WHEN "northern Italian" cuisine swept American restaurants and gourmet kitchens twenty years ago, the forces of taste and discrimination vowed to roll back the noxious red tide of slow-cooked tomato sauce that had long inundated Italian restaurants. "No red sauce," proclaimed ads for Michela's, a Boston restaurant intent on breaking the Little Italy mold. Tomato paste was banned as zealously as flour-thickened sauces had been from nouvelle cuisine, and with the same unexpectedly caloric and indigestible results: substitute pasta sauces were often gloppy affairs clotted with cheese and cream, unrecognizable to Italians from any region. Tomatoes were relegated to quick-cooked or outright raw sauces.
Even Italian-Americans turned their backs on the "gravy" that had perfumed the house every Sunday when they were growing up. I found some of this aversion on a recent trip to Naples, birthplace of many of the cooks who made red sauce synonymous with Italian food in America. I was asking everyone I met about the Ur-gravy: ragù, one of the masterpieces of a cuisine and a region with which I am helplessly infatuated. Mine was the fervor of a convert. "I swore I'd never learn to make ragù," one young woman with whom I shared a table at Da Michele, the city's most venerated pizzeria, told me. "I woke up smelling it every Sunday." Another tablemate, a young software designer who said he bought only tomatoes raised on certain foothills of Mount Vesuvius, solemnly announced, "Meat should never contaminate the taste of good fresh tomato sauce."
My conversion from the meatless, quick-cooked tomato sauces I had long advocated took place along the Naples waterfront, at Cantina di Triunfo, a mom-and-pop wine shop by day and restaurant by night, whose chef, Tina Nicodemo, sticks to Neapolitan home cooking. I couldn't get over the mellow depth of her dense, mahogany-colored ragù, which coated big fat tubes of very al dente pasta like glistening lacquer. In ragù the tomato's natural sweetness and acidity are concentrated and enriched by garlic and several kinds of meat, none of which dominates. If fashionable fresh tomato sauces are piccolos or flutes, I decided, ragù is an oboe or a cello.
Creating this orchestral resonance takes many, many hours: so long does ragù cook that it is also called alla guardaporta, the idea being that doormen stay in one place long enough to tend the sauce. Food this vibrant hardly deserves to be abandoned. Sitting at one of Nicodemo's intimate, familial tables, I was determined to give it a home in my own kitchen, even if that meant hours of work and a very fragrant house. Help was at hand -- both on site, from the enthusiastic and outgoing Nicodemo, whose father was a butcher and whose family cared about traditional Neapolitan food, and on my return home, from Naples at Table, a recently published and long-overdue book in which the writer and radio host Arthur Schwartz introduces American audiences to a thrilling cuisine that in its native form is anything but clichéd.
is the basis for the traditional Sunday lunch, whose first course is pasta and second course is the meats used to flavor the sauce, lightly dressed with ragù. This thrifty reuse, reminiscent of the Jewish sabbath meal of chicken soup followed by chicken, differentiates Neapolitan ragù from the version that northern-Italian gourmets know, which is popular in the meat- and fat-happy region of Emilia-Romagna. Ragù bolognese features ground meat bathed in wine, cream, and tomato. Ragù napoletano starts with pieces of meat, which are stewed in tomato puree and removed after a few hours, when they are tender and sweet; the sauce keeps simmering, extremely slowly, for hours more. I much prefer the Neapolitan version, which acquires a strong but subtle and tempered meat flavor. By comparison, ragù bolognese seems like something for a fancy sloppy joe.
WHATEVER food fashion may dictate, garden-fresh tomatoes are available in sauce-making quantity for at best three months a year. The rest of the time Italians use canned tomatoes -- either put up at home or, much more commonly, from the store. Matters could hardly be otherwise when simple tomato sauce is the default pasta preparation.
My ragù experiments led me to a newfound appreciation of tomato paste, which is nothing more than tomatoes cooked to a thicker concentration than puree, with none of the additives I mistakenly remembered. Tomato paste has the deep flavor that many chefs and home cooks have come to admire in slow-roasted tomatoes. What matters most, of course, is the flavor and ripeness of the tomatoes at the start -- and it's more than likely that tomatoes at a canning plant are riper and better than tomatoes at the supermarket.
One of the reasons ragù became a Naples emblem is that the tomatoes of Campania, the region around Naples, are considered the most deliciously fruity in Italy; their only rivals grow in Puglia, to the southeast. Tomatoes arrived in Italy from the New World by way of the Spanish, who ruled Naples for centuries and planted tomatoes in the lava-rich Campanian soil. When tomatoes were conquering local cuisine, in the eighteenth century, pasta was about to enter industrial production, and the marriage of the two was inevitable. Amounts of puree that would elsewhere be extravagant could serve as a stewing medium for the economy cuts of meat families allowed themselves on Sunday. Even today women throughout southern Italy put up months' worth of tomato puree during the August and September harvest. Turning a corner in a village, you may happen upon communal metal barrels full of bottles of all shapes and sizes, simmering over open flames.
It's easy to assume that no tomatoes in this country are anywhere near as sweet or potent as the ones Neapolitans have in their cupboards and grocery stores. I made this assumption until I tasted seven brands of imported Italian tomatoes I found here, four kinds I brought home from Naples, and several American brands. To my surprise, the Italian brands didn't do very well against the American ones. One reason is that they taste of the tin. The acid in tomatoes interacts with the metal used in cans (as it does with aluminum, which is why tomatoes should not be cooked in an unlined aluminum pan), and the longer the tomatoes stay in the can the more pronounced the metallic flavor will be. (Neapolitans buy their puree in bottles, which are rarely exported.) Canned tomatoes are undated, and there is no way of knowing how long they have been on the shelf; American products are likely to turn over faster.
This would matter less if Italian tomatoes tasted significantly better than those grown here, but my comparison did not persuade me that they do. I was unimpressed with the San Marzano tomatoes I found, which are usually said to be the best. (Although tomatoes from one growing area, called San Marzano Agro-Sarnese-Nocerino, are protected by European Union law, there is nothing to prevent an American producer from putting "San Marzano-style" on a label; the fact that the name refers not only to an agricultural area in Campania but also to many varieties of canning tomatoes further complicates matters.) And I was particularly disappointed by chopped tomatoes and puree from aseptic packs, commonly sold under the Pomì label. I had remembered these to be the best alternative to fresh, but even though they are free of any metallic tinge, I found them to have an unpleasant tomato-soup flavor.