“Can one imagine Mediterranean food without tomatoes?” Jane Grigson asks rhetorically in the tomato chapter of her Vegetable Book (arguably one of the most exhaustive cookbooks on the subject). They are so ingrained in the culture and cuisine of the entire Mediterranean, but especially in Italy's. But, like many of the vegetables that Italy is known for best, tomatoes are hardly Italian at all. After arriving on the boot-shaped peninsula in 1596, they eventually (having initially been thought of as poisonous) found their way into southern Italian kitchens.
How it is that they not only made their way into the cuisine but became the undisputed symbol of Italian cooking is intriguing, and the answer seems to start with the need to feed the masses. Many point to Naples as the point of departure for the common use of the tomato: There, it found excellent growing conditions, quickly becoming an abundant and versatile gastronomic staple, satiating a starving population by bulking out meals of pasta and bread and becoming ingrained in the cuisine. It also helped that the fruit lends itself well to conserving, so that it could become a year-round essential ingredient.
Another account by Tuscan journalist Aldo Santini also points to the cooking of the Jewish community in the Tuscan port of Livorno. While the Tuscans were musing over the ornamental qualities of the plant and perhaps afraid of the new fruit for a century or so, frugal Jewish cooks were already using it in the kitchen—one of Livorno's best known dishes, a simple recipe of pan-fried red mullet with chopped tomatoes, is actually of Tuscan-Jewish origin.
Indeed, when you look at a map of Italy's best known tomato dishes, they come mostly from the southern half of the boot, where they grow best and where they have spent the longest time in the kitchens.
Here are 10 of Italy's most iconic tomato dishes through the ages:
Bottled Tomato Sauce
The classic summer activity, one where the whole family gets involved and crates and crates of ripe, pudgy tomatoes are cooked in wide vats and bottled for keeping over the rest of the year. Passata (purée), peeled tomatoes, salsa (meaning "sauce" in Italian, not to be mistaken with the Mexican preparation), pomarola (tomato sauce), and conserva are used for everything from dressing pasta to making sauces for meat to soups, stews and pizza.
Born in the fields of tomato farmers in Campania as a quick and easy in situ snack, it didn't take much for this preparation to spread north to the Tuscan countryside or south to Puglia too. The latter's version includes friselle, crisp, crunchy dried bread in the shape and size of a bagel, but in its simplest form, bruschetta is a satisfying snack of a ripe tomato half rubbed to make a pink stain on slightly toasted bread. Sometimes there's a rubbing of garlic before the tomato smear, often with a pinch of salt and a slosh of extra-virgin olive oil. Even "dressed up," it's still charmingly simple with its chopped tomato and fresh basil. And when made with sweet, tasty tomatoes and good bread, it can be one of the best things on earth.
Plump, slumped tomatoes filled with a simple, garlicky rice stuffing and baked in the oven with thick-cut potatoes are a staple in Roman homes, canteens, and even bakeries. There, “vast trays of stuffed tomatoes surrounded by a sea of diced potatoes are baked in the bread ovens until their red flesh is tantalizingly wrinkled and intensely flavored, the rice plump and the potatoes golden on top but soft and sticky underneath,” as Rachel Roddy describes in her cookbook. They're another wonderful example of how a dish of humble, homely origins can so happily fill up bellies—you can even have this as a main.
Could there be any better way to enjoy a perfectly ripe, proper tomato? Not a supermarket one or an anonymous one, but a homegrown one, perhaps, or one right out of the province of Naples—or, better yet, the island of Capri, which lends its name to this dish. It's a relatively “new” dish, probably invented in the nineteenth century, one that inevitably speaks of high summer in the Mediterranean with the flavor of the sunny tomatoes and milky local mozzarella. It needs only a pinch of salt and some fresh basil. Purists such as Neapolitan journalist and wine writer Luciano Pignataro will even turn down extra olive oil, pointing out that the liquid weeping from the mozzarella and the juice of the tomatoes makes its own wonderfully balanced sauce.
This summery Tuscan salad of torn-up stale bread, tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion has been a favorite lunch of the Florentines since at least the Renaissance. Of course, in Lorenzo the Magnificent's time, the tomato had not yet arrived on Italian shores, so the panzanella was a greener version without them—but today tomatoes are never missing.
Born out of the need to conserve the summer fruit for the winter, sun-dried tomatoes are a tradition in the sunniest parts of Italy—namely Calabria, Sicily, and Puglia, where the hot, dry sun beats down all summer long.
Ripe, late-summer tomatoes are cut in half lengthways and preserved by drying on wooden racks (the same ones often used for drying figs) that are laid out on flat rootops or terraces for days during the hottest hours of the day and brought in only at night. (You can replicate this to some extent with a low oven at home.) They can be jarred in oil or left dried and then used in sauces or as antipasto for a punchy, concentrated version of fresh tomatoes.
In its medieval form, pizza was bianca, or “white pizza,” meaning tomato-less. Tomatoes probably started appearing on pizza later, in the seventeenth century, and according to the University of Udine in Italy's north, this marriage happened in Naples. The famous pizza margherita (the classic pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil, bearing the colours of the Italian flag), was named in 1889 in honor of Queen Margherita of Italy, even though tomato-and-mozzarella-topped pizza itself had been referred to numerous times before this date. Much like pasta al pomodoro, tomato sauce on pizza carries other flavors so well.
Pasta, any shape, draped in tomato sauce in any form is classic Italian comfort food. It's what you'll find on children's menus or traditional, busy, lunchtime trattoria menus.
But it's also the way that tomato sauce destined for pasta is versatile: Not only can it be made with fresh, raw, tinned, or even oven-roasted tomatoes, but it also becomes a vehicle for other flavors. Take Pasta alla Norma—named after Bellini's opera and the favorite dish of Catania in Sicily—where fried eggplants are the hero. The tomato sauce carries the eggplants and gives acidity to this hearty pasta dish, which is completed by a showering of bitey, finely grated ricotta salata.
Goethe's Italian Journey, based on the diaries kept during his travels to Italy in 1786 to 1788, recounts the pasta he experienced in Naples: “As a rule, it is simply cooked in water and seasoned with grated cheese.” But exactly around this time, we also find the first Italian recipe for tomato sauce in philosopher-chef Vincenzo Corrado's Cuoco Galante, published in Naples in 1773. It is lightly spiced with cinnamon and cloves, and he notes its use for enriching meat and fish dishes. Shortly after, pasta al pomodoro appears in Antonio Nebbia's recipe book Cuoco Maceratese from Le Marche.
The western Sicilian town of Trapani was well-visited by Ligurian mariners, who left behind a recipe for agliata (or what Sicilians call “agghiata”): a pesto of garlic and walnuts, then transformed by the Trapanesi with what they had on hand—almonds in place of the walnuts and with the addition of ripe, fresh tomatoes. It's a thick sauce of raw ingredients usually tossed through twirls of busiati pasta that tastes of pure summer.
This bread soup is a wonderful example of the resourcefulness of Tuscan peasant cuisine to use cheap ingredients, in this case, abundant tomatoes and stale bread. It's an ancient dish that, before the arrival of the tomato, would have been an even simpler peasant dish of mushy bread and garlic (also known as pancotto). Today it is a fixture on Florentine menus year round: hearty and warming in the winter when made with tinned tomatoes, and refreshing and nourishing in the summer when made with fresh tomatoes and served cool or at room temperature, with just a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
Illustrations by Adriana Gallo.
What are the most iconic tomato dishes in your eyes, Italian or otherwise? Share them in the comments.