ID 56456547 © Jirafkanatee |

Tomatoes in Italian cooking

Tinned or bottled tomatoes are a key feature of Italian cooking. But are they authentic? Let’s take a look.

It’s difficult to imagine Italian Cuisine without the tomato, so fully has that vegetable (or fruit?) written itself, like a red thread, into the national cookbook. The dishes which seem to epitomize Italian cooking—insalata caprese, spaghetti alla napoletana, pizza—all contain tomatoes. It’s the red in the patriotic tricolour flag served on plates in Italy and abroad.

ID 10759784 © Agorafobia |

Fresh or tinned tomatoes?

I’m often asked if it’s authentic to use tinned or bottled tomatoes (such as passata) in Italian cooking, or whether it’s better to use only fresh ones. To answer this question it’s necessary to take a quick look at the history of the tomato in Italy and how it came to be such a dominant ingredient.

ID 67383426 © Etiennevoss | Open tin of chopped tomatoes with whole fresh unfocused tomatoes behind. Wood surface.

The tomato in Italy

How and where the tomato made its first appearance in Italy is a matter of debate. In 1540, the first examples arrived in Europe, brought back to Spain by the conquistador Cortés. A few years later, it was described in a medical textbook by the Tuscan doctor Pietro Mattioli. He described it in Latin as a mala aurea, a golden apple, from which the Italian name pomodoro derives. (It appears that the first tomatoes in Europe were yellow, rather than red.) No-one knows quite when the first fruit arrived in Italy, but it seems likely that it was introduced through Naples which, from 1503–1713, was under Spanish rule.

ID 26233551 © Thomas Gowanlock |

Spanish Tomato Sauce

Certainly, the first known recipe for the now ubiquitous Italian tomato sauce, was published in Naples, but not until 1692. The recipe was called Spanish Tomato Sauce, implying that it was introduced by the occupiers along with the vegetable. It was used as an accompaniment for meat, not as today, for pasta. In fact, contemporary mentions of pasta show that it was served with cheese. The first written evidence of it being served with tomato sauce was not until 1844.

Pizza rossa

So, it appears that pasta with tomato sauce, today so popular as to constitute a culinary cliché, was a relatively late development. And the same goes for pizza rossa (red pizza), pizza with tomato sauce. Marinara and margherita, the two classic Neapolitan ‘red pizzas’ both date from the 18th century and didn’t become really popular until the 19th. Before that pizzas had been what today we call bianca (white), without tomato sauce. Margherita, pizza with tomato, mozzarella, and basil, didn’t get its name and achieve its huge popularity until it was famously served for Queen Margherita in 1889.

Simultaneous development

To recap then, both pizza with tomatoes and spaghetti napoletana, appear and then become popular in their current form the 19th century. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, this also coincides with the development of tinned and bottled tomatoes.

Bottles and jars

Glass bottles and jars, with cork or glass lids, became popular in the early 19th-century, along with the development of methods to seal them, preserving the contents. (The heat sealing method we use today was invented by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in the early 1800s.) But bottles and jars didn’t become really popular until the invention of the Mason jar, with its metallic screw lid in 1858. This made the widespread production of passata, at home and for sale, possible.

ID 26233551 © Thomas Gowanlock |

Tinned tomatoes

The first tinned tomatoes were produced in 1856 by Francesco Cirio, who wanted to sell Italian tomatoes in the UK. But of course, they were marketed at home and soon became very popular. The Cirio company is still one of the largest producers of Italian tinned tomatoes and can be found in supermarkets all over the world.


Add the fact that, in most of Italy, the tomato season lasts from June to September and that they were not able to be preserved before the middle of the 19th-century, I would argue that there is a connection between the advent of tinned tomatoes and the popularity of them in Italian cuisine. Therefore, although you can make beautiful tomato sauces with fresh, in-season tomatoes, there is nothing wrong with using passata or tinned tomatoes for your sauces. In fact, with both of these being present in almost every Italian pantry,  in some ways it seems more authentic to do so.

3 thoughts on “Tomatoes in Italian cooking”

  1. This is a wonderful post! I can’t conceive of Italian food, particularly Southern Italian food, without some type of tomato sauce. Great historical overview of how the tomato came to be so prevalent in Italian cooking.

  2. My family still gets together to make passata every September. It is quite the experience! I can’t imagine life without pomodori but apparently the early ones tasted horrible and were used for decoration only. Yuk. Buon appetito, Cristina

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