How the Tomato Grew Into Italian Cuisine & Culture

The tomato's roots run deep in several cultures, particularly in Italy.

The following article, written by Jerry Finzi, appears on

If it’s the month of May, you will find a couple dozen young tomato plants under my grow light nearly ready to be planted out in my vegetable beds (within two weeks, after fear of frost is gone). My mind always fills with thoughts of tomatoes as summer draws near, as do hopes there will be a good yield for our little famiglia…

If I say, “tomato sauce” you think of Italian food, right? If I say “homegrown tomatoes” you might think of Vito Corleone playing with his grandson in his garden in that final scene in his life. If I say “pizza” you picture a round crust with cheese and tomato sauce. The red color is essential. Some say that Il Tricolore (the tricolor flag of Italy) represents the hills of Italy with green, the snow capped mountains with white and the blood spilled from the wars of independence by red. But others in la cucinaItalianawould argue that the green is for pesto, the white for besciamella and the red for salsa pomodoro found in tri-color lasagna. Or, that the flag represents the simple but wonderful insalata caprese: green for basil, white for mozzarella, and the red for ripe tomatoes. In any case, you might say the red in Il Tricolor represent the true blood of Italy–the tomato.

But how did the tomato become such a strong part of Italian culture? It is not indigenous to Italy, or Europe for that matter. The tomato was first “discovered” by the Spanish Conquistadors while exploring and then conquering the Americas. The tomato most likely originated in the Andes mountains of Peru and spread sometime in the distant past to most parts of South and Central America, and eventually on up to Mexico. The odd thing is that the tomato became popular in Europe long before it came to be used in North America. Colonial Americans thought of the tomato as a poisonous plant, after all, it’s a close cousin of Nightshade–a well know toxic vine. In fact, the leaves and vines of the tomato plant are fairly toxic.

The 1500s came with Columbus and other explorers introducing the tomato to Europe, but there was about 200 years of skepticism before the tomato gained acceptance there. Again, it was thought one touch of a tomato on the lips would kill you. One likely catalyst for its popularity in Europe, especially with the wealthy and elite, was the rumor that it was an aphrodisiac. The general population more than likely heard about this new fruit and saw that the Barons behind the castle walls were flourishing, not falling down dead. One can imagine that the trash middens where refuse from the castles, chateaus and villas were thrown became a great source of distribution for the tomato plant. Everyone knows that tomatoes are very prolific, their seeds can spring up anywhere. Little by little, the peasants discovered gnarly vines growing wild with attractive red or yellow fruits attracting wildlife. “Why not give them a try? The birds, squirrels and rabbits aren’t dying, after all.”  Presto! A free, easily grown source of vitamins and amazing flavor. It was easy to save seeds and properly cultivate a very large harvest from even a modest number of plants.

The word tomatois derived from the Aztec word xitomatl, which when it got to Europe was shortened to tomatl. The French originally called the tomato, pomme d’amour (love apple) before calling simply la tomate. Perhaps they changed the name when the aphrodisiac claims failed to have any effect. In Italy it was pomi d’oro (golden apple), which today becomes il pomodoro. Tomatoes do come in a wide variety of colors, including golden yellow, but along with tomatoes, tomatillos also came from the Americas–many of which are also yellow.

In Italy, the tomato more than likely prospered because of its near-tropical climate. The tomato can be grown all year long in tropical temperatures. Continue reading at

Share your favorite recipe, and we may feature it on our website.

Join the conversation, and share recipes, travel tips and stories.