Brendan McKenzie

Tomatoes in Italian cuisine

Friday, 24 February 2023

Tomatoes have become an iconic ingredient in Italian cuisine, with dishes like pizza, pasta sauces, and Caprese salad featuring prominently on menus worldwide. However, tomatoes are not native to Italy, and their introduction to the country was a relatively recent event in the grand scheme of things. In this blog post, we'll explore how tomatoes became popular in Italian cuisine.

Origins of Tomatoes

Tomatoes are believed to have originated in the western region of South America, in what is now Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The first recorded mention of the tomato was by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, who encountered the fruit during their explorations of the Americas. Initially, Europeans were wary of the tomato, believing it to be poisonous due to its resemblance to other toxic plants in the nightshade family.

Tomatoes in Italy

It wasn't until the late 16th century that the tomato arrived in Italy. The earliest known reference to tomatoes in Italy was in a cookbook by Bartolomeo Scappi, a chef to several popes, who included a recipe for a tomato-based sauce. However, it took some time for tomatoes to gain widespread acceptance in Italy. At first, they were used primarily for ornamental purposes, as they were prized for their bright colour and unique shape.

It wasn't until the 18th century that tomatoes began to be used in Italian cuisine in earnest. The region of Naples, in particular, played a significant role in popularizing the tomato. Legend has it that the tomato first became a staple in Neapolitan cuisine when the city poor began using it as a cheap substitute for more expensive ingredients like meat and cheese.

The Pizza Connection

One of the most significant factors in the rise of tomatoes in Italian cuisine was the invention of pizza. While the origins of pizza are somewhat disputed, it is generally agreed that the dish as we know it today first appeared in Naples in the late 18th century. The first pizzas were simple: a flatbread topped with tomato sauce and cheese. As the dish grew in popularity, more toppings were added, and the modern pizza was born.

The pizza's rise to fame helped spread tomatoes' popularity throughout Italy and beyond. As Italians emigrated to other countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they brought their love of pizza and tomato-based dishes. Today, Italian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines in the world, and the tomato is a ubiquitous ingredient in many of its most beloved dishes.


In conclusion, the tomato's popularity in Italian cuisine can be traced back to its introduction to the country in the late 16th century. While it took some time for the tomato to gain widespread acceptance, the invention of pizza in Naples helped to spread its popularity throughout Italy and beyond. Today, the tomato is an essential ingredient in many of the world's most beloved Italian dishes. Its bright, sweet flavour is synonymous with the cuisine of this iconic culinary tradition.