We all know about San Marzanos. The prized plum tomatoes are held in the highest regard by chefs around the world. But they’re not the only obsession-worthy Italian tomato on the market. It’s time to get to know the Piennolo.
Grown in Mount Vesuvius National Park in volcanic soil, the plump cherry tomatoes are ridiculously rich and packed with umami. That is, in part, due to how they are treated after being harvested: Farmers intertwine the tomatoes together and hang them (piennolo translates to hanging in the Neapolitan dialect), letting them dry until they're almost caramelized by the sun. The result: a tomato so incredibly flavorful that one chef designed an entire dish around it.
The spaghetti al pomodoro at New York City's Ribalta, a Union Square restaurant dedicated to uber-authentic Neapolitan food, is an ode to the Piennolo. According to native Neapolitans Rosario Procino and Pasquale Cozzolino, the owner and chef, respectively, it’s the only option if you want to make the classic dish correctly. While other chefs (most notably Scott Conant) swear by enriching their tomato sauce with butter, Cozzolino and Procino prefer to rely on the richness of the tomatoes themselves.
The sauce at Ribalta is made simply with whole Piennolos, garlic, basil and olive oil. Instead of the usual spaghetti, Cozzolino opts for spaghettoni—a thicker, bucatini-esque noodle—from Pastificio dei Campi, a small, artisanal Italian pasta company. That’s because the pasta’s hearty, slightly chewy texture stands up better to the Piennolo’s skin, which is thicker than your average cherry tomato’s. Finished with a drizzle of basil-infused olive oil and fresh basil leaves, the pasta is complexly flavored and a terrific showcase for the powerful tomato.