The last time Peter and I were in Rome, we rented an apartment on Via Caulonia just off of Piazza Zama in the IX Appio Latino neighborhood, a few blocks up the street from my zia Franca, who lived in an apartment on Via Centuripe. She has since moved into her late sister’s apartment in another neighborhood to be closer to her nieces and nephews, but her former neighborhood will always be one of my favorite areas of Rome. It’s home to the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano and the catacombs of San Callisto, but it’s mainly a residential neighborhood with one apartment building after another lining the streets, and shops, caffé bars, and businesses of every kind at the base of every building. For that two-week stay, we purposely looked for a rental apartment close to my great-aunt so we could see her every day. Peter and I would take the #360 bus every morning into the center of town, hopping off at Piazza Venezia where we would walk the city for the majority of the day, eating breakfast at a quiet café in the Jewish quarter, and seeking out a local trattoria down even quieter side streets behind Piazza Navona to enjoy a leisurely lunch. We would return to our apartment in the late afternoon to shower and take a nap before walking down to zia’s apartment for dinner, where one night, we arrived to find a platter of rice-stuffed tomatoes cooling on the kitchen table. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten these, but it had been a long time, and my attempts at re-creating them in the past were always insipid, undercooked disasters. I was elated to tuck into one of my zia’s specialties, but not before snapping a photo of our dinner to bring back as a memory and a reminder to finally learn how to make these.
I left Italy forgetting to get tips from my zia on how to make a proper pan of pomodori al riso, and in the years since that trip to Rome, I’ve spent every summer dreaming of eating this dish, but avoided making it for fear of another flavorless tragedy. I still needed to figure out the technique of bringing together three simple ingredients into a flavorful end result worthy of my Roman heritage. This year, however, with guidance from Rachel Roddy’s new cookbook, I finally mastered rice-stuffed tomatoes.
A successful pan of rice-stuffed tomatoes requires both attention to detail and patience. There is nothing fussy about making this dish, but the details matter. The tomatoes should be hollowed out carefully, but not zealously–there should always be enough flesh left inside so they (mostly) hold their shape when baking. Salt is sprinkled into each tomato hollow and they are placed upside down on a clean dish towel to strain so the tomatoes release extra water that would otherwise make for a soggy vessel (here is where you begin adding patience to your ingredient list). The seeds from the pulp can be strained out, but I skip this step because it’s tedious and I don’t think they detract from the flavor in the finished dish (besides, I give the pulp a good blitz in my food processor so the seeds break up). The garlic should be very finely minced so that it melts and lightly perfumes the rice mixture. The potatoes should be peeled and cut into similar size bâtons (little wedges) so they cook evenly. The basil should be hand-torn, never chopped. Most recipes for rice-stuffed tomatoes instruct to mix the raw rice into the tomato pulp and have it sit for an hour to allow the liquid to begin absorbing into the rice kernels. I prefer to skip this step (I’m not that patient) and give the rice a head start by par-cooking it in a good amount of well-salted, boiling water before mixing it into the tomato pulp. I’m partial to Arborio rice, but long grain white rice also works well.
There is no getting around waiting the hour for these to cook, but it’s worth it, I promise. As the tomatoes bake, the juices from the tomatoes mix with the olive oil creating a sauce that absorbs into the rice, turning it a rosy pink. The potatoes soften and turn creamy in the center with delicate, crispy edges. The tomatoes slump as their flesh softens, their skins wrinkle, and the basil and garlic perfumes every ingredient. Another dash of patience is essential to wait the half hour (or a bit longer) to eat these after they are baked because a good rest allows the flavors to settle and the heat to dissipate. Pomodori al riso are never eaten piping hot. The reward for your patience will be an intensely flavorful summer meal that is quintessentially Roman. Be sure to do yourself a favor and make enough to have leftovers, which taste even better the next day.
Adapted from Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy
5-6 ripe, medium size tomatoes
1 large garlic clove (or 2 small), finely minced
4-6 leaves fresh basil, hand-torn into small pieces
1 (generous) cup Arborio rice (or long grain white rice)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for potatoes
3 medium size Yukon Gold (or white) potatoes, peeled and cut into small wedges
Preheat the oven to 375°.
Wash the tomatoes and pat dry. Cut the tops off and set them aside. Using a spoon, hollow out the tomatoes being careful not to pierce through the bottom or sides. Collect the pulp in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the inside of each tomato evenly with a pinch of salt and turn them upside down on a clean dish towel and let them strain for 10-15 minutes.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and season with ½ teaspoon salt. Add the rice and cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the rice just begins to soften on the outside but is still firm on the inside. Drain through a colander and set aside.
Place the tomato pulp in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse the pulp until it is evenly chopped. Pour the pulp back into the mixing bowl and add in the minced garlic, basil, rice, and olive oil and mix well. Season with salt and pepper, tasting the mixture to make sure it is seasoned properly.
Grease a shallow oven-safe baking dish with 1 Tablespoon of olive oil. Place the hollowed out tomatoes in the dish and fill each one with the rice mixture until each is filled about ¾ full. Pour any remaining rice mixture into the baking dish, spreading it evenly around the tomatoes. Put the tops back on each tomato.
Place the cut potatoes into the same bowl that held the rice mixture. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper and mix well. Transfer the potato wedges to the baking dish, spreading them around the tomatoes (it’s ok if they cover the rice).
Bake the tomatoes for about 1 – 1¼ hours, or until the tomatoes have completely softened and are beginning to wrinkle, the potatoes are golden and crisp at the edges, and the rice has plumped. Remove the tomatoes from the oven and let them rest for 30 to 45 minutes before serving.