On late summer days, when the sun hung low in the sky an hour or so before tramonto, we'd drive home with the windows rolled down on our way back from the beach at Sperlonga. This whitewashed coastal town perched on a hill between Rome and Naples is not only a gorgeous spot for a day trip to dip into its crystalline waters and overflowing plates of pasta con le vongole. It's also nestled beside seemingly endless fields of tomatoes, which are grown next to where the water buffalo of northern Campania happen to graze. These water buffalo supply the milk for the world famous mozzarella di bufala. It's basically like driving past a living, breathing caprese salad!
So, when heading back to Rome after a day toasting ourselves in the hot Italian sun, we'd pick up the still-warm, freshly made mozzarella and some of those tomatoes grown in the nearby fields, with a mazzetto (bunch) of fresh basil -- che profumo! -- from a roadside stand selling just these few items. Our predetermined dinner on those nights was light and hit the spot, along with a very-chilled glass of crisp Falanghina. The sensory memory surrounding those Sperlonga trips that's strongest to this day for me? The smell of those tomato fields. It was the smell of sweet, ripe pomodori warmed by the sun just enough so that the scent would waft above the fields and greenhouses, and make its way into our open car windows. It was Pino Daniele or Jovanotti playing on the car radio. It was that time before dusk, when the waning sunlight signaled the promise of what the evening held in store for us in Rome.
|Pomodorini grown on my friend's terrace in Rome|
|My Turkish tomato salad|
And in that Eternal City, on market trips to Campo de' Fiori (the closest major market to my apartment in the Jewish ghetto), I always relished my August and September visits to Claudio's stand, where he displayed a variety of tomatoes so extensive, it was hard to wrap your head around them all. You had pomodori al grappolo (vine-ripened tomatoes), San Marzano (plum tomatoes that are actually genuine San Marzano DOC, grown in the volcanic soil in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius).
You had pomodori d'insalata (half-green salad tomatoes, which stayed firm when you sliced them) for salads, and pomodori da riso to be stuffed with rice and baked in the oven. There are at least a half a dozen other varieties I'm forgetting, before moving on to the varieties of pomodorini, or small tomatoes. These range from standard ciliegine (cherry tomatoes) and those specifically from Pachino, Sicily, to datterini (little date tomatoes, like very mini plum tomatoes -- a variety of which is dubbed a grape tomato in the U.S.). These small little gems were always my favorite, perfect crimson orbs seemingly ready to burst (and burst they do, in my burst cherry tomato pasta sauce!) -- so good, Claudio would let me pop a few in my mouth like candy. They were just as sweet.
We've come a long way in the U.S. with the rise of the farmer's market, and the bevy of heirloom varietals of produce that abound now. There are green and black and red, yellow, and orange tomatoes, striped tomatoes, and everything in between these days, if you know where to shop, and at the right time. Hell, I come from the garden state where we're infinitely proud of our homegrown Jersey beefsteak tomatoes. And they have a place in our American culinary canon. I love a wedge salad with beefsteak tomatoes and red onion and some blue cheese to begin a steakhouse meal, for example. And I've been overwhelmed at the sight of overflowing market tables with gorgeous specimens of endless types of tomatoes, locally grown and tended, sharing display table space with fresh mozzarella (cow's milk, natch) and hydroponic basil with leaves the size of maple leafs. And while that's progress, it's still not perfection.
Italy, I can state with certainty, has perfected the tomato. They took a New World fruit and made it into so much more, and they consistently grow the most delicious tomatoes I've ever tasted. Or smelled, for that matter. Now, when I return to Italy, I always make my way to a market, especially in September. They sell tomatoes at this time of year, especially Rome and south, where summer weather lingers well into October. And I breathe in the scent of the tomatoes baking beneath the sun and azure sky, and my heart breaks a little bit -- for the gorgeous smell, for all that this smell holds for me, and for the fact that I can't have this sensory-memory experience anywhere else in the world.
Believe me, I've tried.
|The beauty of a simple tomato and basil salad|