During our week cooking in Spongano, it was just a short stroll from the door of our kitchen to il fruttivendolo. Towards the rear of the shop, past the taralli biscuits and dried fave, a large array of tomatoes were on splendid display. Among them, we found these seemingly unripe pomodori insalatari (above), or salad tomatoes, which are considered best when eaten raw but still streaked with green. Silvestro, our maestro, instructed us to chose ones that were firm and not quite ripe. The higher acidity helps to balance the slight bitterness of the salad greens. As it turns out, all of those hard tomatoes we’ve been having in salads while traveling in Italy weren’t out of season; they were meant to be eaten that way.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, pomodori da salsa are tomatoes meant for cooking, and are ready to be used when deeply red and fully ripe. These fiaschetto (above) have a characteristic point, il pizzo, at the end. Like a paste tomato, they’re perfect for making vats of tomato passata, or sauce.
In a category of their own are the pomodorini d’inverno or appesi, or winter or hanging tomatoes. We’d explained to Silvestro that we’d been growing these back home, and were thrilled to have the chance to cook with them while in Puglia.
The yellow pomodorini were stored in bins and weighed out loose, while the red ones came strung up and sold as a whole hanging cluster. When asked how she used them, the proprietress simply shrugged, “Cooked, with pasta.”
We bought several kilos of the pomodorini for the evening’s pasta. When cut open, the yellow ones looked exactly like our Ponderosa sel Oro — yellow-orange on the outside and red on the inside. We were familiar with their tartness, something that would transform with cooking into something bright and deep.
Careful as we were to disassemble the cluster of red pomodorini, it remained a mystery to us how they were strung together.
The evening’s pasta was maratati, or wedding pasta, usually a combination of two shapes, the more suggestive the better. The pasta dough was a mix of semola rimacinata and farina di orzo, or semolina and barley flours, formed into orecchiette and the longer minchiarelli.
The pomodorini are halved, then sautéed with garlic and a good amount of the peppery Salentese olive oil. The tomatoes collapse during cooking, with the oil taking on a rich red hue, becoming thick with their juices and almost jam-like.
All the finished dish needed was a toss of arugula, and the maritati was ready to be served as the evening’s first course.
The recipe for Maritati con Pomodorini e Rucola is a based on Silvestro’s one for Orecchiette with Cherry Tomatoes and Arugula. It happened to appear in the New York Times that week, accompanying Florence Fabricant’s aptly titled article, “At Home in Italy, Wherever You Are.” If indeed Pugliese cuisine is the “ultimate home cooking,” perhaps there’s no better way to experience it then learning to cook it yourself.
Note: Like so things in Italian cuisine, winter or hanging tomatoes go by many names, changing from one southern region to the next, even town to town. We first learned of them as pomodorini appesi in Locorotondo, where our original seeds are from. Other nomenclature for the pomodorini include d’inverno, invernali, eterni, and piennoli. Giuseppe, one of our friends at The Awaiting Table, tells us he grew up calling them m’pisa; we’ve since seen them also referred to as te m’pisa.