Which food symbolizes Italy? Some would say pasta, others pizza, still others espresso coffee, and some would mention gelato. While these are all great choices, we think that a humble fruit might take the cake: the tomato. With Italy growing 13% of the world’s tomatoes and 50% of Europe’s, it is no wonder that this pome is the king of Italian’s best dishes.
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Tomatoes were imported to Europe from Mexico and Perù around 1550. At first, they were just used as ornamental plants, as people feared they could be poisonous. In Southern Italy, however, people were poor and wanted food more than decorations, so they tried eating these mysterious plants. At first, they were fried, as frying food kills anything bad, they thought. Once they realized that no one died, tomatoes became a staple of Italian food. Italians got to enjoy this deliciousness one century before the rest of Europe and called the new plant “pomodori” meaning golden pomes, due to their orange-yellow color and yellow flowers. Yellow? Yes, the first tomatoes brought over to Europe were yellow, though the red variety has become way more widespread.
Tomatoes are eaten practically daily by Italians, who even dedicated a museum in honor of the golden pome in the town of Collecchio, in Emilia-Romagna. But are all tomatoes interchangeable? Of course not! Let’s look at ten varieties that grow in different Italian regions and the different uses for each one.
Many who have grown up eating tomatoes outside of Italy often say that they have a completely different experience when they taste a tomato in Italy. The flavor is much more intense, juicy, and aromatic- not watery, hard, or tasteless like in some other areas. This might be due to the terrain and climate, in part, but mostly to the natural way of growing the tomatoes. The farmers do not look for a huge yield of tomatoes, perfectly shaped tomatoes, or the fastest-growing tomatoes, but the main goal is the flavor. Rich and fragrant.
Tuscany has a wonderful and mild climate that is just right for growing tomatoes, despite being in the northern part of Italy. The soil is fertile and the whole region is characterized by rolling hills and manicured farmland. A perfect home for tomatoes.
One variety of tomato that is Tuscany-born is the Costoluto tomato. It is a ribbed tomato, quite big and heavy. Although some cultivations of Costoluto tomatoes can be seen in other regions, the largest and most popular Costoluto is grown near Florence.
A typical Tuscan dish made with this tomato is pappa al pomodoro- stale bread softened with vegetable broth and cooked into a sauce made of ripe tomatoes, lots of extra virgin olive oil, basil, and garlic. Simple and cheap ingredients that will blow you away. One variety of Costoluto tomato is the Canestrino di Lucca (see image below!) a tomato with an “imperfect” shape which makes it all the more unique, bizarre, and fun. Having a low water content, this is one of the few tomatoes that can be frozen.
Some other uses of this tomato include salads and sauces, and due to its hearty flesh, it can be sliced to be grilled or baked.
A variety of beefsteak tomato grows in Abruzzo and it is called “Pomodoro a pera d’Abruzzo” - meaning pear-shaped tomato, due to its form.
It is the biggest and heaviest tomato on our list, as one tomato alone can weigh 500 g. It is considered a “slow food”, meaning that its cultivation is done in a traditional way and is mainly distributed just locally. It is considered a rare tomato, which makes it extra precious. Its flavor is sweet and perfect for passata. The passata is usually made on the same day as the tomatoes are harvested. Try these tomatoes also raw on bruschettas and pasta salads.
On the beautiful island of Sardinia- surrounded by turquoise waters unlike the Caribbeans- we find a peculiar tomato named Camone di Sardegna.
Camone tomatoes are small, round, and smooth, but their distinctive trait is the green and red striation. Their texture is firm and they are perfect eaten raw with just some olive oil and salt. They provide color and texture to any summer dish. One tasty way of serving these tomatoes is by cutting them in half, stuffing them, and then baking them. Fillings include crab, cheeses, rice, eggplants, tuna, and, more recently, avocado. Camone tomatoes only grow in Italy.
Campania is home to some of the most famous tomatoes used in Italy and even overseas. The most known tomato is the San Marzano, which grows near Salerno and sucks up all the goodness given by the Volcanic soil of this land.
This tomato is perfect for sauces and it is the staple for pizza and homemade ragù sauce. This delicious tomato almost became extinct years ago due to plant diseases. Fortunately, thanks to the DOP denomination and the Slow Food association’s help, this tomato is now protected, carefully grown, and thriving!
San Marzano tomatoes are oblong, bright red, juicy, and have very thin skin. Most importantly, they have an unforgettable flavor which has made them world-famous.
Another star of Campania is the Pomodorino del Piennolo, a small but tough little tomato that grows on the slopes of the Vesuvius Volcano.
“Piennolo” means “hanging”, and this refers to the way these tomatoes are picked and stored: after being harvested in the summer, they are tied together with a rope and put in a cluster (resembling a bunch of grapes) where they can be preserved until the next spring. All over Napoli and Campania, you will see these bunches of small, deep red tomatoes hanging in front of walls, off of balconies, and in restaurants and markets. They are wonderful cooked fresh on top of pizzas or sauteed with garlic to be put on pasta. One variety of these tomatoes is bright yellow, and they have a sweeter taste. They are absolutely amazing and a must-try.
Before we leave Campania we cannot forget about its Pomodorino di Corbara (or “Corbarino”), a pear-shaped tomato that enjoys the breathtaking views of the Amalfi coast, where it grows. These tomatoes used to be only cultivated on hills with no water pumps or technology, simply taken care of by farmers who watered them manually, as they were only sold at local markets and used by the families who grew them.
As the tomato became popular, its cultivation was moved to large flatlands, though the original hill-born tomatoes are tastier and contain more minerals (the hilly soils are volcanic in origin). These sweet-and-sour tomatoes are often preserved in jars or hung in clusters like the Pomodorini del Piennolo. This technique allows for the tomatoes to ripen for several months and gain an exquisite sweetness and depth of flavor. Many hang these tomatoes on terraces where the sunshine coupled with the iodine-rich sea air infuse them with a unique Mediterranean flavor perfect on fish dishes.
Aside from fish, a famous dish from Corbara (where the tomatoes grow) is spaghetti alla scarpariello: simple spaghetti with pomodorini di Corbara sauteed in garlic, spicy chilies, and extra virgin olive oil with lots of basil, parmesan, and pecorino cheeses added at the end until a creamy consistency is reached. The name Scarpariello tells us that when you finish the pasta, you would mop up all the spicy sauce with a piece of bread- we are sure you will not want to leave any of that goodness behind!
Another sun-kissed region, Puglia produces delicious tomatoes that are envied and exported to all the other Italian regions. Fiaschetto tomatoes are one of these gems, and they are small, round, juicy, have a good balance of sweetness and acidity, and thin skin.
Their distinctive mark is a little tip that protrudes from the bottom. They grow on just 50 acres of land in Torre Guaceto, 300 meters from the beautiful Salento sea, producing 1500 tons of tomatoes a year. These tomatoes are cultivated using brackish water, which gives them a unique flavor. Try these tomatoes in a passata, cooked with fresh fish, or on freselle, a typical Pugliese dish.
Our trip to Puglia is not over just yet. Our next tomato adds beauty to any dish with its bright red, yellow, and orange varieties. Datterino tomatoes are similar to cherry tomatoes in size but more oblong and with fewer seeds, which makes them particularly sweet.
Sugar is never needed when preparing a sauce with these tomatoes. They are fairly new to Italy as they were born some years ago by crossing Italian and Asian tomatoes. Even though they do not have a long history, they became quickly popular and are now used on pizza, pasta, meat, and fish recipes. Try pasta with yellow Datterino cream (the sweetest one of them all) adding black pepper, parmesan cheese, and basil. To die for.
Last- but not least- on this list, we find Sicily, the largest island in Italy and home to cannoli, Italian ice, eggplant parmesan, and pomodori di Pachino.
Pachino is the name of a fertile area near Siracusa where these outstanding tomatoes are grown. They include plum, mini plum, and cherry tomatoes. Though these subclasses of tomatoes can be found in many places, to carry the Pachino name they must be grown in the Pachino area since the European union registered them as PGI products- meaning protected geographical indication. This area is special as there are no seasonal “freezes”, the weather is mild, the sun plenty, the soil is full of minerals, and the water is brackish. Pomodori di Pachino are great on fish, salads, and pizza. They are fantastic sundried, as they are sweeter than regular sundried tomatoes.
Speaking of sundried tomatoes, even though they are popular all over Italy (and the world), Sicily might have been the one to start this marvelous trend hundreds of years ago (although Puglia and Calabria will fight over this). To sun-dry tomatoes, they need to be cut in half, sprinkled with abundant salt, and laid in the hot sun for 7 to 10 days. This is usually done in August when the sun is the strongest. Subsequently, they are placed in sterilized jars with extra virgin olive oil, basil, garlic, and capers- a heavenly infusion.
Sundried tomatoes are used to make Sicilian pesto- a red, savory pesto delicious on pasta and bruschettas. Due to Arabic influence, couscous is popular in Sicily and excellent toppings for this golden grain are sundried tomatoes and chickpeas. Due to their sapidity, sundried tomatoes go well with fresh cheeses, which sweeten the ensemble. Sundried tomatoes and ricotta is the winning duo in Sicily, while in Puglia they are often served with burrata. We are not partial and recommended trying both.
In case you needed more reasons to eat tomatoes, you will be happy to hear that they are awesome for your body, especially the skin, eyes, and heart. Full of antioxidants like beta-carotene and lycopene, they lower cardiovascular disease risk and protect cells from aging too quickly. Unlike other veggies that lose health properties when cooked, tomato sauces and cooked tomatoes can be even healthier! This is because lycopene is more easily absorbed by the human body when heated or shaken. A way to increase lycopene absorption is to take it with a fat source- that is why the combination of tomatoes and olive oil is perfect on more than one level.