In the past year I have gone to Rome several times to research Jewish food. Each time I am invited to a Jewish home there for a cooking session or for dinner, no matter the season, I am served pomodori a mezzo—tomato halves that have been slowly oven-browned until they’re almost sun-dried. These tiny, candy-like hors d’oeuvres are always gobbled up immediately.
Tomatoes have a long history among Roman Jewry. The Columbian Exchange brought tomatoes to Europe (specifically the port of Naples) in the 16th century; Jews were often the merchants selling this new produce around Europe. But tomatoes were used vary rarely by the general population until the late 18th century as anything other than as an ornamental plant, because they were thought to be poisonous. Jewish Romans knew better, however. Many Jewish physicians knew about tomatoes’ healthy properties and spread the word within the community.
So, it’s not surprising that I couldn’t find a recipe for pomodori a mezzo in any of my Italian cookbooks—until I looked in a Jewish Italian cookbook: Donatella Limantani Pavoncello’s cookbook La Cucina Ebraica della Mia Famiglia (Jewish Cooking From My Family), published in 1880. Now this delicious finger food is a favorite appetizer in my own home.
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.