Tomato-Pomodoro, origins and pasta sauces


What is Italy without the tomato? The history of the tomato.

The tomato was first brought to Europe in the sixteenth century from voyages of discovery to Mexico and Peru.

The tomato was first known as ” pomme d’amour or ‘love apple’ because it’s iron and vitamin content seemed to impart a lusty vigor.
The name eventually became changed to pomme d’oror ‘golden apple’, evoking memories of the Hysperides myth, and in Italy the name Pomodoro is still used today.

In Italy, one can find at least four types of tomatoes in local markets during the summer. The unripe orangy-green are used for salad, the large round red are mainly stuffed with rice. The tomato used for sauce is the San Marzano, the plum tomato that is also tinned and exported all over the world. Even I have seen the San Marzano Italian brand on the shelves in my local grocery stores.

In the south the small round cherry tomato is used for pasta sauce.
In the cities, the Italian housewife buys fresh tomatoes daily throughout the summer to make her sauce. And in September large crates of tomatoes are sold by the roadside (oro rosso or red gold).
Then whole families of grandparents, fathers, mothers children gather together to make sauce and bottle it for the winter. The washed tomatoes are put through a simple apparatus that removes skin and seeds. The resulting puree is poured into clean mineral water bottles and a leaf or two of basil is added before they are capped and sterilized in a seething cauldron of boiling water. This is carried out in the open air and if you drive through the countryside, you may see the red colour on the grass and earth of fields from the tomato skins and seeds thrown out by the primitive pulping machines.
This filtered puree is known as passato, and even today when it can be purchased bottled, there is pride and pleasure in this personal preparation for the cupboard of one’s own sauce.

In Puglia and Magna Grecia, there is an ancient method of drying tomatoes in the hot southern sun which is still used today. You can find these dried tomatoes in small glass jars in specialty shops.

Tinned, peeled tomatoes known as pellati are also used to make pasta sauce and are the first choice of most cooks outside of Italy. Even the same variety grown in Northern climates would not have the same taste, and it would be a mistake to use. Always use tinned Italian tomatoes in preference to a fresh Northern variety.
To use fresh plum tomatoes, remove the skins by plunging them ito boiling water for a few minutes. Allow less cooking time, becuase there will be less water to evaporate.

There are many different versions of tomato sauce and every Italian family has its own favorite. Some prefer to leave the garlic and onion whole, removing the garlic at the end of frying time.
Some cooks add a small piece of celery chopped with the onion and garlic, others ad celery and a chopped carrot. There are families that add a spoonful of brandy to the finished sauce like the Italian habit of adding Brandy or other liqueurs to the morning black Espresso coffee.( which is called caffe coretto or ‘corrected coffee”!). Others add a generous amount of good red wine.

No two tomato sauces are ever identical This is generally accepted and in Sicily , there is even an expression to describe a changeable personality: Cambia sempre come la slasa- ” He is always different like a sauce”.

Tagliatelle o Spaghetti al Pomodoro

500 g/ 1 lg tagliatelle or spaghetti
30 ml/ 2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
2 400 g/ 14 oz cans Italian plum tomatoes
1 sugar lump
salt and black pepper to taste
60 g/ 2 oz ( 1 cup) freshly grated Parmesan cheese.


Heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onion and garlic until softened. Cover the pan to prevent browning. Add the tomatoes and their juice , sugar, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste and cook on a high flame, uncovered fro about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the sauce is reduced and thick , check the seasoning , then pass the sauce through the meduium disc of a food mill . ( although not authentic, you can also use an electric blender or food processor to save time.) I like the familiar old scraping type sound as the tomatoes are pressed through the food mill that my maternal grandmother and mother used as I rotate the handle first one direction and then the opposite.

Cook the pasta , following the directions on the packet very carefully to avoid overcooking. Drain the pasta and add half the freshly grated cheese, stirring thoroughly. Then add the sauce. Stir well, add the rest of the cheese and serve.

Penne Al Forno con Pomodoro e Mozzarella
Baked Penne with tomato and cheese

This is a favorite of my family at get-togethers.

500 g/ 1 lb penne or other short pasta
tomato sauce ( see recipe above)
50 g / 2 oz ( generous i/2 cup ) freshly grated Parmesean cheese
300 g/ 10 oz mozzarella cheese
120 ml/ 8 tbsp toasted breadcrumbs


Cook the pasta for half the time given in the packet/ box directions and drain.
Put 120 ml/ 4 fl oz of the tomato sauce on one side and mix the rest with the pasta.
Add one third of the freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Butter an oven-proof dish and put in half the pasta. Cover with thin slices of Mozzarella, the reserved tomato sauce and half the remaining Parmesan.
Add the rest of the pasta and cover with the remaining Parmesan
mixed with the breadcrumbs.

Bake in a hot oven 220 degrees Celsius/ 425 degrees F. for 20 minutes.

Penne alle Olive
Penne with Olive and Tomato Sauce

My mother still has fond memories of her father’s favorite gift at Christmas time, a huge tin of black olives; grandpa ( pop-pop) loved to eat black olives.

500 g/ 1 lb penne or other short pasta
30 ml/ 2tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 small chili pepper 5 ml / 1 tsp dried chili pepper flakes
800g/ 28 oz tinned Italian plum tomatoes
200g/ 7 0z large black olives
parsley, and salt


Heat the oil and fry the chopped garlic and chili until garlic turns golden brown.

Now add the tomatoes with their juice and cook for 20 minutes. Add the chopped, pitted black olives and salt to taste.
Recently on cable television, I watched “Lidia” of ‘Lidia’s Italy” on how to crush an olive.
With wide knife, gently press down on one olive at a time, remove the pit and put the olive pieces aside, the add to sauce recipe.

Cook the pasta, following the packet/ box directions carefully to avoid over-cooking.
Drain, turn into a heated serving dish and stir in the sauce. Sprinkle the chopped parsley on top.


Cookbook: The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces by Diane Seed 1987

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