In the hamlet of Glen Head, New York, on the last Saturday in August, you might hear a song by the late Italian singer Claudio Villa wafting through the summer air, accompanied by the ambrosial scent of basil and tomato sauce. It’s a sign of la passata, a tradition that my grandparents, Vincenzo and Antonietta, brought with them from Caltanissetta, Sicily. Like so many Italians, they immigrated to the United States in 1960, uprooting their lives for the promise of opportunity and success in New York. While they left much behind, some traditions crossed the Atlantic with them, including la passata: The annual ritual of turning the humble tomato into a year-long supply of sauce.
To this day, la passata remains a multi-generational tradition that brings my family together for a day of sauce making. My grandparents still participate, orchestrating roles and duties for the entire family. From cleaning the tomatoes to trimming the blemishes to plunging them in an ice bath, each task is pivotal to the taste of the resulting sauce, and there’s no better duo to oversee the process than Grandma and Grandpa.
As a photographer, I aim to find beauty in the process, not just the final product. And that’s what la passata is all about. No matter if the sauce turns out good or great, the last Saturday in August is about family. It’s about sharing bread, cheese, wine (and more wine). As any Italian would agree, few things in life are more important than these simple pleasures, and that’s what I set out to capture in these photos.
STEP 1: Variety of Tomatoes
When making la passata it’s important to use tomatoes that are higher in flesh content with fewer seeds. My family used mostly Canestrino with a handful of San Marzano and Amish Paste mixed in.
STEP 2: Sourcing Tomatoes
Quality and seasonality of ingredients is of utmost importance in Italian cooking. This year we sourced over 320lbs of tomatoes from the Black Dirt Region in the Hudson Valley. With some of the most fertile soil in the US, its jet black composition is what remains of a glacial lake that melted 12,000 years ago.
STEP3: Clean, Trim Stems, Score
We do a quick clean of the tomatoes to remove any dirt, trim the stems and blemishes, and then score the bottom of the tomato with a cross.
Photos by Nico Schinco
STEP 4: Blanch + Peel + Cut
The tomatoes are then plunged into boiling water for ~30 seconds and then shocked in an ice bath. They’re quickly peeled, diced and prepped for the press.
STEP 5: Press
One of the most important steps of this entire process is separating the seeds and skin from the passata. The Fabio Leonardi MR9 has been our family’s workhorse for a handful of years.
White haired man smiling and using a mechanical press with garden background to do tomato sauce
STEP 6: Simmer + Season
Timing for this step can vary depending on how thick you want the passata to be. We typically simmer the sauce for 2.5 hours and season with salt and bay leaves to add a bit of flavor.
STEP 7: Bottle + Seal + Label
The passata is then bottled in quart jars with basil leaves and a touch of extra virgin olive oil. Each jar is then submerged in boiling water, with a water level 1-2” above the lid for ~15 minutes. Once removed they’re labeled and set aside to cool.
Mason jars with lids filled with tomato sauce in black and white
STEP 8: Preserve, Share & Enjoy
While each family has their own tweaks to making la passata it’s universally understood that it’s best enjoyed around a big table with friends, family and loved ones.