It may not be kosher to have a favorite grandfather but he was mine. Both his children and grandchildren called him Papa. Friends called him Eddie. His name was Edmundo Aliberti and he was my nonno from Salerno.
Like clockwork when August approaches, I remember picking tomatoes from his garden. Like many Italian immigrants, my grandparents brought Italian traditions with them, adapting and making do in their newly adopted home. Hence the vegetable garden with rows of tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant and more. And then there were fruit trees. I’d stare out of the screened-in kitchen windows at the peach tree imagining my first bite, the juice dripping down my chin. But back to August and tomatoes.
Papa grew plum tomatoes so that’s what my grandmother “Ma” canned with basil leaves and garlic. A taste of summer captured in a mason jar warmed us up on chilly winter days in Boston. At the local Sicilian-run fruttivendolo, we would buy cherry, beefsteak, and plum tomatoes although I wonder if the ones labeled San Marzano were imposters. Only a small number actually find their way to the U.S. I’ll never know.
Upon moving to Rome, I was shocked and elated to discover that there are more than 300 tomato varieties in Italy, where annual consumption averages 10 kilos per head. I’d divide them into two groups. The first are processed on an industrial level. They become tomato paste, canned tomatoes, bottled pulp, sun-dried tomatoes, etc. The second are used by us at home whether cooked or eaten raw or sun-dried in our back yards. Not surprisingly, Italians have strong opinions regarding which variety is best suited for which dish. Francesco and I have heated discussions about which tomato to use for insalata di pomodoro (tomato salad) versus a simple pasta sauce. My views are more liberal than his. Here are 10 of my favorites.
1 – If I could only choose one tomato to eat for the remainder of my days on earth, I’d choose the Merinda. The small, green and red tomato grows in Sicily. These arrive to markets toward the end of winter/early spring and disappear with the blink of an eye. They have a unique savory flavor and are almost crunchy. The best way to eat them is raw with sea salt flakes and a splash of EVOO. I’m salivating as I write this.
2 – Next up, the Piennolo del Vesuvio DOP, yellow or red, I’m not fussed. This clever tomato is grown in the region of Campania. On Mount Vesuvius, farmers hand-pick these beauties some of which are preserved in the traditional way as pictured above. Vines are intertwined to create bunches which are hung from ceilings. In fact, piennolo in Neapolitan dialect means hanging. Over months, the tomatoes dry in a ventilated location. They take on a crinkly form and the pulp softens developing a unique sweet-sour flavor found in many classic Neapolitan dishes. My mother-in-law keeps a cluster hanging around in the winter. She has fond memories of piennoli hanging in her mother’s home. I enjoy them most as a topping on one of Ciro Salvo’s pizzas, on bruschetta, or as a simple tomato sauce.
3 – My new friend is the camone. The real deal is only grown by recognized producers in Sardinia and Sicily. This hand-harvested gem is small-medium in size, round and dark red with vivid green streaks. It’s as pretty to look at as it is delicious to eat. Sweet and musky like the Merinda, it is firm, almost crisp. Salad is the way to go.
4 – Augustino, my vegetable vendor, introduced me to the Pixel tomato (pictured above). A hybrid of the plum tomato, they are sweet and fire engine red in color. Make a simple tomato sauce in summer or can them for winter use. I also love them sliced with buffalo milk mozzarella and basil.
5 and 6 – In summertime, I always have either Ciliegini aka cherry tomatoes or Datterini, date shaped ones on hand.
In markets, they are often labeled “pomodori di Pachino”, tomatoes of Pachino. Pachino is a town in southeast Sicily noted for its tomato production. Ciliegini contain more water than Datterini while Datterini tend to be sweeter. When ripe, they are candy-like bombs.
I roast them, make sauce, top pizza and bruschetta with them, add them to soup, and eat them raw as a snack.
7 – Plum tomatoes are my first choice for sauces, canning (yes, that is me canning tomato sauce in the photo above in my in-laws basement outside of Naples) and drying in the sun. Bursting with flavor and low in acidity, they have few seeds, thick skin and a meaty flesh. The most revered plum tomato with DOP status is the San Marzano hailing from the Sarno valley, near Mount Vesuvius.
8 – Medium to large heirloom tomatoes, similar to beefsteak tomatoes make my list purely driven by my love of the Roman dish pomodori al riso (rice stuffed tomatoes). It probably comes as no surprise that they are fabulous for stuffing as well as for slicing and in salads.
9 – I’m intrigued by the Sorrentino tomato (pictured below). It is a rather large, round tomato with streaks. It is light red to pink, with green hues. Mainly cultivated on a small mountainous area of the Sorrento peninsula, the pulp is very meaty, with slightly sweet and delicate flavor. The Sorrentino is similar to the Cuore di Bue tomato variety (see below) but I find it more tasty. These are best eaten raw.
10 – Pictured above, Cuore di Bue (Ox Heart) tomatoes are the gargantuan of tomatoes. Heart-shaped as the name implies, the flesh is pink in color, smooth, thick and nearly seedless. They are mild in flavor and used in salads.
I know that I said I was only going to mention 10 tomatoes but I couldn’t leave out my beloved Casalino which grows south of Rome. Found in markets in early summer, they have a savory element to them. Slice them and toss them with a bit of EVOO, a pinch of salt and oregano. Or my veg vendor recommends using them to make sauce, specifically for pasta all’amatriciana.