Italy’s love affair with tomatoes is well known and there’s a bewildering array of varieties in all shapes and sizes, several thousand by all accounts. This time of year supermarket shelves are groaning under the weight of pomodori belli e buoni and they all have slightly different characteristics so the choice depends on what dish you have in mind.
The tomato is a nightshade fruit like eggplant and bell peppers so perhaps that’s why they all go so well together but there’s no other fruit or vegetable that is even half as versatile in an Italian kitchen as the not-so-humble tomato.
Credit has to be given to the Aztecs, Columbus and then the Spanish for the tomato first arriving in Naples sometime in the 16th century and the nearby province of Salerno is still today the home of probably the most famous Italian tomato in overseas markets, San Marzano. Prized for having quite thin skins with less water and a denser pulp it is the favorite variety for canning and also for passata, which was for centuries the traditional Italian way of preserving the glorious summer tomato taste in the winter before commercial canning was introduced.
We don't see the fresh Salerno San Marzano tomatoes in our supermarkets in Lucca but there are plenty of other very similar plum tomato varietals like Perini and Portento, which are also best used for sauces, but none of these are the best tomatoes in their raw form whatever the Napolitani might claim.
The smaller cherry tomatoes seem to be increasingly popular these days whether Datterini or Ciliegini with those from Pachino available year round. Pachino is a town located in the far south-east corner of Sicily with probably the warmest winter weather in Italy but the truth is that the tomato is really a summer fruit requiring sun and heat. Winter tomatoes from Sardinia or Sicily are just about good enough to cook but they don’t have anything like the flavor or texture of ripe summer tomatoes which is why it’s often best to use canned tomatoes or passata for winter recipes.
The small spherical tomatoes or even the teardrop shaped Piennolo from the slopes of Vesuvius also can’t compare for flavor in the middle of summer with the large ribbed varieties like the Florentine Costoluto or the famous Ligurian Cuore di Bue (“ox heart”) which is also grown widely in Tuscany. These would fall under the category of beefsteak tomatoes in the US for eating raw in salads or on bruschetta and there’s one variety that is king of them all and that is the Canestrino, also known as Cresputo or sometimes simply called Costoluto.
The Lucca Canestrino tomato (meaning “little basket”) has been a very local variety for many generations, consumed in Lucca and its immediate surroundings and sold only in local markets. It came under threat when the hybrid ribbed varieties appeared and was only saved in the last ten years. Invariably it is the great work of the Slow Food organization that rescues traditional produce and and the Lucca tomato was no exception.
From the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity:
“For some years the markets have been selling ribbed tomatoes, also known in Italian as Cuore di Bue, which are very similar to the Canestrino. These are selected varieties however, often hybrid and easier to cultivate, and have nothing to do with the authentic Canestrino tomato from Lucca. The Presidium was established to differentiate and promote this heirloom variety, involving the entire production chain, from the seed custodians to the nurseries that prepare the seedlings to the local farmers who over the years have never abandoned the Canestrino, despite it being more delicate and demanding than the ribbed hybrids.”
The Canestrino is a fabulous tomato that we use all summer from late May until the first few days of October because of its flavor and versatility. For people who might think that all tomatoes are created equal, you only have to cut into a Canestrino to see the difference immediately. The flesh is very dense with minimal water content and very few seeds and the skin is so thin and yielding that there’s really no need to ever remove it. The central core is negligible so there’s hardly any waste and the inside of the tomato is a beautiful deep red color. There's a strong fresh tomato aroma and a surprisingly sweet flavor due to the high sugar content and relatively low acidity. It’s also quite easy to recognize a Canestrino tomato because of its irregular shape with grooves or fissures that run down the sides and there’s generally more than a hint of green at the top even when fully ripe (see top photo).
Fresh summer tomato sauces are another good use for the Canestrino because it’s already highly concentrated due to the low water content.
And thanks to a Lucchese chef called Cesare Casella (above), Americans can now find this tomato at the Hudson Valley Seed Company and elsewhere and grow it themselves. Casella was born in Lucca in 1960 and trained as a chef, taking charge at his mother’s restaurant, Il Vapore, in the hills just north-west of town. In 1991 he was awarded a Michelin star and a few years later he accepted a post in New York and has remained in the US ever since.
Casella used to buy his vegetables for his Manhattan restaurant at the Union Square Greenmarket, mainly from the stall of Rick Bishop of Mountain Sweet Berry Farm near Roscoe NY in the Catskills. Unimpressed with the local varieties and nostalgic for his favorite Lucca tomato, Casella soon gave Bishop some Canestrino seeds to plant, a variety that Bishop had never seen before.
When the first crop was harvested and on sale in the market, Bishop’s other customers all tried this new tomato and were immediately impressed. Bishop’s farm is in the lower Catskills at about 2,000 feet of elevation and has a very similar summer climate to Lucca so it turned out to be a perfect place to grow the Canestrino variety, perhaps even better than Lucca itself because of the richer soil and the slightly lower nightime temperatures. The Canestrino’s reputation grew quickly and Bishop was so impressed with the quality of the tomato and its versatility in the kitchen that the Canestrino is now the only variety he grows on his farm and his customers, including many top New York restaurants, are equally enamored with it. The following quote from his Mountain Sweet Berry Farm website says it eloquently enough:
"We believe the Canestrino is the best tomato which is why out of the thousands of tomato varieties, we choose to grow only this one."
The Hudson Valley Seed Company changed the name slightly in order to honour Cesare Casella; it is listed in their catalogue as Cesare’s Canestrino di Lucca Tomato.
Casella's 88 year old mother, Rosa, still lives in Lucca but has long since retired from the restaurant that she originally opened in 1964 and was reported to have said that the New York State Canestrino may be even better than the ones grown in Lucca.
I have never tried an American grown Canestrino but having lived for 26 years in the US the tomatoes in the above photograph look typically American to me. Too red, too uniform in appearance and with no natural blemishes. Many supermarkets in the US seem to value the aesthetics of physical appearance of fruit and vegetables higher than their actual taste and an edible wax is often applied to brighten the colors and make them shiny, which is why I always preferred to buy fresh produce from farmers' markets. Italian supermarkets don't fuss quite as much about appearance as can be seen from the photographs towards the top of this article and I'll happily take a few imperfections on the outside if there's a sublime taste on the inside.