I was born in New Jersey. Usually I’m proud of this fact. I’m especially patriotic about my roots when it comes to tomatoes. It has been my opinion that New Jersey is the world’s capital of the tomato.
Legend has it that Robert Gibbon Johnson ate the first tomato in the United States in 1820 on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey. He supposedly was trying to prove that the tomato was not poisonous—a common belief at that time. It was also in New Jersey where canned tomato soup was invented. This led to the development of a tomato at Rutgers University called, not surprisingly, the Rutgers Tomato. This breed was so tasty and so successfully grown that at one time over 70% of all the cultivated tomatoes in the United States were Rutgers Tomatoes. Given New Jersey’s generally unsavory reputation, these facts surprise most people. Well, it’s called the Garden State for a reason, and I believe that this is why.
My tomato awareness only somewhat prepared me for an experience that forever changed my life. It also forever changed my cherished opinions on the world’s best tomato. Many years of eating tomatoes have given me a set of criteria to judge them by. A tomato must be sweet but it also must have a pleasant tartness to round out its taste. It must have an equal balance of pulp, seeds and juice. The pulp must be firm but tender and never, ever be mushy or cottony. Only in the months of July, August and September does one find such a tomato, and the closer to New Jersey one finds it the better its chances of being superior. Until one day in May on a hilltop in Italy, this was the credo I lived by.
It was on a stunning day in Spoleto, a hill town in the region of Umbria, that I met the tomato that changed everything. The simple osterie and trattorie of Italy have taught me the most valuable food lessons. Honest food needs no fussy preparation or service to be great. So, our expectations were heightened when at high noon on a perfect day in May we found the ideal marriage of ravenous appetites, a simple trattoria, outdoor tables and a view of the Italian countryside.
The menu was as we prefer—a few simple regional specialties that changed daily depending upon the market’s best offerings. On the menu was an modest selection, Bruschetta con Pomodori Freschi—Bruschetta with Fresh Tomatoes. Given the fact that it was May and I was not in New Jersey, my suspicions were raised. But Italian vegetables are the finest on earth and Susie and I decided to risk my cherished tomato beliefs just this one time.
The dish arrived. There it was, a piece of grilled country bread, caressed gently with garlic and anointed with fruity green olive oil. On top was a fitting crown of two slices of the reddest tomato that I have ever seen. It was a deep, deep red, a color of almost unreal transparency and richness. It too had a drizzle of olive oil to finish it off. A basil leaf on each slice was the final garnish.
We looked at this dish for several minutes and remarked upon its completeness and beauty. Then we tasted it. It was the juiciest, sweetest, most perfectly textured slice of tomato that either of us had ever eaten. Our faces froze in rapture. This was the best tomato ever.
I am not exaggerating when I say that tears came to my eyes. The combination of the perfect day, the perfect ambiance and the perfect tomato was more than I could take. The bittersweet realization that New Jersey no longer laid claim the world’s best tomato added to my emotions.
Though I cannot reincarnate that most consummate tomato, the taste can somewhat be resurrected with the following recipe. Make it only with the very best tomatoes you can find, preferably home-grown.
Bruschetta with Tomatoes, Mozzarella and Summer Herbs
Bruschetta con Pomodori, Mozzarella ed Erbe d'Estate
￼8 slices Italian bread, sliced 1 inch thick
3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
8 basil leaves, torn by hand into small pieces
4 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
extra virgin olive oil – for drizzling
sea salt – to taste
freshly ground black pepper – to taste
Combine the tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, a pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper in a bowl. Add a small drizzle of olive oil and mix gently with a spoon. Taste the mixture and add more seasoning if necessary.
Grill one side of the bread over an open flame on the stove or under the broiler or on an outdoor grill. Small grills that fit over stove burners are available in kitchen supply stores are ideal for this purpose. When the bread is browned and slightly charred, turn it over and grill the other side. It is best when it is still a little moist and soft inside yet slightly blackened on the outside. Practice your technique by varying the flame, the distance from the heat source and the cooking time. Soon you will find the combination that works best for you.
While the bread is hot, gently rub it with a clove of garlic. The bread will wear down the garlic like a piece of sandpaper would a stick of wood. The raw garlic flavor should not be overwhelming, so don't rub too much of it into the bread. Sprinkle on a little salt. Drizzle an abundant amount of olive oil on the bread and then spoon the tomato mixture over it.
Serve immediately with a few black olives garnishing the plate.