The First Italian Tomato Recipes

By Stefano Milioni

The tomato is perhaps the most emblematic of the foods characteristically associated with Italian cuisine. Anyone who has come in contact with Italy’s gastronomy knows the tomato is a fundamental and inalienable element of it. In reality, the tomato’s entry into the Italian pantry occurred relatively recently, as did its “matrimony” with another cornerstone of Italian cuisine, pasta.

Credit for penning the first tomato recipe in Italy goes to Vincenzo Corrado in the 18th century, nearly three centuries after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the new world. The tomato’s official debut in Italian cuisine was a rather timid entry, a simple but tasty preparation that at least provided a hint of the future that lay ahead for Italian cuisine.

Pomodori Alla Certosina
Vincenzo Corrado, 1781

Fill the tomatoes with anchovy sauce, truffles and the flesh of fish cooked in oil and pounded altogether and flavored with chopped greens. Fry the stuffed tomatoes in oil and serve with pureed tomatoes.

Fifty years later, or 350 years after the fateful events of 1492, another writer, Ippolito Cavalcanti, assisted in the birth of spaghetti with tomato.

Vermicelli Co Le Pomodoro
Ippolito Cavalcanti, 1839

Pick four rotola (a Neapolitan measure of weight, equaling about 64 oz or 8lbs) of tomatoes. Cut out any blemishes, remove the seeds and water and boil the tomatoes. When they are soft, pass the pulp through a sieve and cook down by a third. When the sauce is sufficiently dense, boil two rotola (4 pounds) of vermicelli. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce along with salt and pepper. Stir and cook the mixture until the sauce has dried and serve.

Tomato sauce, now a standard addition to innumerable culinary preparations which it flavors, improves, transforms and enriches, was also codified at that time. The sauce is a fundamental element of Italian cuisine, since it can be combined with almost any other food, including vegetables, fish, eggs and meat. Unfortunately, it has also been served as a means of “Italianizing” any sort of raw material or recipe borrowed from another gastronomic tradition.

Salsa di Pomodori
Ippolito Cavalcanti, 1839

Remove all the seeds and liquid from two rotoli (4 pounds) of tomatoes and boil them. Pass the tomatoes through a sieve and boil the pulp with a handful of parsley and basil, which should be removed before the sauce is strained. Put the extract in a pot, melt four ounces of butter and blend into the sauce. Add salt and pepper and serve.

The same approach to making tomato sauce was followed by Pellegrino Artusi in his La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene or “The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well.” This method was the first truly organic treatment of the Italian cuisine that everyone knows and appreciates today. The publication of that cookbook only 100 years ago is regarded as the official birthdate of Italian gastronomy.

Salsa di Pomodori
Pellegrino Artusi, 1891

Finely chop a quarter of an onion, a clove of garlic, a piece of celery as long as a finger, some basil leaves and as much parsley as you wish. Flavor with a bit of oil, salt and pepper. Chop up seven or eight tomatoes and put everything in a pot. Cook, stirring from time to time, and when you see that the sauce has condensed into a thick cream, pass the puree through a sieve and serve. This sauce has many uses, as indicated in the various entries. It is good with boiled meats and excellent for flavoring pastas along with cheese and butter, and it is also good in preparing risotto.

Following the appearance of Artusi’s book, the number of preparations in which the tomato played a leading or major supporting role grew rapidly. That was as true of the cuisine of the poor as that of the courts or the grand hotels and of the recipes written by hand and passed down from mother to daughter, or printed in books on culinary themes. The tomato was now officially a staple of Italian cuisine.

Above are some of the first tomato recipes in Italy. Test them out in your own kitchen and remember that next time you make your Sunday gravy, you have these recipes to thank.

Next week we will feature modern tomato recipes.

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