This is a guest post by Kenny Dunn, SPT alum and co-founder of Eating Italy Food Tours in Rome.
The first time I stumbled across Carmelo’s stall, the sight of box upon box of tomatoes haphazardly stacked on top of one another nearly stopped me in my tracks. The variety of shapes, sizes, colors and patterns of tomatoes is rather dizzying. I had never seen a produce stall like this in any of the nearly two-dozen food markets I had visited in Rome. In that moment I knew that the thin man with the checkered vest and slicked back hair before me was not just any old vendor. I had finally encountered Rome’s legendary Tomato Poet.
His real name is Carmelo D’ Agostino and the Testaccio Covered Market one of Rome’s most famous outdoor food markets, is the place he calls home. While other produce vendors in the market carry a wide selection of seasonal fruits and vegetables, Carmelo has sold only tomatoes for the last 21 years. Depending on the season, Carmelo carries up to 45 different varieties of tomatoes. He is not a farmer, but he sources them from throughout Southern Italy where nearly all Italian are grown. His growers include both small family farms from all across the state of Lazio and larger commercial operations in the regions of Campania, Calabria and most of all from Sicily. His varied selection includes Cuore di Bue, Principe Bourgese, Camone, Datterino, Maria Vittoria, Casalino Spanuletto, Gaspare, Aprasididi, Thomas, Pixel, Genovese, and Fiaschetto, to name just a few.
Several selections from the Tomato Poet’s collection.
When I first encountered Carmelo I immediately wanted to know which of all his nearly four-dozen varieties was the most popular among his customers. I was surprised when he said that he did not have a clue. It was only after I became a customer that I understood how that could be. When you approach Carmelo’s stall he doesn’t ask you what tomatoes you want, because he believes (and rightly so) that you probably wouldn’t know. Considering that the average produce vendor in Rome carries a measly 3-5 varieties it is understandable that most shoppers have never seen the majority of Carmelo’s tomatoes before and therefore would not know what they taste like or how they should be used. Instead Carmelo asks you what you want to make and insists that you be very specific. One time several years ago, I responded to this question by saying I was making “shrimp” careful not to make the rookie mistake of saying something overly vague like “seafood”. Well that failed, as I soon found myself walking back across the street to the fish merchant to find out if the shrimp that I had purchased were of the fresh or saltwater variety.
For Carmelo, all of this information is absolutely essential. He can only do his job once he knows what ingredients you will be preparing and, more importantly, what you hope to do with them. After he has obtained all the data necessary, the next step is pure poetry. To watch Carmelo as he methodically selects the varieties best suited to infuse your dish with the perfect balance of flavors is like watching a painter as he mixes up the colors on his palate. When Carmelo has finally completed his dance he hands you the tomatoes in a regular old brown paper bag that suddenly feels magical as it is filled with your very own custom blend. In that moment it’s often hard not to become a little uneasy with the tremendous responsibility that has now been thrust upon your shoulders. I immediately begin second guessing myself as to whether I have what it takes to make anything that would be worthy of these tomatoes. It is usually at this moment when I feel the self-doubt really begin to build so before it turns into a full-fledged panic attack I once again look to Carmelo for his guidance. Carmelo’s other passion in life is cooking and he applies the same careful, methodical approach towards walking you through one of his own recipes as he does picking out the ingredients for it. After my fragile confidence is somewhat restored I feel ready to return home armed with the necessary tools and knowledge needed to prepare that day’s lunch.
The looming question is whether a sauce prepared from one of Carmelo’s magical mixes is actually tastier than one made from a less dramatic bag of tomatoes. I am happy to say that Carmelo’s craft is not simply an artistic endeavor. Everything I have every made with his handpicked selection of tomatoes has turned out better than any of my prior efforts. The truth is that even if there was no difference in taste I would still keep coming back to Carmelo because, after all, how often does one get to be in the presence of a true tomato poet?
You can find Carmelo and his awesome selection of tomatoes at the Testaccio Covered Market located in Piazza Testaccio in Rome, Italy. The market is open from 7:30am-1:30pm Monday to Saturday.
About the Author Kenny Dunn runs Eating Italy Food Tours in Rome, offering daily food tasting & cultural walking tours through the city’s most delicious neighborhoods.