Burst cherry tomatoes, or pomodorini scoppiati, is the easiest Italian tomato sauce to prepare. Cooking fresh tomatoes in olive oil over high heat causes their skins to split then they burst open. Within minutes of fast, concentrated cooking, these two ingredients form a deep, rich sauce, slightly sweet yet slightly tart, as juices of ripe tomatoes mingle with fragrant olive oil. From the end of summer through the beginning of the Autumnal equinox, there is nothing finer on the plate transitioning the seasons. It is the perfect union that satisfies while teasing you…just one more luscious bite.
Scoppiare, v., to burst, to break open, to split open
Typical of Southern Italy, this is a popular home-cooking method for preparing tomatoes, especially in the regions of Campania, Lazio, and Puglia. Small-sized tomatoes such as cherry, grape, or sun drop varieties are best for making in Scoppiato. As a cornerstone of Italian cuisine, extra-virgin olive oil is not just an ingredient, it is a sauce in its own right. After cooking, really good quality extra-virgin olive oil takes on a buttery character, very smooth and enhancing as it combines with burst tomatoes, skin, seeds, juices and all.
To create an even more flavorful sauce, break with tradition:
* Instead of pouring oil directly into the skillet then adding chopped garlic, infuse the olive oil before heating it. Use large garlic cloves with its peel left on to protect the garlic and prevent it from burning or becoming bitter.
* Make a spectacular sauce by mixing colors and varieties of tomatoes instead of using all red cherry tomatoes.
* Normally fresh basil leaves are added in the final dish. Olive oil loves fresh herbs, so why not flavor it before cooking? Use fresh herbs that withstand high heat and are sturdy, with firm leaves or stems, such as bay leaves, rosemary sprigs, and thyme springs.
Tradition specifies serving pomodorini scoppiati a few ways: As an antipasto, ladle burst tomato sauce over bruschetta or friselle or frise. Allow the bread to soak up the sauce, expanding until the bread is soft and tender. Or toss the sauce with spaghetti for a quick pasta meal. Or serve as a garnish topping scallopine or fish. This savory olive oil sauce tastes equally great served hot or warm, or cooled down for awhile and served at room temperature. It is so special and so easy to make, really any way you imagine serving it, will be sure to please.
4 servings. Cooking time is 8 to 10 minutes.
1/2 cup (118 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 4 large garlic cloves, skin left on or in camicia
Fresh herbs: Choose sturdy herbs that withstand high heat – bay leaf, rosemary sprig, thyme sprig
2 whole dried hot chili peppers
1 pound (454 g) cherry tomatoes, the same variety or an assortment of red, orange, yellow, heirloom black
Salt to taste
Pinch of dried oregano
Pinch of ground red cayenne chili pepper (if not including whole dried chili peppers as listed above)
Fresh basil leaves and/or other herbs
Pickled capers, as is or fried
1 pound (454 g) spaghetti, mezzi rigatoni, fettucine, linguine, tagliatelle, or trenette
OR – 4 sauteed scallopine (chicken, pork, or veal)
OR – 4 roasted or sauteed fish filets or steaks (bass, cod, halibut, monkfish, or snapper)
OR – bruschetta, or double-baked Italian friselle or frise
Infusing the Olive Oil: Leave the peel on each garlic clove as protection against the garlic burning in the oil causing it to become bitter. Gently crush the garlic with the side of a knife so the cloves break a little, but remain intact.
Chef's Tip: Instead of a skillet or shallow frying pan, choose a broad thick-bottomed pan with deep sides, or Dutch-oven, with a lid. The thick bottom conducts heat evenly and helps prevent burning of ingredients. The depth of the vessel protects you in case the oil or tomatoes splatter as they burst. Do not heat at this point. Pour the olive oil into the pan. Add the garlic cloves, fresh herbs, and dried chili peppers, and stir to thoroughly coat with oil. Cover and set aside for 30 to 60 minutes, so flavors begin to infuse the oil.
Cooking the Tomatoes – in Scoppiati: Over low heat, warm the oil, garlic, herbs, and chili peppers, for 1 to 2 minutes, and enjoy the wonderful aroma! The garlic cloves should not brown since their skins are on, so leave them in, otherwise remove them now. Make sure the cherry tomatoes are dry with no droplets of water outside, which would react with the hot oil. Add the tomatoes and roll them around in the oil to coat thoroughly. Place the cover on the pan. Turn the heat to medium high to high. Cook for about 4 to 6 minutes. The tomatoes sizzle and chatter to you at this point. Leaving the cover on, either briefly tilt or jiggle the pan or Dutch oven to move the tomatoes around encouraging them to burst. (If you make popcorn on the cooktop, this is similar.)
Pick up the cover, tilting the cover towards you to avoid getting splattered, and look at the tomatoes. They are plump and glistening. Most of them burst their skins, some are completely split open. Even the garlic cloves have probably been pushed out of their skins.
Partially cover the pan or Dutch oven and cook for 1 minute more over high heat. Immediately turn off the heat, allowing the sauce to rest for a few minutes. Often there is a mix of burst tomatoes and whole tomatoes just about to break open. This creates a sauce that is as much a pleasure to see as it is to taste. If you prefer all tomatoes of the same texture: using the back of a spoon, gently press down on unbroken tomatoes and the pressure causes them to split open.
Taste. Add salt, herbs, pickled capers, or fried capers as you wish for the particular recipe. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature. Reheat leftovers the following day, or eat 'em straight from the fridge, they are that good. Like eating candy.
Below: A favorite way of serving this sauce is spooning over sauteed chicken scallopine, then garnish with fried capers.