It may come as a surprise to bolognese lovers, but Italian cuisine has not always had such a strong association with tomatoes.
Tomatoes first entered Italy through Naples in 1548. They were initially viewed with scepticism.
It took the best part of 200 years for the Italian’s love for tomatoes to flourish.
The first documented recipe of pasta with tomatoes was written by a Frenchman in 1807. Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière mixes vermicelli with cheese in “L’Almanach des gourmands” (“The gourmet’s almanac”).
There’s no doubt that the 20th century was when the tomato took centre stage in Italian cuisine - the ingredient that makes Italian food taste Italian!
To represent the “tomatofication” of Italy, our next kitchen outing will deliver a gratuitously tomatoey pasta dish. Spaghetti, unapologetically dripping in a radiating red tomato reduction.
We could have chosen one of many options from the annals of Italian cuisine, but without a doubt it’s those Napolitanos who deserve their spot in the limelight.
Here, we recreate Pelegrino Artusi’s 1881 maccheroni alla napoletana recipe. This was not the first recorded Italian recipe to feature tomatoes with pasta. That honour belongs to Ippolito Cavalcanti, with his 1837 recipe for “Timpano di vermicelli cotti crudi con li pomodoro” (“Timpano [casserole dish] of vermicelli, cooked raw with tomatoes” in “Cucina Teorico-Pratica” (“The Theoretical and Practical Kitchen”).
Although maccheroni alla napoletana was not the first dish with the tomato and pasta composition, it has certainly stood the test of time.
The final taste of maccheroni alla napoletana is off-the-charts and is another of those Italian meals which falls into the category of “what’s not to like?”
In Naples this sauce is known simply as “la salsa” (“the sauce”), which is a perfectly informal description for a meal without any hint of pretension. Spaghetti dripping in reduced tomatoes, a decadent volume of butter finished off with basil, black pepper and parmessan.
The combination of dairy butteriness and sweet acidity from the tomatoes results in a rich and almost creamy tang which is absolutely devine.
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Ragù (serves 4)
The sauce can be refrigerated or frozen.
Napoletana Sauce (serves 4)
- 500g fresh, ripe, vine-on tomatoes (about 8 medium)
- ¼ onion
- 30g + 50g butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 15g fresh basil
- 50g parmesan
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
Maccheroni (serves 4)
- 300g De Cecco spaghetti no. 12
- Place the tomatoes in a bowl and prepare a larger bowl, filled with water and ice.
- Submerge the tomatoes in freshly boiled water and leave for 15 seconds. Quickly transfer the tomatoes to the iced water and allow to cool to prevent any further cooking1.
- Using the butt of a knife, score the tomatoes and peel back and discard the skins2.
- Using a sharp knife, half the tomatoes, then scoop out the membrane and pips with a spoon and transfer to a bowl3. Finely slice the tomato flesh and transfer to another bowl. Repeat for all remaining tomatoes.
- Transfer the tomato pips and membrane to a chinois or fine sieve and sprinkle with salt to draw out the water.
- After 10 minutes, gently push the tomato membranes through the sieve and into the bowl containing the tomato flesh.
- Cut the ¼ onion into thin slices and add to a pan with 30g butter allowing the fat to bubble on a low heat.
- Cook the onion for about 10 minutes until it begins to brown, then pass the onion and butter mix through a chinois or fine sieve, discarding the onion. Return the butter to the pan.
- Add the tomato flesh, 50g butter, basil, pepper and season with salt.
- Reduce the sauce for 20 minutes on a low heat, stirring frequently, until the sauce is reduced4 by ⅓.
- Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water for about 9 minutes, until al dente.
- Drain the pasta in a colander, return to the pan, add the grated parmesan and stir until well dispersed.
- Next, add the napoletana sauce and stir to combine.
- Divide the mix between four bowls and top with a decorative basil leaf.
- This is the general advice you’ll read pretty much anywhere to prevent cooking of the tomatoes prematurely. We are about to cook them, so I’ve often taken this advice with a pinch of salt.
- This is supposed to be very easy and with the right tomatoes the skins will peel away easily. If it is not easy you are probably working with out of season or under-ripe tomatoes.
- Although this is not explicit in Artusi’s recipe, I would recommend this step is taken. Artusi’s advice is to remove the pips but not to strain their juices back into the mix. A lot of the tomato flavour lives in and around the membrane and it is a shame to waste it.
- The amount of reduction should be a personal choice really. We are trying to balance sauciness and richness.