It’s fair to say that I’m obsessed with tomatoes. If you had some in your garden, I’d pick one, sprinkle some salt on it, then eat it whole. They are truly delicious. Every tomato is unique–but I don’t mean that in the obvious way. I mean that every tomato has its own consistency of flavors, its own textures. The varieties of tomatoes are seemingly endless. Would you believe that it wasn’t until June 20, 2000 (my birthday, 22 years into life) that I first ate an entire raw tomato? Before that I used to preach against the practice! Somewhere along the line I was told that tomatoes were poisonous. “Best stay away, little Nello.” But then June 20, 2000, came along. I was seated across from an appropriately burly American opera singer in a little trattoria in Palermo, Sicily. His Italian was beautiful (as I said, an opera singer) and he recommended that I try the insalata caprese. He told me not to even flinch, not to even look, just order. And order I did. And horrified I was. Horrified when that plate full of bright red raw tomatoes arrived before me. “Will I ever survive?” But not only did I survive, my entire life was changed. In that moment began a love affair with tomatoes.
The tomato in Italy has a convoluted history. It’s hard to trace, but there are some key dates and places to keep in mind. For one, the tomato is not indigenous to Europe, though the Europeans certainly have found innumerable delicious ways to serve it. As far as we know, the first tomatoes to make it to Europe were brought by the Spanish Conquistadors from South America (Peru, specifically) in the early to mid-sixteenth century. The Aztecs, who lived in Peru, called the fruit “tomatl.”
The first written account of a tomato in Italy dates to 1548 and it was in Tuscany. In that account, the fruit, incorrectly aligned with the eggplant, was given the name “pomidoro,” or, if we break the word into its natural components, “pomi d’oro,” golden fruits. That has since shifted into the singular in Italian, “pomodoro (pl. pomodori).” The pomodoro’s rise in Italy was not a quick one. In fact, many of the Italian dishes we consider “staples” that use tomatoes are actually quite young, born in the late nineteenth century when the tomato saw its greatest expansion throughout Italy. Tomato sauce? Nope, that’s a baby. Previous pasta and pizza condiments were solely olive oils, anchovies, and cheeses, to name just a few. But we must keep in mind that the terms “pasta” and “pizza,” too, are mere children.
All this aside, the word “tomato” has become synonymous with Italy. This is likely the result of the incredible emigration of Italians to the New World in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, particularly in New York, Italian Americans yearned for the dishes of the Old World. Mass canning began, as did the international distribution of peeled tomatoes. Although tomatoes are originally from South America, they didn’t make their way to North America for quite some time. It was actually via Europe that they did! Some historians thank Thomas Jefferson for bringing tomato seeds back from a sojourn in Paris. It took some time, too, to shake the fear in the United States that the golden fruits were poisonous. Heck, I was told they were—albeit as a joke!—when I was a little boy. I believed it.
Many varieties of tomatoes can be found in Italy, yet the best known for sauces and pastes are those grown in the San Marzano region, located just outside Naples. This is not to say San Marzano tomatoes are the undisputed best tomatoes, but rather that they have a storied history, primarily in the United States, as they (at least those grown in or around the region now classified as “San Marzano”) served as the original export tomatoes some 100 years ago. Moreover, San Marzano tomatoes enjoy protected status by the European Union.
I now make a tomato sauce right at home in my kitchen a few times a week. I love making it. To me there’s something special about mixing and ultimately reducing delicious ingredients into a wonderfully tasty sauce, one that can be used in so many creative ways. My secret recipe focuses on the flavors of the tomatoes. It’s a balanced arrangement–a classical composition, so to speak–of the best possible ingredients, producing, in my humble opinion, a wonderful and unique balance of taste.
Speaking of classical compositions, did you know that one of the earliest recipes we have of a tomato sauce was penned by Paganini, the famous Italian composer and violinist? Paganini suggests ravioli pasta to pair with his sauce, as do I with mine. (Mind you: In Paganini’s recipe there are likely some ingredients you’d rather leave out. I’m just guessing here, but you’ll see what I mean!) Click here for the recipe. For those with very good eyes and who can read Italian, have a look at Paganini’s original hand-written recipe to the right.
Interested in other tomato curiosities? Here are some things to explore: 1) Take a moment to visit the website of Parma’s Tomato Museum. 2) Read a bit about Antonio Cesti’s baroque opera, “Il pomo d’oro.” 3) Have you ever heard of lycopene? Well, it’s in tomatoes and is very good for you! 4) Want to learn more of the tomato’s history in Italy? Then pick up a copy of David Gentilcuore’s Pomodoro: A History of the Tomato in Italy.