Italian Tomatoes (and why they are the best)

When I was a kid we had a garden and grew fresh tomatoes.  We would pick them and eat them without even thinking of washing them.  And they tasted amazing.  My dad, a former science teacher, had some seeds that apparently had been on some sort of NASA mission to outer space and so we grew those for a couple summers and enjoyed ‘space tomatoes’. Then I moved out on my own.

Once I got to University I couldn’t afford tomatoes, and then I began my condo life and was stuck with the un-ripe flavourless tomatoes that city folk get.  I got to thinking that hothouse tomatoes that looked all pretty and perfect were the norm and for the past 10 years have been thinking that’s what tomatoes taste like.

And then I went to Italy…and it all came back to me.  While in Florence I decided to pick up stuff to make a caprese salad for an afternoon snack.  We found a little market across from our apartment that looked basic, with just the essentials.  They had a 6 pack of decent looking tomatoes for 2 euros and I thought what the heck, let’s try these.  Honestly I wasn’t expecting much.  They looked different than my hothouse tomatoes, a bit spotty on the top and a lighter red colour than I’m used to.  The flesh inside was also different, darker red than the outside and less seeds.  It was love at first bite.  I turned to my husband with my eyes as wide as saucers and said “oh my gosh, I forgot how good tomatoes are”!  We had the same experience with bruschetta in the Cinque Terre.

Most of the food we ate in Italy was tomato based. In Lombardy and Tuscany where we spent most of our time red sauces, pizzas and bruschetta are a staple.  I was in heaven and of the many things I was sad to leave behind tomatoes were at the top of the list.  I do a lot of tomato based cooking, and because in Vancouver getting fresh tomatoes is either expensive or impossible most of the year, I buy canned tomatoes in bulk at Costco.  Aylmer is the brand, and they’re ok, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back to them now.

Tonight I decided to splurge on a can of Zia Rosa San Marzano DOP tomatoes direct from the sun soaked hills of Tuscany and am attempting to re-create one of the best pastas we had on our trip; a very simple rigatoni from Trattoria 13 Gobbi in Florence.  I have no idea how they make theirs, but here’s my recipe that tastes quite similar.

Sauce:

  • 1 can San Marzano DOP tomatoes, crushed
  • 1 small onion diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1 tsp dried red chilli flakes
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 3/4 cup shredded Asiago cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion and garlic in 1 TBSP olive oil over medium heat until translucent, about 7 min. Add tomatoes, wine, herbs and bring to a simmer. Add cheese gradually until melted and incorporated.  Season to taste with salt and pepper and let simmer for 30-45 min.

Add rigatoni cooked al dente to sauce over med-low heat for 1-2 minutes until sauce is fully incorporated.  Top with some additional cheese and serve pipping hot.

Next time you’re making a red sauce try a can of San Marzano tomatoes and see if you can tell the difference, I’m pretty sure you won’t regret your choice!

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