How a ‘Strange,’ ‘Evil’ Fruit Came to Define Italy’s Cuisine

T’s May 19 Travel issue is dedicated to pasta in Italy, diving deep into the culinary traditions, regional variations and complicated history of the country’s national symbol.

ON THE COUNTER sits a bucket of tomatoes just picked from a tumble of fields halfway up a mountain in southern Italy. Concetta D’Aniello hands me an apron and we begin. I follow her lead, breaking into each tomato with my thumb, the flesh giving way. The smell of minerals fills the kitchen. Her husband, Sabato Abagnale, known as Sabatino — who grows and cans tomatoes, like his father before him — describes how the scent clings when you walk the fields in August. “Even when you shower, you can’t get rid of it,” he says. (We speak through an interpreter, Sandra Gambarotto.) It’s late October now and the end of harvest; these tomatoes are the stragglers, still dreaming of summer, sun-gorged and supersweet.

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The pan waiting on the stove is almost wider than the circle of my arms. A slick of olive oil, garlic cloves dropped in whole and a chop of peperoncino: it’s a matter of a moment, garlic into gold, just long enough to leave an imprint on the oil before they’re skimmed out with a spoon so as not to overpower the sauce. The tomatoes go in all at once, with seeds and skins, and my part is done. D’Aniello turns up the flame, shakes the pan and with a swift glissando of the fingers flicks down salt from on high. All the while, the pasta is boiling in a pot alongside. Torn basil, a ladleful of cloudy pasta water, another and then the pasta itself is swirled in the pan until it half-disappears into the red. “We eat tomato with pasta, not pasta with tomato,” she says.

This is the last time D’Aniello and Abagnale, who are in their 50s with two grown daughters, will eat pasta al pomodoro made with fresh tomatoes until next August. After this, D’Aniello will use preserved tomatoes, processed — or transformed, as Abagnale puts it — under our feet in the clean and bright basement of their home, here in the small town of Sant’Antonio Abate, about 20 miles outside of Naples. First the tomatoes are pasteurized in a vat at the precise boiling point of water, 212 degrees Fahrenheit, for an hour, then in a tank at 122 degrees for 20 minutes. With industrial production, Abagnale points out, it would be longer, at higher temperatures. “You kill everything, but also flavor,” he says. Afterward, the tomatoes are left to cool and rest for 60 days. They taste even better as they age, he tells me. “Three years would be ideal. But no one can wait that long.”

Elsewhere in the world, pasta al pomodoro is seen as Italy’s “symbol of national identity par excellence,” the Italian historian Massimo Montanari writes in “A Short History of Spaghetti With Tomato Sauce” (2019) — despite its origins as a regional specialty predating Italian unification (between 1861 and 1871) by several decades, a creation of Naples when the city was still part of the sovereign Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The dish was brought to the United States by Neapolitan immigrants in the late 19th century before it was fully embraced by their compatriots in the Italian north, as the Russian-born American writer Anya von Bremzen recounts in “National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History and the Meaning of Home” (2023). And yet the dish as first encountered by most Americans (or at least by those not of Italian descent) bears little resemblance to what D’Aniello cooks, in that its primary ingredient is neither fresh nor canned whole tomatoes but mass-produced spaghetti sauce from a jar.

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