Reflections on Italy (Especially the Tomatoes)

August 5, 2023

Summer is in full swing, and I love it. Here in Malibu, the beaches are crowded, the roads are crazy, the ocean is warm enough even for my anti-cold-water self, and our hot days reach between 80 and 85 degrees. Yeah . . . it’s pretty nice. So we of course made the most of our perfect weather by taking a trip to Italy – where it was super hot, and where, according to the news, two gazillion people (two gazillion and two with us) from around the world have decided that the summer of 2023 is the best time to visit. 

I’ve spent time in Ireland, England, Germany, and France, but never Italy. And I’ve always wanted to go. It’s the place where two of my passions, food and history, converge spectacularly. So in spite of a record heat wave and a Heathrow airport strike (which eventually canceled our British Airways flight home), we took the plunge. I’m so glad we did.

I am no expert on Roman History, but I know enough to realize that, at least in the Western world, the Roman Empire’s reach and impact has few equals. To see two-thousand-year-old architecture, even when it was just the foundations, was awe inspiring. Walking on the Coliseum floor, looking up into the formerly marble-covered stands, and seeing the reconstructed ramp where wild animals were unleashed on the victims made it clear that the Romans, while inflicting death and destruction, also extracted great wealth from all whom they conquered – and did it all to the cheers of hundreds of thousands. The spectacles of the Coliseum reminded everyone, particularly their own citizens, of the brutal power of the Empire. 

And on a more pleasant note, the fountains and the art that adorn almost every piazza throughout Rome and so many other Italian cities create a civic beauty that we could use more of. The Sistine Chapel is stunning. And we loved walking the steep cobblestone streets of smaller fortress-on-hilltop towns in Umbria like Assisi (of St. Francis fame), Orvieto, and Todi. These towns were way less crowded, yet equally enjoyable with their history and charm.

But even if all the history weren’t there, I would still go to Italy just to eat. One of the summer reading books recommended by my friend Holly is Dirt. It’s about learning the art and business of French cooking. My big takeaway was that French cooking is way too hard and the chefs are way too caught up in the tiniest things. Dude. Lighten up. There’s also a big chip on French cooks’ shoulders about whether  the French or the Italians were the first great cooks. After my summer travels, my money is on Italy. But, no matter who was first, give me simplicity every single time. With each dish and meal, I was overwhelmed by the flavors that emerged from the simplest ingredients and the freshness of Italian food.

It all starts with tomatoes. I love tomatoes. One of life’s great pleasures is biting into a fresh tomato. Most grocery store tomatoes look great, but they are nowhere near fresh. The best tomatoes are recently picked and somehow, love and small gardens make them taste better. During one of my college summers, I worked on a huge farm run by a beautiful family up in Red Bluff, California. One of their main crops was almonds (They pronounced it like salmon without the s. My friend Heather is part of another beautiful family that knows the giant machines that violently shake the trees to get the almonds to fall. She said that the farmers call them almonds on the tree and “ammonds” off of it, because they had to shake the “L” out of them. Hilarious.) Getting back on track – they also grew thousands of tons of tomatoes. I spent hours watching the tomato-picker machine, staffed by 6 or 8 workers, that could harvest a full truck (50,000 pounds) of tomatoes every 30 minutes. Most of the tomatoes that we eat are machine-harvested and don’t get to us until weeks beyond their picking date. As much of a marvel as those machines are, the real marvel is the taste of a fresh tomato.

Jill and I walked through several farmers’ markets (Mercati) in Rome – on a hot day the aromas of the tomatoes and other fresh fruits and vegetables were overwhelmingly wonderful. After eating fresh tomatoes throughout our vacation, I am convinced that the best ones in the world come from either Italy or Arkansas. I can still taste world-class tomatoes I’ve enjoyed at the Pink Tomato Festival in Bradley County, from a fabulous tiny farmstand in Pangburn where you just take some tomatoes and put your money in a coffee can, and from my friend Craig’s mom’s garden. Arkansas can grow them like nobody else, but the Italians win for the amazing things they do with their tomatoes in their kitchens. It seems kind of silly that one of the reasons I loved the food in Italy is that it reminded me of something I already knew from my Arkansas days – simplicity and fresh quality ingredients make all the difference. 

The bruschettas we ate, the insalata mistas we loved, the tomato sauces with different types of tomatoes, along with the fresh basil accompanying almost everything, were all inspiring and immensely enjoyable. Of course, you mix in some fresh pasta or a perfect pizza crust, and you’ve got an unbeatable meal. It’s not easy to be a vegan in Italy, but there are a gazillion vegetarian options. Also, going back to my post on The Table, there is a slow food movement in Italy – a movement devoted to maintaining the traditions of eating local food and taking your time doing it. No matter where you turn, Italy confronts you with a flat out truth – they know how to do food, they know how cooking and enjoying food cultivates civilized beauty and togetherness, and they know how to do all of it with love and personality.

My goal is to bring some of these lessons back to our kitchen in Malibu. In Italy, we never ate a pizza that was not spectacular. My 500-degree-oven-baked pizzas at home are good, but those 800-degree ovens are something I may need to invest in. My favorite non-tomato-based dish from our trip was Cacio e Pepe, a recipe that really features just three ingredients – fresh pasta, freshly grated cheese, and freshly ground black pepper. I have made it twice since we came home, using two different recipes, and it will be something we eat once or twice a month from now on. (The Martha Stewart recipe is my favorite right now.) And I now get what al dente means – I still want my pasta on the well-al-dente side, but I overcook it less now. I always thought that pasta wasn’t ready until it sticks on the wall when you dramatically throw it there. Turns out – that’s overdone. Not al dente. So my graduate school kitchen wall was not the salute to quality cooking that I thought it was. I’m still learning!

And now that we’re back to our pretty perfect summer in Malibu, I’m trying to make it even more perfect. I’ve planted basil, Jill has started her tomatoes, and we are seeking out freshness at local farmers’ markets. Pizzas, cacio e pepe, and bruschettas are making weekly appearances (and disappearances!) at our dinner table, and we are committed to reliving and re-enjoying our Italian adventures for many years to come. Buon appetito

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  1. Gelane Cameron Skinner says:

    My husband and I also travelled to Italy this summer and I couldn’t agree more with everything you shared!
    We took a cooking class and made Cacio e Pepe among other things (ravioli, gnocchi, and peaches with mint and white wine) and it was our favorite activity. The markets and tomatoes…well, ALL the produce was amazing there!
    I also noticed how the people referred to themselves as Romans not Italians. Such a proud group of people that know how to balance life! Our cooking class took place at the chefs personal home around his kitchen- and as we departed he hopped on his motorcycle and sped off to the countryside!
    How lucky are we to have the privilege to travel and experience such an incredible, historical place?
    Hope you are well. You are missed in MB!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Yes on the Romans self-referral. I did not get the chance to take a cooking class this time. Hearing you talk about it makes me REALLY want to do it next time. We are lucky indeed, Gelane! I miss being in your class and hearing you read to your kids – I’ll listen to your stories anytime! All the best.

  2. Daniel Wren says:

    Great writing as usual. Luckily, back here in Arkansas a number of small farmers have begun replanting heritage tomatoes. The varieties and distinct flavors are amazing. But, in the end I still think it’s awfully darn hard to beat a pink tomato from Bradley County.
    Cheers to the good life!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Cheers to the good life, my friend! I did not know about the heritage tomato revival. Awesome stuff. I’ll contact you privately about how I get my hands on those when I visit next.

  3. Connie Harrington says:


    Is that pasta, grated cheese and pepper recipe posted anywhere? I THINK EVEN I COULD MAKE THAT! 🤣


    1. Mike Matthews says:

      I think you can make it. Here’s the recipe and there’s even a video!

  4. Rick Bagley says:

    Great post Mike! Italy is a beautiful country and it sounds like you and Jill got to experience much of it. What a great way to start your second retirement. I love the hat, by the way!

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Rick! I thought you’d like that hat! Hope all is well.

  5. Stephen J Murphy says:

    What a great post. Your joy just poured off the page. Made me happy just reading it.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Thanks, Murph. Incredibly kind comments.

  6. Dan Stepenosky says:

    Boccali’s Pizza & Pasta in Ojai…the best tomatoes around…a must visit!

  7. Craig Benson says:

    Hey Mike-man! Sounds like a blast re-tracing Fr Rossi’s footsteps through Rome! I was lucky enough to lock my lips around a Bradley County pink tomato recently on a visit…delish!
    Thought i would remind everyone of the old John Denver song…”Ain’t but 2 things money can’t buy, and that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes! Check it out here:,I%20lead%2C%20you%20could%20call%20me%20Johnny%20Tomatoseed.

    1. Mike Matthews says:

      Hi Craig! I consider myself a pretty big John Denver fan, and I’ve never heard that song. I absolutely love it! Thanks for that. Also, I hope you know that I was referring to Margaret’s home grown tomatoes when I mentioned some of my favorite tomato memories. We had a dinner at your house that featured a ham steak, home grown tomatoes, and some kind of green. The tomatoes were the star of the meal. That memory still makes me smile.

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