Tomatoes are one of the key ingredients of Italian cooking. There’s even a museum of the tomato in Parma, such is the impact of this versatile vegetable on the country’s cuisine. But tomatoes aren’t native to Italy, nor are they actually vegetables. Technically a kind of berry, they were originally brought back to Europe from South America by Spanish conquistadors sometime in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.
A new favourite arrives
By the late 1600s the tomato had reached Italy, but it’s value as a foodstuff wasn’t immediately grasped. Instead, fears that it might be poisonous delayed its appearance on Italian dinner tables. Eventually, however, it became apparent that the warm, sunny slopes of the south offered ideal conditions for cultivating this exotic new arrival. The first recorded mention of pasta being served with a tomato sauce appears in a cookbook dating from 1790, The Modern Apicius, written by a chef named Francesco Leonardi. By the early nineteenth century, the tomato was well on the way to becoming the culinary staple that it is today.
Classic varieties of Italian tomato
- From Sicily comes the Pachino, a tangy tomato that can be chopped into salads or sun-dried and used as a bruschetta topping. The Ciliegeno di Pachino is a sweet cherry version.
- Grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius, the San Marzano is a thin-skinned plum tomato ideal for canning and a must for authentic pizza sauces.
- Hailing from Liguria and Calabria, Cuore di bue means “heart of the ox”, an apt name for this large, meaty tomato, delicious with creamy mozzarella.
- The Pizzutello is small, oval tomato with a piquant taste that makes a great base for hot, spicy dishes.
An adaptable ingredient
Italians distinguish between two main types of tomato: “insalataro”, best enjoyed fresh, and another one intended for cooking. Ever since the early 1900s the processing of tomatoes has been a major industry in areas such as the Campagna. As well as being canned, tomatoes can be juiced, puréed and mixed with onions, garlic and basil to make sugi, savoury sauces for pasta and pizzas.
Some unmissable Italian tomato recipes
- Caprese salad is a deceptively simple dish of sliced tomato and buffalo mozzarella, served with basil or pesto in an arrangement that echoes the red, white and green of the Italian flag.
- Fresh and palate-cleansing, Pasta al pomodoro has a thin, light sauce made with chopped grape tomatoes and garnished with a sprinkling of pecorino.
- A classic of Roman cuisine, Pasta all’amatriciana boasts a thick, hearty sauce of onions and flavoursome guanciale salami cured with thyme and fennel.
- A popular baked dish, Parmigiana di melanzane features layers of cheese, tomato and fried aubergine for a filling vegetarian delight.
- Panzanella is a summer salad of chunky bread, tomato, onions and basil in a virgin olive oil dressing. Lettuce, cucumber, even a boiled egg can all be added to the mix.
- Canned San Marzano tomatoes, stale bread and brodo beef stock are the main ingredients of Pappa al pomodoro. The word pappa means “mush”, which perfectly describes the rugged texture of this rustic soup.
- Polpette al sugo or Italian meatballs are traditionally served with nothing more than a coating of rich, spicy sauce. The meatballs themselves are seasoned with grated cheese and parsley and pan-fried till golden.
Why don’t you come and try tomatoes dishes in our stores?