Tomatoes are the reigning queen of the Italian table but that's not always been the case. It was only during the 19th century that widespread use of the tomato in Italian cuisine began, and the tomato was only brought to Italy in the 1500s. Initially it was believed that tomatoes were poisonous. Rather than using the tomato in cuisine more often than not it was ornamental and decorated the Italian table.
Michele Di Pietro (Italian American cookbook author, food writer, menu and recipe developer, professional chef and culinary consultant) and I dug deep into everything about the Italian tomato and a lot more!
Tomatoes aren't native to Italy...but....
Tomatoes aren't native to Italy, and originally came from Central and South America, brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century.
"The wild tomato is postulated to have originated in the South American Andes Mountains. According to the British Tomato Growers’ Association, the tomato plant was domesticated around 700 A.D. by the Inca and Aztec communities in Mexico. These original tomatoes were tiny, pea-sized crops that grow in clusters comparable to grapes and were cultivated by the ancient agriculturalists in Central America to produce various shapes, sizes and colors of tomatoes. First descriptions of tomato “clusters in the form of cherries” exist in the book Illustrated Exposition of Plants published in 1623 by author Gaspard Bauhin. Onward, the chronological order of tomato history is unknown." says Jessica Horst.
There are more than 10,000 tomato varieties. In Italy, the tomato has prospered because of its near-tropical climate. Some tomatoes like the San Marzano tomato are cultivars, in other words a kind of cultivated plant that people have selected for desired traits and propagate to retain those traits.
The International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP), is a guide to the rules and regulations for naming cultigens, plants whose origin or selection is primarily due to intentional human activity. It is also known as the Cultivated Plant Code. Cultigens under the purview of the ICNCP include cultivars. Cultigen and cultivar may be confused with one another. Cultigen is a general-purpose term encompassing not only plants with cultivar names but others as well, while cultivar is a formal classification category (in the ICNCP).
Italy is an optimal climate for growing tomatoes with long, hot summers and abundant sunshine. Over the centuries, they've been grown in areas of Italy that optimize tomato production and quality. Certain tomato varieties grow best in certain areas, and because of this some now have IGP or DOP status.
Are tomatoes a fruit or a vegetable?
The botanical classification of a fruit is that it's formed from flowers, has seeds, and assists with the plant's reproduction process. From that standpoint, the tomato ticks all the boxes.
The culinary classification is another thing all together. When it comes to cooking, fruits and vegetables are classified primarily based on their flavor profile and how they are utilized in cuisine. Tomatoes are almost always used in savory dishes, so we tend to think of them as a vegetable.
Tomatoes and Umami
If you take a look at the most umami rich foods worldwide at the top of the list are tomatoes, and especially sun-dried tomatoes and tomato paste.
DOP and IGP tomatoes
You might wonder how Italy can classify some of its tomato varieties as DOP or IGP when they aren't native to Italy.
As we often see with grape varietals, some grape vines grow better in certain climactic conditions or terroir, even though the grape might originally have come from an another place altogether, like Greece. Italy makes a point of protecting its foods and wines through IGP and DOP classifications to ensure that a food, like some tomato varieties, is cultivated in optimal conditions and terroir to preserve its outstanding qualities and characteristics.
When we say protecting its foods (and wines), it simply means protecting the food in terms of what has made that food delicious and optimal and near perfect. It's a way of making sure all the characteristics that led to its perfection are put down in writing, classified and categorized.
When I plant my garden, I either purchase seeds or plants, and often they bear the name of a tomato that grows in a certain terroir of Italy. When I harvest the tomatoes, I know more or less what kind of a tomato it will be, and how I can use it best.
By contrast if I buy canned tomatoes like San Marzano DOP I want the tomato to be just like it should be in accordance with the consortium's DOP characteristics and restrictions, and have the certainty that the tomato comes from the DOP area of Italy.
Pomodoro di Pachino IGP
The Pachino tomato grows in Sicily in the provinces of Siracusa and Ragusa, both areas with intense sun and long, hot days.
There are three kinds of Pachino tomato:
Ciliegino (cherry) - herringbone clusters with round, small fruits, a bright red color and a high brix degree. They contains high levels of lycopene, an antioxidant whose health properties have been highlighted in numerous scientific studies.
Costoluto (Ribbed) - a large salad tomato, like a beefsteak tomato; slightly flattened, aesthetically very attractive, with marked ribs, of a very dark and bright green color. It has a soft pulp and the taste is pleasantly aromatic. Harvesting can begin when most of the fruit turns from green to red.
Tondo liscio (round, smooth) - spherical and regular shape, of small size and a color that goes from bright red to intense green near the stalk. It has a crunchy flesh and a bright and attractive color. It has a harmonious and balanced taste due to its perfect harmony between acidity and sugar content. To appreciate its qualities it's best eaten raw in salads and side dishes. Excellent cut into wedges, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of salt.
San Marzano Tomato dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino DOP
A DOP Italian tomato that's probably the best known in the world is the San Marzano tomato. San Marzano tomatoes are from the Campania region and are almost always used for tomato sauce, fresh or canned. They are somewhat elongated and have a thick and rich pulp with very few seeds.
More specifically the growing, production and canning areas within Campania are the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino zone including most of the areas within the provinces of Naples, Salerno and Avellino.
San Marzano tomatoes, along with the Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio, have been designated as the only tomatoes that can be used for vera pizza napoletana - true Neapolitan pizza.
Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuviano DOP
The Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuviano is another tomato from Campania with DOP classification. It's sometimes just called pomodorino vesuviano and is a grape tomato grown in Naples, with PDO protected status, that was granted in 2009.
The cultivation area is restricted to 18 municipalities around Mount Vesuvius, pretty much all within the Vesuvius National Park.
These are very small tomatoes and don't weigh any more than 25 g. They have an ever so slightly elongated shape, sort of like a plum, with a pointed top.
A few of my Recipes that use the Italian Tomato
And check out some of Michele Di Pietro's Tomato Recipes, plus her Soupified Cookbook that include Tomato-based recipes!
Some of the many ways you can use tomatoes
Tomatoes in soups
Is a cheeseburger a cheeseburger without a slice of tomato?!
Use tomatoes on pizza
Make baked tomatoes
Simple tomato sauce for pasta with garlic, tomatoes, and olive oil
Or just pick tomatoes off the vine, and eat them right away!
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