“A Lovely Bitterness”

Thick-skinned and Vesuvius-cured, this modest tomato is southern Italy’s secret gem

Paul Greenberg

--

Pasquale Imperato with a bristling bunch of piennolo tomatoes

In the Italian province of Campania, Mount Vesuvius keeps quiet vigil over its tomatoes. Small-hold plots wend their way along the volcano’s southern slope, and most of those plots are planted with Italy’s most famous tomato — the “San Marzano” of red sauce fame. But a very few hectares are sewn with the seeds of a lesser-known variety: a pointy-tipped, thumb-length oddball called the piennolo. Pasquale Imperato is a grower of this tomato.

Its flavor is what Pasquale calls Amorevolmente Amarognolo “A Lovely Bitterness.” A rich tomato-ish essence emboldened by the threat of Vesuvius.

Resembling the actor Harvey Keitel, Pasquale did his own thing for many years with his father’s blessing who told him to go out into the world and “do something that doesn’t feel like work”. But eventually somewhat to his surprise he came back to Campania and the very thing that was so unlike work turned out to be farming. Once back on the farm he tried apricot farming. This worked until the early 2000s when he realized that apricots were a commodity that could be made anywhere in the world. What was unique to the area was the piennolo tomato.

Pasquale and the piennolo are linked in this regard. Special and strong, uniquely flavored and rare, they persevere under difficult conditions to provide something special to the diner who is looking for it.

The piennolo is thumb-length ending in a point called a peduncle. Its skin is thick to withstand an arid environment. The peduncle which Pasquale called a “nipple” seems to have evolved so that it focuses morning dew downward to the plant’s roots allowing the plant to milk whatever it can out of the air. The high sulfur content of the winds coming down from Vesuvius mean that the tomato has evolved a thick skin that incorporates something sulfurous into its flavor resulting in what Pasquale calls Amorevolmente Amarognolo “A Lovely Bitterness.” A rich tomato-ish essence emboldened with the threat of Vesuvius.

Pasquale is a small-hold farmer, owning just a single hectare. But from this tiny plot he squeezes…

--

--

Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org