I learned a bit about shopping for produce from my mother, a housewife of Italian descent. I also was lucky to live in Italy for almost two years, where my neighbor Franca taught me how to shop at the market. In Italy, shopping for the best fruits and vegetables can be very competitive. Housewives examine the tomatoes with an intensity that is almost scary and physically block rivals from the best ones, rather like in a hockey game. By contrast, here at the Farmers Market, it is not uncommon to see someone buy a box of tomatoes after only a cursory glance. Here, a tomato is a tomato. But there, it’s not just any tomato you want. You are searching for the Platonic ideal of a tomato. Choosing tomatoes is an art–and a science. So I’m embarrassed to say I feel a little superior when I go to the market and see dozens of people lost in conversation and forgetting to squeeze their tomatoes before buying them.

Now, this is a controversial subject, and I do not want to be held responsible if my readers should inadvertently cause damage to other people’s tomatoes by following my methods. But if one wants to choose tomatoes in the authentic Italian way, one must squeeze them first with great tenderness and finesse, rather like squeezing the extra fat on a baby’s thighs. Farmers can get upset when someone squeezes their tomatoes so hard it leaves a bruise, or worse, squeezes a tomato so hard that it releases a stream of juice and seeds that lands in the farmer’s face. This actually happened to me, though I maintain the tomato was overripe–which was, in fact, what I was trying to determine.

You are looking for a tomato that is still firm and not too ripe; and as for variety, you are looking for a tomato that speaks to you. Many farmers are happy to let you sample different varieties (unless you have just squirted them in the face with tomato juice). By this point, if you have followed these instructions, you, too, will be overtaken by the thrill of the hunt.