The tomato made its appearance only very recently in Italian and Sicilian cuisine--somewhere around the 1500's. ("Recent" is a matter of opinion in Italy!) Introduced most likely by Cristoforo Colombo on his journey back from the Americas, it was named “golden apple” or “pomodoro” by Renaissance physician and botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli.
Such a late-comer to the Sicilian table doesn't necessarily deserve to be mentioned first before the classical ingredients of the Greek, Roman and Saracen table, but in the interest of clearing up some misconceptions about the use of the tomato in Sicilian food, I'll start my discussion here.
There is a rumor afoot in the United States that Sicilian grandmothers cook tomato sauce all day long, and in large quantities. There is also a rumor that an authentic Italian tomato sauce requires a lot of complicated ingredients. While I cannot dispel the rumor that Sicilian grandmothers like to cook in large quantities, I can tell you without hesitation that making an authentic Sicilian tomato sauce is a simple proposition, requiring very few ingredients and simple tools, and employs a cooking time of less than an hour.
Salsa di Pomodoro
In Italy tomato sauce is referred to as "sugo" while in Sicily it is called "salsa di pomodoro". Sicilian tomatoes are particularly sweet because of our warm African sun. Among the most popular are small round ones called pomodorini. If the tomatoes are truly ripe and sweet, they can be sautéed in a good quality olive oil, seasoned with salt to taste, and finished with handful of fresh basil and a dusting of an excellent cheese like a sheep milk "percorino" or "ricotta salata". Nothing more is needed when the ingredients are fresh.
"But," my friends in America object, "what about the Italian spices?
What about Clemenza's recipe?" "You see, you start out with a little bit of oil. Then you fry some garlic. Then you throw in some tomatoes, tomato paste. You fry it--you make sure it doesn't stick. You get it to a boil. You shove in all your sausage and your meatballs, hey? And a little bit o' wine. An' a little bit o' sugar, and that's my trick."
First, I'd like to advise you that if you have a bottle of anything in your pantry called Italian Spices, please stop what you are doing now and throw it away. There is no such thing as bottled Italian Spices in Italian cooking.
Secondly, many Italo-Americani or second and third generation Italians whose forbearers emigrated from Italy, most likely remember their grandmothers canning tomato sauce, which indeed did take all day to cook because the tomatoes were prepared in batches. The sauce was not the same batch from start to finish, however, thus the misperception regarding cooking time. It's true that sauces which include meats take longer to cook, but a simple sauce cooks relatively quickly, in less than an hour.
Finally there are many variations on Sicilian tomato sauce that have to do with tastes and family traditions, but the core ingredients are the same: fresh tomatoes (or an excellent quality canned tomato such as San Marzano), a good quality first press olive oil and freshly picked Italian variety basil. Garlic and onion are also used in the Sicilian kitchen. Join me in my next post as we prepare a delicious tomato sauce together step by step here on BlogSpot.