy to have a quick meal reminiscent of home, travel and my heritage — just don’t tell my mom about the sauce.