August in Italy: businesses are closed, cities have emptied out, towns are deserted—everyone is at the beach. Everyone, that is, except for tomato farmers in the Campania region, Italy’s tomato capital. Here, in late summer, trucks loaded with the vibrant, just-harvested fruits crowd tiny, one-lane streets. And at the center of it all is one third-generation farmer, wearing an easy smile and a straw hat to block out the sun—but nonetheless deeply tanned from hours in the fields—and covered from head to toe in tomato pulp. Meet Giuseppe.
Giuseppe Napoletano and his family have been growing tomatoes in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius for over 60 years. For the last 20, they’ve owned a canning facility. During harvest season, Giuseppe splits his time between his own fields, where brightly-colored tomatoes dangle like jewels from acres of green vines, and the canning building, where he and his 85-year-old father spend hours inspecting crates of tomatoes—and getting coated in pulp as they do. (Nearby, you’re sure to find Giuseppe’s 14-year-old son Davide watching intently.)
“My family says I work too hard,” says Giuseppe, who wakes at 5am during the harvest and rarely gets to bed before midnight. “But it’s important for me to oversee every step of the process.” That includes sorting shipments, running the equipment and hand-inspecting every single tomato that he cans.
“You need to meet Giuseppe to understand the passion he has for tomatoes,” says Joe Cristella IV of Cento Fine Foods, which partners with Giuseppe to bring Campania’s tomatoes to customers worldwide.
Tomatoes can present challenges for farmers. They’re especially sensitive to extreme temperatures and can be damaged easily (one reason why all of Giuseppe’s tomatoes are hand-harvested). Thanks to a few significant ecological advantages, however, Campania offers farmers extraordinarily fertile land—which produces extraordinarily delicious tomatoes.
Tens of thousands of years ago, two major volcanic eruptions from Mt. Vesuvius covered present-day Campania in a layer of volcanic ash, which, over time, enriched the soil with vital minerals and nutrients. The region also has a mild climate (perfect for temperature-sensitive tomatoes) and a high water table, keeping the ground so moist that, often, farmers don’t even have to water their crops.
Alone, any of these factors would be an agricultural boon. Together, they make Campania a grower’s paradise. San Marzano plum tomatoes, famously produced in the region for centuries, are known for their elongated shape, meaty texture and spectacularly rich flavor. And most tomato farmers in the region are happy enough simply to grow such a fine product. But Giuseppe’s enthusiasm for tomatoes has always pushed him further. Not only does he grow, can and (of course) cook tomatoes—he invents them, too.
A few decades ago, Giuseppe was curious to see if he could cross a San Marzano plum tomato with a kind of cherry tomato from South America that had one notable trait: its bright yellow color. “I partnered with a local seed company,” Giuseppe explains. “It was my idea to develop a yellow tomato—but in the size of a long San Marzano tomato.”
For the next three years, he took to the field, using a natural pollination process to combine both varieties and create a new hybrid. “The first year, the skin wasn’t yellow; it wasn’t uniform,” he explains. “It was in the third year that we achieved it—the smoothness and total yellow color.” And Giuseppe’s yellow tomato isn’t just notable for its stunning hue. It also has a distinctive, delicious sweetness, which mellows out the fruit’s acidity.
“At first, no one believed in this yellow tomato,” Giuseppe says. But that didn’t deter him. As soon as he’d perfected it, he wasted no time in heading to food shows around the country, demonstrating the best ways to prepare the yellow tomato—like quickly stewing it with capers and a pinch of oregano into a bright sauce for cod, or simply slicing it raw and sprinkling it with Pecorino cheese for an easy snack.
“The first time I met Giuseppe, he told me the yellow tomato was going to be big,” recounts Joe, who tasted the sweet fruit in a risotto Giuseppe prepared. “And every year since, I’ve heard about it from him. It’s something he’s very—extremely—passionate about.”
Slowly but surely, Giuseppe’s hard work has paid off. Today, there’s a small but growing demand for his yellow tomatoes worldwide. They are especially popular in Japan, where their flavor and texture make them a favorite to quickly cook into a delicate sauce for fish. They’ve even become a local hit in nearby Naples. “It’s trendy to serve them on pizzas,” says Giuseppe. “And we have some pastry chefs who make a yellow tomato tart with them.”
In 2017, for the first time, Cento will be sending Giuseppe’s yellow tomatoes to the United States, every single one of them destined for Blue Apron boxes. And the future looks equally bright—or black. Giuseppe is currently at work developing his own “black tomato,” with skin “ the color of eggplant.” (“Very high antioxidant levels!” he exclaims.)
Red, yellow or black, Giuseppe’s favorite way to eat tomatoes is in a dish called “paccheri con pomodoro,” which he describes as “big, flat rigatoni, with tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and basil.” Farmers in the region have been eating it for generations—a simple celebration of a fruit essential to the local economy and culture.
It’s a heritage Giuseppe is proud to be a part of. “I come from a farming family,” he explains. “I love the product. And I love the land.”