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On Tomatoes, Parlando di Pomodori

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

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, Tomatoes by the Bunch

Pomodori a Grappolo, Tomatoes by the Bunch

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, Merinda Heirloom Tomatoes

Pomodori Merinda, Merinda Heirloom Tomatoes

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, Sicilian Cherry Tomatoes

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 San Marzano, on Mt. Vesuvius

Pomodori San Marzano, Plum Tomatoes from San Marzano, on Mt. Vesuvius

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.

Sun Dried Tomatoes

Sun Dried Tomatoes

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:

Melanzane Calabre, Calabrian Eggplant

Hot weather and spicy foods go hand-in-hand; here’s a tasty chilled eggplant dish from Calabria that will work nicely as antipasto or vegetable in the summer months:

  • 4 long eggplants, peeled, cut lengthwise into 1/2 inch (slightly thinner than 1 cm) slices, and salted for an hour
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 hot peppers, minced
  • Minced fresh oregano to taste
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1/2 cup extravirgin olive oil
  • Salt

Rinse the eggplant slices, boil them 3-4 minutes, and lay them on a towel to dry. Make an emulsion of the vinegar and oil, and stir it into the herbs. Put a layer of eggplant in a dish, season it with the oil, put down another layer of eggplant and continue until all is used up. Chill for 4-6 hours before serving.

Pomodori col Riso, Tomatoes Stuffed with Rice

Rice is one of the most classic fillings for tomatoes; the tomatoes will work well as either an antipasto or a side dish, and can be served wither hot or cool. The recipe is drawn from Caróla Francesconi’s La Cucina Napoletana.

To serve 6 you’ll need:

  • 12 round, large tomatoes
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) rice
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Fresh shredded basil or oregano

Wash and dry the tomatoes, then cut around their caps and scoop the pulp into a bowl with a spoon, catching all the tomato juice as well, and being careful not to puncture the tomatoes. When you are done blend the pulp and juice. Then combine the blended tomato pulp with the remaining ingredients except the wine.

Preheat your oven to 375 F (170 C).

Stuff the tomatoes with the filling without tamping down too hard, replace the caps, and put the tomatoes in a lightly oiled oven proof dish. Pour the wine into the dish and bake the tomatoes until done, about 45 minutes. Serve either hot or cool.


Livio Jannattoni gives a very similar recipe in La Cucina romana e del Lazio, though he increases the cloves of garlic to 3 and the rice to a cup (200 g). He suggests parsley in addition to oregano and basil, and also suggests that you slice some potatoes thinly and bake them with the tomatoes, observing that they become wonderfully tasty as they absorb the pan juices.

He also discusses a closely related Roman dish, tomatoes stuffed with pasta, which calls for a pasta shape known as cannolicchietti (small rings of pasta, of the same sort one puts into thick soups) – a tablespoon or at the most two per tomato.

Empty the tomatoes as you would if you were filling them with rice, reserving the pulp and juice and setting the caps aside. Mince basil, a little garlic and some parsley, and combine the mixture with the cannolicchietti, seasoning everything with salt and pepper to taste, and sprinkling some olive oil over it. Fill the tomatoes with the pasta mixture and put them in an oven-proof dish. Put the reserved tomato pulp through a strainer to remove the seeds and sprinkle it around the tomatoes, together with a little more oil; the liquid in the pan should reach half-way up the tomatoes (add more if need be).

Cover the tomatoes with their caps and bake them in a 360 F (180 C) oven for 30-45 minutes. Serve either hot or cold.

Pimmaduori Siccati, Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Sun Dried Tomatoes

Sun Dried Tomatoes

This recipe is Calabrian, and is drawn from Ottavio Cavalcanti’s Il Libro d’Oro della Cucina e dei Vini di Calabria e Basilicata. It calls for ripe tomatoes (plum tomatoes will be best) you should dry yourself; before you begin check the weather forecast because you’ll need several days of hot dry weather with intense sunlight.

You’ll want at least 2 pounds (1 k) of sun-ripened plum tomatoes.

Slice the tomatoes lengthwise, set them on a rack with the cut surfaces up, dust them with salt, put them out early in the morning (if where you live has a lively insect population cover them with fine netting), and bring them inside at night lest dew fall upon them as the temperature falls. Continue setting them out each morning until they are dry. Depending upon the humidity where you live this could take 2 or more days.

You’ll then need:

  • Garlic (SEE NOTE)
  • Oregano
  • Freshly shredded mild or hot pepper to taste
  • Basil
  • Vinegar
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt

Rinse your dried tomatoes with water and vinegar. Mince the herbs in the proportion that suits your fancy, and then layer the dried tomatoes in a jar, sprinkling the herbs and some salt over each layer. Press well, then fill the jar with olive oil, shaking repeatedly and tapping the sides of the jar to make sure no air pockets remain. Seal, and let the tomatoes sit in a cool dark place for a few months, at which point they’ll make a fine antipasto, over slices of crusty bread. They will also be quite nice sliced fine in cold pasta dishes or insalata di riso, and as a general flavoring agent in zesty dishes. .

NOTE: recent studies have shown that garlic packed in oil can harbor botulism. Therefore, if you hear a hissing sound as you open the jar discard the contents. Or, to be safe, omit the garlic.

Pinzimonio: A Raw Vegetable Medley

This is more of a suggestion than a recipe; depending upon the occasion pinzimonio can be either a tasty antipasto or a side dish. It’s wonderful either way.

Prepare a big bowl of fresh tasty vegetables, cut into strips or pieces (whatever you prefer that doesn’t sag, e.g. peppers, cauliflower, artichokes, celery, carrots, etc).

Set cruets of olive oil and vinegar on the table, along with salt & pepper. Give your diners small bowls in which to mix up a sauce with the olive oil and vinegar, which they will then season to taste.

Next? They dip their veggies in their sauce and eat.

You could also have other elements handy (mustard, whatnot) for those who want to make richer dipping sauces.