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Tomatoes and Vinegar -- yes or no?

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  • vvv03 Jul 23, 2012 01:09 PM

I was recently on vacation with a Roman friend of mine. We made a joint dinner in which I made a small side of Marcella Hazan's Tomatoes with Garlic scented vinegar. Basically you marinate a couple of cloves of garlic and salt in red wine vinegar and drizzle it over fresh tomatoes, top with olive oil and basil. It's a dish my family loves. My friend turned her nose at them and said that Italians would never mix vinegar and tomatoes. I told her it was a Hazan recipe and my recollection was that her father had made it. She insisted it would never happen in an Italian kitchen and that she never thought Hazan knew what she was talking about anyway. Now my bruised first generation Italian American ego could stand the criticism on its own, but to disrespect Marcella, well them's fighting words. In her defense, I later asked my Italian relatives if they mix the two and they also said no. But come on! It's delicious and Marcella told me to do it! Seriously, no one in Italy mixes vinegar and fresh tomato? This can't be true, can it..?

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  1. I haven't been to Italy, but I routinely get insalata caprese in Italian restaurants in North Beach. This dish originated in Italy, and here it is always served with balsamic vinegar. Perhaps the objection was to the type of vinegar.

    1. Having been to Italy at least 15 times, to several regions (but not all), I have found the vinegar/tomato thing to occur more than once. Once was a delicious Chicken Cacciatore in a tiny trattoria - it was unforgettable. Another time was in Venice when I had insalata caprese (a very contemporary take on it) with delicious thick balsamic on the tomato.

      1. To my (somewhat) limited exposure to Italian culture, it seems that each region thinks their way of doing things is the only correct way. It'll percolate down to towns and villages within regions and even to families within villages. Even then, some family members might argue on the correct way of doing things.
        I had a friend who taught me how to make Italian sausage. He said his brother was nuts 'cause he put orange peel in his recipe. To him, it was simply wrong: "thats NOT the way to make sausage"
        I don't mean this in an offensive way, actualy I'm amused when I see this.
        I would guess your Roman friend simply did not grow up eating tomatoes and vinegar, nor did the people he/she knew eat as such, so they simply dismiss it.

        1. Having eaten a lot of dinners with Italian families, I disagree with your friend. I recall having been served a tomato and cucumber salad, embellished with capers and garlic, which was dressed with olive oil, vinegar and basil. I don't know what kind of vinegar was used, but it was vinegar nonetheless.
          I thinks it's important to remember that "Italian" food is really a misnomer. Italy's foods are regional and, perhaps in one or more regions, tomatoes and vinegar could be unacceptable. I just don't know where that would be.

          1. I've eaten many meals in Italy and tomato with balsamic is pretty common. Saying that, I have not been to every region in Italy so it could very much be a regional thing.

            1. Can't speak for what happens in Italy, but in my Italian family in NJ, the tomato salad is tomatoes, red onion, olive oil, s & p. Never, ever vinegar added. Sometimes with basil or oregano. Serve with crusty bread.

              Ate some last night with our garden tomatoes. Most deelish!

              Jerseygirl111

              3 Replies
              1. re: Jerseygirl111

                Ever think of trying?

                1. re: porker

                  My hubs does all the time, balsamic, red wine, etc. Not that I don't love love love all vinegars, cause I do, but not in my tomato salad. I am a purist! Lol. I want to taste the acid of the tomato water/juice and the evoo.

                  Jerseygirl111

                  1. re: Jerseygirl111

                    I agree with you Jerseygirl. No vinegar with my tomatoes either. I want to taste the tomatoes. I love vinegar with tomato sauces..but not fresh tomatoes. Of course fresh tomatoes have the yummy tomato jelly and seeds. The sauce is missing that so the vinegar makes up for the loss.

              2. Your friend is nothing but a SNOB. Your recipe was just fine AND authentic. Shame on her.

                (And you know what? Even if your use of vinegar wasn't "authentic" your friend making you feel small is inexcusable. DOUBLE shame on her!!)

                1 Reply
                1. re: Bacardi1

                  Thanks for the empathy, Bacardi. I tend to agree with you that her pronouncement was uncalled for whether she was right or not. I personally have never critiqued a person's cooking (in their presence, at least!) and considered it bad behavior on her part. But mainly I wanted to know if the "rule" was correct. I can't imagine Marcella Hazan doing anything against the "rules" as she is quite meticulous, even scientific, in her approach to cooking.

                2. I'm not at all Italian, nor am I married to one, but during my times in Italy I've never had a caprese salad, etc. drizzled with a vinegar - only olive oil. Like another poster, I haven't been to all of Italy... I spent a dozen years in Chicago and the Italian restaurants I dined at the most also skipped vinegars on tomatoes.

                  Now, at home, when I make a caprese salad I'll drizzle with a tiny bit of a nice balsamic... :)

                  1. From my Italian roots perspective, and particularly during my 2 year long residency as an ex-pat living there acid on an acid really does call for restraint.

                    Tomatoes can be very acidic or they can be very midland even sweet. Dressing them needs to balance what they are and how they taste that day, at that temperature

                    The joy of ripe tomatoes are pretty fragile and highly seasonal. Why combat or battle a wonderfully vegetal acidity with a more bitter, overwhelming acidity? Oils, and particularly great olive oils can help carry and extend the flavors of tomatoes.

                    The lightest touch of great balsamic can sweeten and deepen the tomatoe flavors in a supportive, enhancing role. While tomatoes/vinegar is not a hardand fast rule it does call for a sensitive palate that often calls for moderation rather than saturation.

                    1. Whether it's authentic Italian or not, I like my tomato salad with balsamic vinaigrette dressing. So there! :-)

                      1. Your friend is correct. Marcella does a few wacky things (all that tomato in her bolognese, for one), which may be explained somewhere and which may have to do with adapting for America (most people in Italy have never heard of her). It is not normal to use vinegar on fresh tomatoes. It is also not normal to use very ripe, very red tomatoes for salad. Generally speaking, greenish, very acidic tomatoes are preferred for salad and these are considered to be quite tart enough without additional vinegar. Some people use a little vinegar (usually red wine vinegar), which nobody seems to mind. I certainly don't. Balsamic may actually be preferable for tomatoes since (unless you are using junk from the supermarket) it is much less acidic than wine vinegar. Aceto balsamico tradizionale (the top category) contains no actual vinegar, just aged grape must (juice). No vinegar of any kind is appropriate for insalata caprese. But even Italians fall prey to bad influences, so I'm sure it turns up from time to time, but it is definitely aberrant -- for reasons of geography and tradition as well as taste. If you have top quality mozzarella, a truly flavorful tomato, and really good extra virgin olive oil, plus salt, pepper, and a few fresh basil leaves, there is no earthly reason to add anything else. I understand, however, that those ingredients cannot be taken for granted.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: mbfant

                          Might be "right" about the vinegar, but was certainly "wrong" in her approach, admonishing a friend over something so silly. And like you yourself said, "Some people use a little vinegar (usually red wine vinegar), which nobody seems to mind."

                          1. re: mbfant

                            Funny that you mention she puts too much tomato in her Bolognese. I think she puts too little in and I typically add a bit more than the recipe calls for. And please understand, I am not of the arguably American opinion that more sauce is better. I add my sauces sparingly, but if I don't have enough tomato in that recipe, it comes out a little dry to me. So you are saying that the traditional recipe has even less tomato?

                          2. I miei antenati non erano italiani (My ancestors were not Italian), but I prefer olive oil to vinegar of an kind with fresh tomatoes. The tomatoes in our garden have just started to blush (ripen) and we're having insalata Caprese with our evening meal. No vinegar in that salad.

                            My wife also likes to make a simple diced tomato salad with thin slices of sweet onion and basilico fatto a brandelli (shredded fresh basil), and olio d'olive. I do not use French culinary terms). Much liquid results from the tomatoes and oil which is sopped up with italian bread. Try it, you'll like it.

                            The only time tomatoes meet vinegar in our home is in a green salad, and then sparingly.

                            1. Not authentic, not Italian but delicious is wedges of tomato and avocado with a little very thinly sliced sweet onion with a shaken vinaigrette of white wine vinegar, peanut oil, and Dijon, sprinkled with grey salt. The sharpness of the white wine vinegar and salt almost redeems the tomatoes of today that seem to have had most of the acidity bred out of them. Good home grown tomatoes just don't need much on them. A drizzle of good olive oil and some basil would be plenty.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: tim irvine

                                Sounds delish, and very important point about lack of acidity in many tomatoes. In Italy, as I said, the salad tomatoes are still quite green, while in the US certain kinds of round, bright red tomatoes are used for salad that in Italy would be used in sauces only, where they would be expected to be quite sweet and not acidic.

                                1. re: tim irvine

                                  I agree with your assessment of commercial tomatoes sold in produce departments of food stores. We are just starting to enjoy fresh, vine ripened tomatoes from our garden.

                                2. If it's good food, who cares if it's "authentic"? Unless authentic happens to be your particular goal, say, for a theme dinner......

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: sandylc

                                    I agree completely, but for some it seems important. There is a discussion on my local board (Austin) about there being no real Italian food. That may be the case, but there is plenty of very good food being served by restaurants that say they are Italian!

                                    1. re: sandylc

                                      Adding my agreement here. Frankly, I think the word "authentic" is pretty silly when it comes to food/cuisine. Do people use "authentic" food processors or "authentic" plastic cutting boards? Is there but one way to make something, even in a single geographic unit? And how far back does one go to call something "authentic"? The tomato itself is of South American and/or Mesoamerican origin. I don't mind using the word "traditional", but "authentic" is, to me, somewhat problematic (if not pretentious).

                                      Off my soapbox now! If it is tasty, then, as you say, who cares!

                                      1. re: nofunlatte

                                        That's ancient history, of course; Europeans were conquering the Americas and bringing back local foods like tomatoes and maize many centuries ago, and tomatoes were grown in Italy as early as the 16th century. You might as well say that gumbo and soul food aren't "authentically" American because they originated in Africa. But I think that's wrong. "Authenticity" is as much about culture more as history.

                                    2. Absolutely the best! Basalmic and add cheddar cheese cubes.(Sharp or mild) That's the good stuff!

                                      1. It is my understanding that the tomatoes typically grown in Italy are more acidic than the tomatoes that are typically grown in the US. So it would make sense that many (most?) native Italians think it is wrong to put another acid on an already acidic tomato. Their tomatoes are just not the same as ours, even though they may look alike.