Canning Tomatoes in Italy and a Homemade Pasta Sauce Recipe

Tomatoes on the vine in Italy

His name is Tonino. He has two bicycles in his garage: one he’s ready to lend you with a moment’s notice, and one he says is “personal” and hangs on the wall. You know it’s that second bike which holds his memories. He used to ride 100km a day, but now he doesn’t ride as much as he used to after several of his bicyclist friends were killed by cars.

He’s getting to the age when friends die, and he may even think about death daily, but that they died senselessly while doing something they love is a hard pill to swallow and has considerably reduced the enjoyment which he got from those rides. He has now upgraded to three wheels – a 3-wheeled Piaggio Ape which has just enough horsepower to get him to and from the plot of farmland a few kilometers away from his house in Puglia.

He loads up the back of the Ape with fresh-picked tomatoes off the vine, almonds in their shells, and in a few weeks, olives. After their bumpy journey back home, they are stacked at the mouth of his garage so he can sit with the door open, do some work, and chat with neighbors and friends who drop by.

He hangs his beautiful tomatoes on the wall of the garage where they serve him most of the year. Usually they last until mid-to-end of spring, and he’ll periodically clean the rotting tomatoes out from the vines if needed. He can ferret out the rotting ones as lovingly as he can select the juiciest and ripest ones for that night’s pane e pomodoro (bread and tomatoes). But today he’s squeezing the juice and seeds from the best ones to can them and use them later.

De-seeding tomatoes for canning in Italy

He’s joined by his wife, who is helping him de-seed and can those tomatoes. Their expressions are patient and indulgent as they explain the details of what they’re doing.

Hands in tomatoes for canning in Italy

We are voyeurs of this annual tradition and the necessity of me going to get my camera both flatters and amuses them. They understand that with big city folk, the idea of having a little garden, let alone an entire wall of heaving tomato vines, is so foreign it doesn’t matter that one of us is also American and an actual foreigner. Their life is foreign to us in many ways, even from a few hundred kilometers away.

A wall of tomatoes in Italy

Luckily, Tonino doesn’t have to explain the value of the why. Why you’d want to spend hours squeezing seeds and liquid out of tomatoes, stuffing them into jars, and then boiling them in a bain-marie to seal them up until they’re pulled off a shelf and opened for a future night’s dinner. He sees we understand this.

He sees the hunger in our eyes and our appreciation for the results, if not the process, of what they’re doing.  We spend a few minutes more discussing tomato sauce, the joys of making your own sauce with something that you grew without pesticides, and the peace-of-mind which comes from knowing every inch of the land that your food grows on.

The scene of canning tomatoes in Italy

A foreign soundtrack punctuates the discussion – the click of a photographer’s camera, documenting and preserving something** which feels like a mundane task to some, but to others it’s the culmination of patience and delayed gratification which turn this task into an extraordinary undertaking for younger generations.

Hanging tomatoes on the vine in Italy

These are the simple pleasures – the wind rushing past your ears and stinging your eyes while gaining speed downhill and trying not to use the brakes, immersing your arms up to your elbows in seeds and sweet tomato water, and enjoying the wonder in the eyes of a foreigner and the admiration in the reflection of her lens.

Stuffing tomatoes into a jar in Italy

Simple Homemade Tomato Sauce Recipe

A very basic tomato sauce that you can use to make any number of sauces and variations. Tonino has a word of advice for you, too. If you can’t can your own tomatoes, at least don’t buy pre-made tomato sauce (passata here in Italy). Buy peeled tomatoes in a can, and make your own. It will be much better and your mouth will thank you!

A note on skinned vs. unskinned tomatoes: If your tomatoes have the skins on them (like the ones in these pictures), you can leave them on and make a “whiter” sauce as the pieces of tomato will stay intact and the sauce won’t be super red (great for fish, for example). If instead you want a true red sauce, you should run the tomatoes through a ricer to remove skins and seeds. You can remove skins yourself with fresh tomatoes: cut an X into them with a knife, and parboil them for a minute or so until they soften. Remove the skin and then seeds. If you have skinned tomatoes (in a can or after removing skins) you can use a hand blender (best done prior to cooking) to bring out more juice. 

Tomatoes, canned (homemade or store-bought)
Olive oil, the best you can find
Garlic, cut into large chunks or crushed with the flat side of a knife
  1. In a large frying pan, heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil, and add the garlic, being careful not to burn it. Many Italians will not keep the garlic in their final sauce, but use it to flavor the oil, and then remove or leave it and make it easy to avoid/fish out later (that’s why you want those big pieces of garlic instead of mincing or putting it through a press).
  2. Add the canned tomatoes, stirring to incorporate over a medium flame for a few minutes. The tomatoes will release liquid and it will most likely burn off. You can add more water if desired, depending on the thickness you want of the sauce.
  3. Cover the pan and turn the flame to low, cooking for approximately 30 minutes. Check on the consistency and make sure it doesn’t get too dry.
  4. A few minutes before serving, turn the flame off, and add the basil, stirring to mix into the sauce.
  5. Variation: if you’re making a meat sauce, you’ll want to brown the meat first before adding the tomatoes.

Do you can tomatoes or make your own tomato sauce at home? What do you put in yours?

**Just in case you were wondering, none of the images here were saturated with additional color – they were really that red and beautiful.

Two tomatoes escape canning in Italy

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  1. says

    Oh how I love this post and these pictures and canning tomatoes and later appreciating them in the cold days of winter. It’s an annual ritual for me, too, though I can bigger tomatoes and I do peel mine first. Did you find out what variety of tomatoes these tiny little gems are? They’re darling. Do they save the seeds? I’d love to swap seeds with these fine folks and get those little babies growing in NorCal.

  2. Ms. Adventures in Italy says

    @Finny – I will definitely check with Tonino if he’s down for a seed exchange – he’ll probably be tickled that a friend of mine read about this on my site :)

  3. Janell says

    Love this story, just picked about 25 small tomatoes this morning, love them just fresh on a seeded whole wheat bread…growing tomatoes in Seattle is a challenge but well worth it for the flavors.

  4. Cristina says

    my family will be canning tomatoes soon-just waiting for them to be ready. even the nipotini help now! it’s a big event!

  5. says

    What a beautiful post. So much love going into those tomatoes I can feel it. And the photos you took – loved the hanging tomatoes, the hands in those jars, in those plastic bowls that are so ubiquitous in Italian homes. What a wonderful tradition, and wonderful people. Bravo Tonino.

  6. says

    This is how my dad would hang tomatoes. He also was from Puglia, and pane e pomodoro with a bit of dried oregano and olive oil was a summer staple in our home. I have a bounty of cherry tomatoes in my little garden and have been wanting to try hanging them like Dad used to do. Thanks for the memory!

  7. Cheri Rossi says

    I love this for 2 reasons, 1 I love tomatoes any way I can have them. 2 My husbands name is Tonino. Very informitive. Thank you

  8. Shawn says

    I also can tomatoes. This year and last have been sad ones in So Cal. Living near the beach, we have to time our crop to grow it during the hottest period–marine layer alternating with hot days withered my San Marzanos–only had enough for gazpacho and pasta sauce to eat fresh. Usually I can salsa and marinara.

  9. Suzanne says

    I am feeling the love from your picture. I too, am wondering about the tomato variety and if seeds are available. I love to can but have never found a tomato worthy enough to can, yet…

  10. nando di lernia says

    i just got done with my tomatoes .i used 3 bushels .i wash them twice cut the bottom with 2 slashes,like a cross in a pan and at low heat i keep on stearing until they get soft.. i passe the tomatoes trhu,after the passata i
    boil them for about 1 to 1 1/2 hour than i canned them
    with a pinch of salt and 1 basil leave

  11. Theresa Locher says

    Loved your story on tomato sauce…. i will be looking for a ricer since i can not have any thing with seeds and miss my macaroni…… thats for the idea chow Theresa

  12. says

    I also want to know the variety of those tomatoes as I have the same, I think. And how does he tie them up like that? Does he can them or let them hang all year? I just can’t get over the fact he can let them hang like this and they are still fresh for months. What am I missing? I just spent yesterday canning 5 bushels with my new-to-me relatives and it was my first time. I am going to try it on my own too. Thanks for an informative and colorful post.

  13. says

    In Sicily, in the Trapani area, tomatoes are used to make a delicious “pesto” with almonds, basil, garlic, salt and oil. You mix all these ingredients (with tomatoes of course!) and use it as a seasoning for pasta. And well.. if you’re brave enough, fried eggplants on top of all will complete this quick but delicious dish!

  14. says

    My family still grows tomatoes from heritage seeds and then cans the peels tomatoes. We rarely do passata, but in the middle of winter the tomatoes make a fresh tasting sauce or great quick arrabbiata sauce. I’ve never seen anyone do canning with such small tomatoes – amazing! Thanks for sharing!

  15. Rosie says

    we still do the very same with our tomatoes that are grown here in our garden—there is niothing as good as fresh tomato sasa in the middle of winter

  16. says

    Oh, the memories rush back and I feel chocked with emotion. The smell of bread baking across the street in the little part of Naples where I grew up… Bread still hot, slathered with olive oil, a leaf of basil and a ripe San Marzano tomato. Thank you for the wonderful article and for sending me back…

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