Tomatoes (pomodori), as ingredients, are newcomers in Italian cuisine. They were part of the new ingredients slowly coming to Europe after the discovery of America. So, not surprisingly the first mention of “pasta with tomato sauce” in Italy, a sort of nouvelle cuisine for the times, was in 1790. It appeared in L’apicio moderno, a cookbook written by the globetrotter chef Francesco Leonardi who, by the way, can be considered one of the fathers of Italian Cuisine abroad since he cooked in the kitchens of queens and tsars, returning home at the end of his career. A recipe for tomato sauce, without pasta, however was in Lo scalco alla moderna a cookbook by Antonio Latini published in 1692.
David Gentilcore in his Pomodoro: A History of the Tomato in Italy, writes that the first mention of using tomatoes in a pasta dish was actually French, and it was in L'Almanach des gourmands (1807) of the famous gastronome Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere. However Gentilcore makes clear as well that “the marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples”. As Donna Gabaccia of University of Minnesota wrote: “Naples in the late eighteenth century gained a reputation, spread throughout Europe by curious tourists, as the home of macaroni eating. Street markets featured young men and boys who ritualistically and dramatically consumed long noodles dressed only with a grating of cheese…. Almost simultaneously, in the 1830s, tourists and travellers began to report finding both traditional dishes regularly topped with tomatoes and with tomato sauce”. Ippolito Cavalcanti, the Neapolitain author of La cucina teorico-pratica, a very popular cookbook published in 1837, included the recipe for Vermicelli pasta al pomodoro but didn’t describe how the tomato sauce was made since everyone knew how to make it. Relatively soon, in 1847, 'macaroni a la napolitana,' combining pasta and tomatoes arrived in the United States, according to Gentilcore, who also confirms that “by the 1880s, the tomato had been established as the condiment of choice for pasta for the peasants of the Campania region, and pasta itself had become a staple." Many of these peasants left Italy as migrants and went in countries all around the world, taking with them the habit of cooking pasta – spaghetti in the majority of the cases - with tomato sauce, making it one of the first globalised dishes, together with pizza.
Tomato sauce in Italian can be translated as salsa or sugo di pomodoro and John Mariani in his Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink writes rightly “that the two terms sugo and salsa are often interchangeable, with sugo reserved for a pasta sauce while salsa may be used to describe sauces that may or may not accompany pasta." According to Pellegrino Artusi, the author of La Scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (1891), sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce) is "simple, i.e., made from tomatoes that are simply cooked.” Although using the not appropriate word sugo, the tomato sauce of Artusi is very close to that of Spaghetti al pomodoro e basilico, often called in the United States marinara sauce.
Lidia Bastianich, for example, to sort out the difference between marinara sauce and tomato sauce: “Marinara is a quick sauce, seasoned only with garlic, pepper, and, if you like, basil or oregano. The pieces of tomato are left chunky, and the texture of the finished sauce is fairly loose. Tomato sauce, on the other hand, is a more complex affair, starting with puréed tomatoes and seasoned with onion, carrot, celery, and bay leaf, and left to simmer until thickened and rich in flavour”. Pepper and oregano are not ingredients of traditional Neapolitan spaghetti al dente al pomodoro e basilico but the Marinara of Lidia is certainly very close to the authentic recipes. By the 1920’s Spaghetti and tomato sauce became so popular in the United States that Americans often thought they invented it. The same happened in many other countries, from Germany to the United Kingdom, from Brazil to Australia, and more recently to Japan and other Asian countries.
The problem with this dish has always been that, although very easy to prepare and simple, it changes totally if the right ingredients are not used or the cooking time of pasta is exceeded. Italian tomatoes - fresh, canned or from the piennolo (deeply flavoured, fleshy cherry tomatoes, ripened in clusters, at once richly sweet and tart), durum wheat spaghetti, pure extra virgin olive oil and fresh basil are the ideal ingredients. Quality ingredients make a huge difference. For this reason Italian migrants first, and then food lovers all around the world, have been seeking Italian imported ingredients. The recipe is very simple but each chef may have some little trick – but absolutely no addition of fancy elements.