While watching Ghily Guetta make food in her bright kitchen in the Rome’s Piazza Bologna neighborhood, I could not help but notice how many tomato expressions covered her counters. A large bowl was filled with small cherry tomatoes and the oblong Romas. A tube of red brick tomato paste was half squeezed and awaiting an ice cube. Then, in the background, were the half-dozen glasses of glass containers filled with passata, an uncooked puree of tomatoes that is adored throughout Italy. Nearly every pot Guetta, who is 34, stirred on the stovetop to prepare her household’s Shabbat dinner that night simmered with something sweet and red.
Finding tomatoes in Rome is not a huge surprise. While researching my newest recipe book, “Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen” (W.W. Norton), I experienced firsthand Roman Jews’ outsize obsession. Following artichokes, the vegetable that is most closely associated with Roman Jewish cuisine–tomatoes are a close second.
It’s understandable. Rome’s Jewish background dates back to 220 years ago, the time that the first Jews came to Rome from ancient Judea seeking refuge against Greek persecution. And the Jewish community is still there, though not in huge numbers. Today, 16,000 of Rome’s three million inhabitants are Jewish but indelibly embedded into the fabric of Rome. In fact, it isn’t easy to know if the famous dishes were made in the Romana (Roman fashion) or Giudia (Jewish way).
Tomatoes were introduced to Rome significantly later than the town’s Jewish community and were introduced by traders and explorers arriving in the late 16th century. “Europeans initially believed that this member of the nightshade family…was poisonous and, for many years, relegated the plant solely to decorative use,” says Gil Marks in his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.” However, the Jews from Italy used tomatoes in their cuisine relatively early.
Today, all Romans are obsessed with tomatoes and cook with a variety of this fruit. Roman Jews’ hearts belong to Casalino tomatoes, which are a squat, deep-red variety that is ribbed as miniature pumpkins grown on the local level in the Lazio region. Casalino tomatoes are best in the form of mezzo Pomodoro: half-sized tomatoes dipped in olive oil, then roasted until sweet and jammy. If you are dining at the Roman Jewish table when tomatoes are in season — at any of the numerous eateries on Portico d’Ottavia, the main street of the historic Jewish Ghetto, or when you’re lucky, you’re fortunate enough to be in a family home; you’ll meet these sparkling red gems.
Roman Jews’ hearts belong to Casalino tomatoes, which are a red, squat variety that is ribbed as mini pumpkins, grown local to the Lazio region.
Fresh tomatoes also feature in Pomodoro con rice, which are whole tomatoes filled with garlic-scented rice and basil placed on top of potatoes. When the rice is puffed up, and the tomatoes expand, the potatoes become creamy and absorb the flavor of the tomatoes. Because Roman Jews follow the Sephardi custom of eating rice during Passover, the dish is a staple of the spring festival. However, it is a highlight in the late summer, too, since the tomato seasons are at their highest.
Get how to make Stuffed Tomatoes with Rice (Pomodori with Riso) here. PHOTO: KRISTIN TEIG
One of the meals Guetta cooked up when I visited in her house was the merduma where she cooked a plethora of tomatoes into a delicious bread-based spread that is akin to concentrated sunshine. The dish originates from the city of Rome’s Libyan Jewish community, which is a tradition that dates to the 1960s when more than a thousands of Libyan Jews immigrated to Rome following the Six-Day War in Israel.
In colder weather, processed and canned tomatoes add brightening and zing to Roman Jewish cooking. There’s broccoli and pasta and a rich stew made that consists of Romanesco broccoli and tiny noodles, flavored with a rich tomato paste and a velvety passata. The slow-cooked beef stew, stracotto di Manzo and the filled zucchini that is known as zucchine Romanesche the ripiene of carne attribute their captivating taste to the slow simmered co-mingling of tomato and beef. To prepare spaghetti tonno pomodoro, also known as spaghetti made that is stuffed with tomatoes and tuna cooks mix strands of spaghetti with a mixture of olive oil-packed tomatoes, tuna diced as well as briny capers along with red pepper flakes to make an easy pasta meal that’s truly memorable.
To me, each one of these meals will get me to a peaceful little table at Portico d’Ottavia street–no passport required.
Spaghetti With Tuna and Tomato (Spaghetti Tonno e Pomodoro)
Italo Camerino was born in Montreal, and His Roman Jewish family maintained many of their customs for food in their new home. The spaghetti his family cooked with tomatoes and tuna, which is a blend of vibrant tomatoes, oil-rich tuna, and hot red pepper flakes, is a memorable dish. This recipe combines Camerino’s recipe with the recipe from Joyce Goldstein’s cookbook “Cucina Ebraica,” adding capers to give it an extra boost of lemon zest and brine for a refreshing, sunny taste. Say hello to your new favorite spaghetti sauce.
Total Time:35 minutes
- Black pepper freshly crushed and Kosher Salt.
- 1 pound of spaghetti
- 3/4 cup olive oil, and more to drizzle
- One large onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon of red pepper Flakes
- 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
- 2. (5-ounce) cans of tuna packed with oil and rinsed
- Two tablespoons of salty capers washed, drained, and chopped
- 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
- Fresh flat-leaf parsley cut into pieces to serve
- Freshly grated Parmesan for serving
- Large pot of salted and generously salted water to a boil on high temperature. Add spaghetti, stir and cook until the spaghetti is al indentation. Drain well.
- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and onions to cook and stir frequently until softened and lightly brown, about 6-8 minutes. Add tomatoes, red pepper flakes and juices 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the juices begin to thicken, about 15 minutes.
- Mix tuna, capers as well as lemon zest in the dish. Add the drained spaghetti, along with an ample drizzle of olive oil, and mix well until it is all combined. Add salt and pepper as well as red pepper flakes, if you like.
- Serve the spaghetti hot and decorated with fresh parsley and Parmesan If you like it.
(Adapted) from “Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen” by Leah Koenig (W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.)
Go here to see the recipe in our recipe section.
Stuffed Tomatoes With Rice (Pomodori con Riso)
There’s something in the combination of rice that is soft and fragrant with basil covered by tomatoes cooked until they collapse that’s completely attractive. The potato layer in the middle of the baking dish, which becomes soft when baked and absorbs a lot of tomato flavor, is all it takes to gild the lily. Pomodori with rice is traditionally served during Passover as it is a custom to Italian Jews to eat rice during the Passover season. This recipe is great for an alfresco dinner or a relaxing weekend picnic.
Total Time1 Hour 40 Minutes
- 1/2 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
- 8 medium-ripe tomatoes (2 1/2-3 pounds)
- 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil and much more to drizzle
- 3 medium cloves garlic finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons of finely cut fresh basil and additional ingredients for serving
- Freshly ground black pepper and Kosher salt
- Two medium Yukon Gold potatoes (about 1 1 pound) Peeled, halved, and cut lengthwise, then cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
- Freshly grated Parmesan to serve (optional)
- Make a small pot half full of water to a simmer over high temperature. Add rice and stir, then reduce heat to medium then cook stirring frequently until the rice is soft, about 5-7 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.
- Bake at 375°F until it is ready.
- Cut the top half inch off each tomato, and keep the rest in reserve. Utilize a spoon that is sturdy to gently remove the tomatoes from their shells with approximately one-quarter inch of the flesh throughout. Transfer the tomato seeds and pulp to a food processor, and then process until it is well-chopped but slightly chunky. (Or make the pulp chop with a knife.)
- 1. Transfer 1/2 cup of chopped tomatoes’ pulp and juice into the bowl. (Discard the rest or keep to use later.) Mix in the partially cooked rice with garlic, olive oil, basil 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper.
- Place the potato wedges in an oven-safe baking dish measuring 9 by 13 inches. Douse them generously in olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss until well-mixed before spreading the potatoes evenly across on the top of your baking dish.
- Generously sprinkle insides of tomato with pepper and salt. Fill tomatoes with rice mix and place caps in the reserved space and place them on top of the potatoes with the filled sides up.
- Place baking dish in aluminum foil, cover with aluminum foil. Bake until tomato is soft and the rice is been puffed up, approximately 1 hour. Cover the dish again and bake until tomatoes begin to fall apart and potatoes are smooth in texture, between 10 and 20 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven and allow to cool for 30 minutes before serving.
- Serve warm tomatoes and, at room temp, sprinkled with basil and, If you wish, Parmesan.