Come summer, Tomatoes flood Italian markets: deeply ribbed salad tomatoes streaked with red and green, rounder brashly red ripe sauce tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and San Marzano tomatoes, the plum tomatoes that find their way into salads when they’re still tinged with green, and into sauces once they’re fully ripe. Not to mention a host of heirloom tomatoes, some known only locally, and others more widely.
We take tomatoes for granted now, and it would be quite difficult to imagine Italian cooking – especially South Italian – without them, but it took Italians a very long time to accept them: Though they were introduced as ornamental plants in the 1500s, in Il Panunto Toscano, which was published in 1705, Francesco Gaudentio says:
“These fruits, which in some ways resemble apples, are grown in gardens and can be cooked as follows: Take them, chop them up, and put them in a skillet with olive oil, pepper, salt, minced garlic, and sprigs of mint. Sauté them, stirring them about frequently, and should you want to add some sliced zucchini or eggplant they’ll be well recieved.”
When an author has to describe a vegetable, it’s a good indication that it’s not widely used. Moreover, this is the only mention he makes of tomatoes; they don’t appear in any of his stews or vegetable dishes. Further indication of the slowness with which tomatoes were accepted comes from the word pelati, which now generally refers to canned tomatoes: when 18th century cooks mention pelati they are referring to skinned preserved game (pelare means to skin). The great change came in the first half of the 19th century, and when Artusi, who mentions having met the first Italian to begin canning tomatoes commercially, calls for pelati he invariably means canned tomatoes. And they continue to be ubiquitous today.
A couple of observations on selecting fresh tomatoes: Italians divide them into two classes, insalatari and da salsa.
Pomodori Insalatari, as one might expect, are salad tomatoes, to be eaten raw, and when I was little Italians tended to prefer them not-too-ripe, in other words quite firm, with streaks of green running through them, and with a lively acidity of the sort that complements the flavor of the greens in the salad. Now some people prefer them riper but you will still find lots of salad tomatoes shot with green in the markets.
Pomodori da salsa, on the other hand, are for cooking and should be ripe – an explosive red, rich, and slightly sweet too.
If you can, either grow your own tomatoes (they are remarkably prolific plants) or get them from a friend who has a vegetable patch, because they will be much more flavorful than all but tomatoes from the best markets. If you cannot, buy locally grown sun-ripened tomatoes. Only use tomatoes that are hot-house grown or trucked in from elsewhere as a last resort, because they tend to look beautiful but be tasteless, a result of agro-engineering on the part of the food industry.
Having said all this, a quick look at some of the tomatoes you might find in an Italian market:
Pomodori A Grappolo, Everyday Salad Tomatoes
These tomatoes are sold by the bunch, and mostly destined towards salads. They are standard year-round market fare, sun ripened in the summer months, and (I expect) hothouse-ripened in winter.
Pomodori Costoluti, Ribbed Tuscan Heirloom Tomatoes
The word Costoluti means “ribbed,” and is an apt descriptor for these tomatoes. Though they’re not as aesthetically pleasing as some other cultivars, they are richly flavored and quite nice in salads. People gnerally prefer them somewhat green, because the acidity of a green tomato contributes nicely to the overall flavor of a salad, contrasting with the oil and complementing the vinegar and the sweeter vegetables – carrots, peppers, bulb fennel – that may also be included. Pomodori Costoluti appear in the markets in spring and carry though until mid-summer.
Pomodori Merinda, Sicilian heirloom tomatoes
This Sicilian heirloom tomato is best when still shot with green. It’s also best when not too large, and people generally eat them raw, finely sliced because they’re thick-skinned, in salads or by themselves, simply seasoned with olive oil, salt, and vinegar.
Or, if you want something very traditionally Sicilian, finely slice Merinda tomatoes and a little onion, and season them with oilive oil, salt, a pinch of oregano, and a “finger of water” (i.e. a bit more that a quarter inch in the bottom of the bowl, which will draw the sharpness from the onion). Let the salad rest for at least 15 minutes, and enjoy it with crusty bread that will be great for mopping up the drippings. Peasant food at its finest.
Pomodori Pachino, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes
Pomodori Pachino are cherry tomatoes grown in the Pachino region of Sicily (in the Province of Syracuse), and because of their distinctive flavor enjoy IGP, or protected status – in other words, to be called Pachino they must hail from Pachino. They are very nice in salads, though they can also be used elsewhere – for example, when halved or quartered they make a fine addition to a pizza, and are also quite nice in pasta salads or added to pasta with pesto sauce.
Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from Mount Vesuvius
These are Pomodori San Marzano, plum tomatoes from the San Marzano production area on the flanks of Monte Vesuvio, and like Pomodori Pachino, they enjoy IGP status.
Of course plum tomatoes grow elsewhere too, at which point Italians call them pomodori perini.
Pomodori San Marzano/Perini are the classic canning and sauce tomato; people generally wait until mid-summer, when they’re wonderfully sun-ripened, and then buy them in bulk to make tomato sauce for the winter months. They’re also nice in other dishes as an ingredient, though they are not so good raw (for example in salad) because they’re a bit dry, and firm too.
Pomodori Essiccati, Sun Dried Tomatoes
Sun dried tomatoes are a standard South Italian antipasto and ingredient. They’re less common in Northern Italy: I once bought some in a deli in Florence and asked what to do with them; the guy behind the counter shrugged and said he had no idea.
Having looked at some of the tomatoes one might find in a market, a few recipes: