John Palcewski (forioscribe) wrote,
John Palcewski

Assolutamente Delizioso!

To make the best spaghetti sauce in the world, follow these directions.

Get a can of San Marzano peeled tomatoes, and be sure that it's D.O.P. Certified, as indicated in the label above. Dump the contents in a shallow bowl, and mash the tomatoes with a fork until the whole thing is uniformly chunky.

Pour mixture into saucepan. Toss in two peeled cloves of garlic, uncrushed. Add a generous dollop of imported Italian extra virgin olive oil. I prefer Filippo Berio, but there are others equally good, as long as they are authentically Italian.

Put saucepan on stove and bring to a gentle simmer, uncovered. Half an hour will do it. Do NOT boil!

Pour over al dente spaghetti. Grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano, sprinkle it over the sauce. Under no circumstances should you ever use canned grated cheese. Only the marvelous stuff imported from the Emilia-Romagna area of Italy.

Assolutamente Delizioso!

Below is all you will ever need to know about San Marzano tomatoes.

Tomatoes from San Marzano

By R.W. APPLE Jr. of The New York Times
Last of five reports from Italy.

ANT 'AGATA SUI DUE GOLFI, Italy -- THE great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda called tomatoes "the stars of the earth," which "grant us the festival of ardent color and all-embracing freshness."

Well, not all of us. Not us Americans, most of the time. We are subjected to tomatoes bred for thick skins, picked when half-ripe, gassed, shipped hither and yon and chilled until they give up the ghost.

Except for the few precious weeks every summer when backyards and farmers' markets yield up fat, juicy, vine-ripened fruit, Americans would have but little way of knowing that the tomato, as Marcella Hazan has written, is "one of agricultural man's greatest triumphs, one of the most glorious products he has ever grown."

Neapolitans know. For 10 months a year the sun shines bright in Naples and here on the Sorrento peninsula, which divides the Gulf of Naples from the Gulf of Salerno. The region's fertile soil, enriched for centuries by Mount Vesuvius, would make a pogo stick bear fruit. And Italian geneticists know enough not to monkey with perfection.

Today, Neapolitan tomatoes are acknowledged as the best in the world. They have thin skins, a vibrant red color, dense yet tender flesh and, most important, an ideal balance between acid and sweetness. They are never as one-dimensionally sugary as a jumbo home-grown beefsteak in summer and never as tart as a hothouse tomato in the dreary days of midwinter.

It is almost as hard to imagine Naples without tomato sauce as salt without pepper. Neapolitans use it on meat, fish, pasta and, of course, pizza. They make it with basil or oregano, celery or carrots, garlic or onions, with or without meat. They cook it not at all, for a few minutes or for hours. But they seldom eat two consecutive meals without it.

In season, they eat tomatoes raw, notably in the delectable insalata caprese, invented in the 1950's at the Trattoria da Vicenzo on the Isle of Capri -- just sliced tomatoes, cow's-milk mozzarella, basil and a slim filament of olive oil. It quickly conquered the world.

For seven or eight months a year, the Neapolitans make their sauces with fresh tomatoes. The crop peaks on Ferragosto, the Feast of the Assumption, on Aug. 15. At the end of the harvest, many cut down whole plants, with quite a few tomatoes still on them, bundle them with string and hang them in courtyards, under the eaves, out of the winter winds. The tomatoes wrinkle a bit but last for weeks, perfect for cooking.

When those are gone, canned tomatoes come into use, typically those shaped like little flasks. The best variety originally came from a village near Pompeii named San Marzano sul Sarno.

These San Marzano tomatoes, which gave birth to the Italian canning industry in the 1800's, are now grown throughout Campania, as the region surrounding Naples is known.

No Neapolitan chef or pizza maker or housewife apologizes for using canned tomatoes when fresh ones are not available. Cookbooks in a dozen languages specify canned Italian tomatoes, meaning tomatoes from this region. As Mrs. Hazan and others readily concede, they are much the tastiest any cook anywhere will find in the 4 or 6 or 10 months when local tomatoes are out of season.

Sunshine in a can, sanity in a can, salvation in a can -- they provide not only fresh taste but a magical moment of psychological relief in the long months when the days are shortest and the skies are dullest.

In October, I mounted a tomato-tasting expedition to these parts, along with Faith Willinger, the author of "Red, White and Green" (HarperCollins, $25), a gold mine of lore and inside dope about Italian vegetables.

Because the commercial harvest had ended, we based ourselves at Don Alfonso 1890, the first restaurant south of Rome ever to win three stars in the Michelin guide (and one of only three in the entire country with three stars in the current edition). Alfonso Iaccarino, the chef, makes extensive use of tomatoes and other fruits, vegetables and herbs grown in the restaurant's kitchen garden, which he tends with his wife, Livia.

They call it their farm, but agricultural precipice would be more accurate. It is located at Punta Campanella, right at the tip of the peninsula, across the strait, called the Bocca Piccola, from Capri.

Ms. Iaccarino, chic in high-heeled white boots and zippy blue trousers, took us there, zigzagging down a cliff face, 500 feet above the water, in her little Fiat Panda. The road was no wider than a small-town sidewalk. I tried, with no luck, to concentrate on the million-dollar view of the island, floating like a gray iceberg in the azure sea.

There was no fence.

"Have you ever visited paradise before?" she asked me, as the road narrowed and the wheels crept toward the edge of the cliff. I wondered how long it would take the medics to find us if she miscalculated.

But I had to concede that it was a kind of paradise. Wild oregano, sage and rosemary grew out of cracks in the rock, the way they do in Dürer engravings. There were eggplants and squash, salad greens like rocket, and peppers growing on nets; chickens that laid eggs with yolks that were almost red (the Italians call yolks "rossi"); and cows for both milk and fertilizer. Small olive trees lined each terrace, mixed with citrus trees.

"Our citrus are happy, because they spend their lives looking at Capri," Ms. Iaccarino said impishly. "Makes them taste better."

But the 12-acre Azienda Agricola Peracciole, to give the farm its formal name, is most of all a tomato ranch. Its soil is exceptionally fertile, and its location traps the sun year-round. The Iaccarinos and five workers pick tomatoes twice a day from late spring until mid-January, when Don Alfonso closes for six weeks. In Sant'Agata, there were fresh tomatoes on the table for Christmas and New Year feasts.

Ms. Iaccarino walked up and down the rows, basket in hand, plucking tomatoes from the vine only when they looked and felt perfectly ripe. She chose San Marzanos, which resemble our plum tomatoes; cherry tomatoes (pomodorini vesuviana); and big pink cuore di bue (or ox hearts, after their shape) -- all grown by organic methods, all washed by salt air, which makes it unnecessary to add much salt in the kitchen, Mr. Iaccarino said.

Less than an hour later, we were back at Don Alfonso, seated at a corner table, ready to eat an impromptu, almost all-tomato lunch. Before we tucked in, Mr. Iaccarino came over and said that the farm was the secret of the restaurant's success.

"My fate was to own my father's little hotel," he said. "But I loved to eat and drink. Livia and I went all over the world, eating in famous restaurants, and I asked myself what was missing for us to be like them. I decided that even though we had beautiful products in southern Italy, we weren't getting the best oil, best tomatoes and best ingredients."

Now they are, and Don Alfonso, a pink and green retreat shaded by plane trees, is full almost every night of the year that it is open.

We started with a perfect salad: mixed lettuces tasting of the minerals in the soil, a few home-cured capers, split cherry tomatoes and the house's own extra virgin olive oil. No vinegar, because the tomatoes and capers provided enough acid to balance the oil; no salt. The flavors were robust, yet the dish as a whole gave a sense of weightlessness.

Then came strips of San Marzano tomatoes, seeded but not peeled, cooked for a minute with some basil and spooned over spaghetti. A bit of garlic had been swirled in the pan and then discarded. Simple. Classic. No cheese was offered, nor did anyone brandish a pepper mill the size of a ham.

"This is the greatest dish on the face of the earth," said Ms. Willinger, who is not known for her ambiguous gastronomic judgments. "It's really nothing but pasta with wilted tomatoes and a little basil."

Last, the kitchen sent out another salad, this one composed of mozzarella made that morning, basil, incredibly aromatic dried wild oregano, oil from a bottle labeled with a vintage date, and sliced cuore di bue tomatoes -- sweeter than the others, but still balanced by acid.

What fascinated me was that each type of tomato had its own individual flavor and texture. I liked them all, the San Marzanos the best because their skins were so thin and their flesh soft without being mushy. Was the flavor so remarkably concentrated because it was so late in the season?

A concluding lemon sorbet of merciful lightness gave us a reasonable chance of eating a proper dinner. Naturally there were tomatoes on the dinner menu, too: in a savory jelly served with lobster, in a tomato and anchovy broth, in a sauce for baby gnocchi, another for bucatini and a third -- a light but more lengthily cooked ragù -- for a timbale of rice.

Lest someone feel deprived as the time came for the main course, there was veal tongue with tomato sauce and pesce di scoglio, or rockfish. With tomatoes.

"Making the year's supply of tomato sauce is the most important ritual in the Sicilian summer," Mary Taylor Simeti writes in "On Persephone's Island" (Vintage Books, $14), "and each housewife believes in the efficacy of her method with a fervor equal to that with which she believes in the efficacy of her favorite saint."

Exactly the same thing could be said about Campania.

The whole staff at Don Alfonso used to help put up 2,000 glass jars of tomato sauce each year; I remember eating some of it, with a slight sting of chili, ladled over mozzarella and eggplant, when my wife, Betsey, and I dined there in 1994, before the restaurant became the toast of Italy. They sell that sauce at the restaurant and a few other places now, but not in the United States.

Still, there are plenty of canned Italian tomatoes on the American market, and everyone from Ms. Hazan to Lorenza de'Medici endorses their use for sauces when vine-ripened domestic tomatoes are unavailable. In fact, canned San Marzanos are better for that than some vine-ripened varieties on the United States market.

The best are packed in their own juices. Avoid those combined with a sauce or a purée, which is often of obviously inferior quality. Cirio -- pronounced like the cereal -- is one of the oldest and best names, founded in Turin in 1860. Others to look out for are La Valle, Tutto Rosso and Asti.

Cirio, which still runs a tomato research station in the northern suburbs of Naples, followed Italian emigrants wherever they went, establishing a firm identification between Italy and tomatoes around the world. In Italy, Cirio is the biggest seller and commands the highest prices.

In the New York area, most of these brands are available for $2 to $4 for a 28-ounce can.
What's better about the top brands? Well, for one thing, they are made from the best fruit, processed in many cases within 30 minutes of reaching the factory. No greenish or yellowish tomatoes need apply, nor any tomato bits and pieces. Little or no citric acid, a preservative, is added, so the flavor remains pure.

There is a lot to like about canned San Marzanos. Their skins slip off easily. Just like fresh San Marzanos, they have an ideal equilibrium between acid and sweetness. And because they have less juice than most American tomatoes, they cook down more quickly, preserving more of the fresh, clear, summery tomato taste.

Buy tomatoes in glass, if you come across them; they are not at all common on the shelves of American shops. And if you buy cans, buy only a few at a time; the longer the tomatoes are in there, the tinnier they taste.

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