Does Rao's Limited Reserve Sauce Taste Any Different Than The Original?

When a premium brand like Rao's launches a superior line of products, as it has with Rao's Limited Reserve, pasta lovers are bound to take notice. It's not as if Rao's doesn't already have a slew of popular sauce flavors taking up shelf space in grocery stores and kitchen cabinets. So, the idea that the company could improve on an already-beloved collection is enough to perk up the curious tongues of home gourmets on the search for exciting new tastes to test out.

How much can a top-selling brand improve on the formula that's garnered so much attention? To figure out exactly how different Rao's Limited Reserve is from the restaurant's self-named jarred pasta sauce, we bellied up to the table for a side-by-side taste test to get the real deal straight from the source. 

Eager consumers need to know if these new Rao's offerings are rave-worthy enough to warrant racing to the marketplace and shelling out the extra money to toss them on pasta. Or are they similar enough to the original to be passed over in favor of the full-time line-up? We were as eager as anyone to get to the bottom of these new toppings to see if they taste distinctly different from the original versions. Here's what we found out.

What is Rao's Limited Reserve?

The name sounds like a description for whiskey, wine, or cheese — something that's been aged to perfection and available only in small batches for a restricted timeframe. For Rao's, Limited Reserve means that it has added premium ingredients to the brand's basic marinara sauce recipe for what is branded as a more gourmet dining experience. Rao's is already a premium sauce, so taking its basic creations in more creative directions theoretically means putting something seriously special beneath the lid. Of course, limited anything comes with a higher price tag. With grocery costs so wildly inflated for many of us, expecting faithful customers to pay more for something as simple as sauce seems like a big ask.

Why the sudden need for a high-end line of products from one of the leaders in the pasta sauce market? Rao's seems to think the average home cook is on the search for a more upscale dining experience, and so the company is jumping in to address the need. The combination of familiarity and elegance could be a clever way to bridge the gap between fans who love the quality of the existing sauces and reimagined creations that bring a splash of glitz to the dinner table, even if these more expensive offerings are better saved for special occasions than nightly dinners.

Rao's Limited Reserve sauces are available online and at Costco

You won't find Limited Reserve jars among the standard offerings in the grocery store sauce collection. Rather, a special edition calls for a special treatment. Offerings in the line extend beyond the usual sauces to include compotes and balsamic vinegar-based shake-on dressings that Rao's calls condiments. These are sold almost exclusively on the brand's website, where VIPs can pick up gold-label dinner supplies. The collection even includes a 3.38-ounce bottle of 30-year aged balsamic currently selling for $130, which is all but impossible for the average shopper to justify, no matter how great it may taste.

However, the company has provided a more affordable venue to give excited samplers a taste of the new magic. Rather than stocking these premium sauces on shelves side-by-side with the existing products in the usual grocery chains, Rao's has partnered with Costco to sell its Limited Reserve Calabrian Chili pasta sauce at the warehouse shopping wonderland. 

Rao's prices for jarred sauce are already higher than brands like Ragu and Prego, with the company website showing recommended $9.99 retail for a simple jar of marinara. Our local Kroger affiliate carries options for slightly less, at $8.99 per 24-ounce jar. In contrast, Limited Reserve jarred sauces are shown at $16.99 on the Rao's website, though we made our purchase at $14.99 for two 22-ounce jars, a bargain even when compared to the grocery store price for the original flavors.

The ingredients are familiar, with gourmet additions

All of the possibilities currently available among Rao's standard selections begs the question: what else can the company possibly do with pasta sauce? The basic ingredients of the Limited Reserve sauces are the same; you'll still find tomatoes, olive oil, and seasonings printed on the label, with no strange additives or preservatives to change what already works with the sauce. But in Limited Reserve jars, you'll also find premium add-ins like red wine, white truffles, and balsamic vinegar.

With Rao's already being sold at a higher-than-average price for a relatively simple take on pasta sauce, dropping one new ingredient into the recipe and slapping a fancier label on the jar is the very least the company can do to position this line as a top-shelf possibility. There's no higher quality tomatoes noted, no quirk of cooking that requires specialized equipment or refined processes, and no rare seasonings tossed into the pot. 

Whether or not including one twist per jar is compelling enough to draw eyes to a largely website-only selection of new items will be a question that only Rao's can answer. Maybe we're just being saucy, but it doesn't seem likely to cause the intended stir in the home pasta world.

Nutrition facts are slightly different between original and Limited Reserve sauces

Logic would dictate that adding something new to the line-up would shake up the nutrition facts for Rao's sauces, even if in a minimal manner. A half-cup serving of the company's original Homemade Marinara provides 100 calories, along with 7 grams of fat, 420 milligrams of sodium, 4 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein. The impact is as straightforward as the eight-ingredient recipe; the only heavy-duty element is olive oil, and even that doesn't seem to make the sauce much of an offender when it comes to sensible eating. All in all, a serving of Rao's sauce is a judicious choice.

Meanwhile, the Limited Reserve Calabrian Chili Marinara boasts the same basic ingredients, plus carrots and cherry tomatoes, with Calabrian chili peppers and vinegar included as the maximizing mix-in. But a half-cup serving of this supreme sauce will bring you only 90 calories, 6 grams of fat, 360 grams of sodium, 5 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein. While there's a reduction in calories and sodium and protein stays the same, the amount fat in a serving does increase slightly. The extra gram of sugar may be intended to temper the heat from the peppers, but it's so minimal it seemed like an almost unnecessary change.

How does Rao's Original Homemade Marinara taste?

Rao's Original Homemade Marinara is a known champion in the pasta sauce sphere. The flavor is better than Ragu, Prego, and just about every other jarred sauce on the circuit — a confirmation that our taste buds happily made in this test. We used it as dressing over rotini, with a handful of grape tomatoes and a bit of thyme for good measure. Our add-ins did nothing to clutter the pure flavor and consistency of the sauce. The tomatoes in the sauce felt rich and slow-cooked for a thicker texture and heartier flavor, and the balanced use of onion, garlic, basil, and oregano is artful, added with a delicate hand that brings just enough of each essence into play without one overwhelming the others. There's a reason people love this sauce so much. Now that we understand the difference Rao's presents, we love it, too.

If you can't get a table at a Rao's restaurant, picking up a jar and tossing it over your own pasta is the next best thing. Being pricier than your other options, it may remain a luxury item that you splurge on every once in a while. This is actually a good idea, though, as getting too used to a well-made jarred sauce may spoil other pasta toppings for you — yes, even the homemade stuff. You wouldn't want to break Nonna's heart like that, would you? Of course you wouldn't.

How does Rao's Limited Reserve Calabrian Chili Marinara taste?

Lo and behold, Rao's Limited Reserve Calabrian Chili Marinara is as premium a pasta dressing as Original Homemade Marinara, thoroughly unsurprising considering the basic recipe is 99.9% identical. As in the basic jar, the deluxe edition is without a doubt restaurant-level sauce, rich and flavorful and thick enough to cling to your pasta with sliding off and becoming watery. The one difference is the slow burn of the Calabrian chili peppers, a heat that comes gently and announces itself like a fun surprise rather than an assault on the tongue. It was the kind of fun interactive element that helps inventive sauces stand out from the crowd without making the product seem like an obnoxious novelty.

We poured this pasta primer over whole wheat penne and dressed it up with a few green olives and a light sprinkling of rosemary to see if shape, density, and additional ingredients might impact the experience. It's safe to say that whatever pasta form you use for your Rao's Limited Reserve sauce, it'll be more than able to rise to the occasion, sweet heat and all.

Verdict: Rao's Limited Selection isn't different enough from the original to justify the higher price

Though the basic marinara in both Rao's Original and Rao's Limited Selection came with slightly different taste profiles, these two sauces are similar enough that you could swap one for the other without really noticing the difference. We were hoping that Calabrian Chili might translate to a robust red pepper essence entering the fray, maybe even with some smoky roasted forcefulness that would add complexity. While we'd love to say that, sadly, it didn't happen. Still, we can't be too disappointed, having confirmed that both sauces are supremely savory.

However, if you're a discerning shopper and price makes a difference between suspiciously similar sauces — and let's be honest, that's all of us with a grocery budget and a debit card — there's no reason to blow any more of your shopping money than necessary on a so-called super selection that doesn't deliver a truly dynamic difference. Because the little bit of spice is all that separates the two flavors, you could easily sprinkle in a few red pepper flakes into a jar of original flavor Rao's and create your own Limited Reserve specialty sauce. To us, the minimal distinction between the two store-bought jars definitely doesn't justify the elevated price for the premium pick.