Unforgettable tomatoes of Testaccio market
Tomatoes will always make me remember Italy. I would say Rome more precisely, and the area of Testaccio, where I lived for six months in 2004. Testaccio is one of those real areas where you meet Italian people in a hurry, wrapped in bright scarves carrying kids by their hands; where you chat with that old gentleman about the weather and politics in the queue of tavola calda while you buy some food for lunch and almost get suffocated inside a bar, at eight in the morning, trying to get a cappuccino and eat a cornetto alla crema. In other words, a lovely and authentic Roman area.
Three blocks away from the flat I used to live in was Testaccio market, which was attended by these local residents, and at least at that time, it was quite unusual to bump into a tourist. Each visit to this market was a gastronomic expedition. On the very first day I fell in love for the stall run by Carmelo D’Agostino. Known inside and outside of Italy, Carmelo really knew what he was saying about each of the more of 40 kinds of tomatoes that he displayed in wooden boxes and plastic little containers.
Small, rounded-shaped, long and thin ones. Other ones were wrinkled, a little orange, grubby and full of pleats. The ones which came from the region of Lazio or others that grew in Vesuvian lands and those from Puglia. Tomatoes from the high summer and those ones from the end of the summer. Piccadilly, Torpedo, Pomino. San Marzano, Cigliegino, Belmonte. An endless variety of names always followed by some description. “Stupendo”! “Dolcissimo!” “Fantastico per un ragu!”
Carmelo analysed each tomato like the goldsmith observes a gemstone: took it very carefully, raised it a little above his head, turned it with the hand so used to this movement and spoke with absolute awareness about the texture, the time exposed in the sun and the provenance of each. Then he would classify it by the flavour: the most acid, the mildest and the very sweet ones, perfetto per i bambini! He even talked about its pulp: the juiciest, the meatiest and those which have little water retention and get creamy. And finally, he discoursed its use: a good tomato to prepare rabbit, to make all’arrabbiata sauce or panzanella. Because there is always the most appropriate tomato for each dish – that`s something I learnt with Carmelo.
I was so impressed with that huge variety that I always bought one more tomato to try it on its own, occasionally with a dash of olive oil just to taste such differences. And I always tried to use recipes that demanded tomato as an ingredient only for the excuse of going to the market to visit Carmelo. I told him what I wanted to prepare and he suggested the right tomatoes while placing one by one in a paper craft bag. An immediate and personal consultancy with the best expert in tomatoes I have ever met – this only happens in Italy, in Rome, in Testaccio market. Punto e basta!
The endless variety of tomatoes at Testaccio market has never left my memories. And still today, despite of living far from Rome, tomatoes occupy my kitchen. They can go into the risotto pan or with white beans; they can shine in the salad or, just taken from the oven, they can go on the top of a bread slice.
About 30 cherry tomatoes
Freshly grated pepper
Your favourite herbs
Some cloves of garlic
One onion cut into four edges
Pre-heat the oven in 220°C. Place the tomatoes, the garlic and the onion in roasting pan or heatproof bowl. Spice them with salt and pepper, add your chosen herbs and sprinkle them with olive oil. Shake the bowl so you make sure all tomatoes are involved by the spices. Take them to the oven for about 15 minutes.
Tomato and mozzarella risotto
1 head of garlic
30 cherry tomatoes
20 small balls of mozzarella
A bunch of fresh sprigs of marjoram
825 ml of chicken or vegetable stock
100g of chopped unsalted butter
400g of Arborio or Carnaroli rice
100ml of dry white wine
75g of freshly grated parmesan
Sea salt and freshly grated black pepper
Pre-heat the oven in 220°C. Wrap the head of garlic in foil and bake it for about 20 minutes, when it starts to get softer. Place tomatoes in a heatproof bowl, mix them with a little of sea salt and olive oil and take them to the oven with the garlic for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix mozzarella, marjoram and a little of black pepper in a bowl. Leave it aside. Heat the stock with water until it almost boils.
Melt half of the butter in a big deep and large pan in a medium heat. Add rice and stir it for approximately two minutes. Put wine and stir well until it dries a little and add a ladle of hot stock. Lower the heat for medium/low. Cook it for about 15 minutes and keep stirring it as well as adding ladles of stock as the rice absorbs the liquid.
When the rice is nearly al dente, add whatever was left from the butter, the parmesan and mix them. Remove it from the fire and smoothly embody it with mozzarella and tomatoes. Leave a little of marjoram for later. If there is some juice of tomatoes in the bowl, add a little of oil, scrape the bottom of it and add to the risotto. Cover the pan.
Unwrap the garlic and detach the cloves. Put two entire ones in the risotto and mash the others mixing them in the rice. Check the spices (if necessary, add more salt and freshly grated pepper) and serve it immediately, with the marjoram left to decorate the dishes.