Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes ) – Tomatoes, Zucchini, Italian Beans, Brussels Sprouts, Swiss Chard

Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! Now that we are in late August, I am happy to report my harvest of tomatoes, zucchini and Italian beans is in full swing.  I planted my tomatoes late this year, and if the weather holds up I hope to continue to harvest until late September.

My zucchini plants have run into a bit of trouble. But luckily, I found a wonderful website to help out, which I will share.  I will also include tips from the same website for tomato problems that manifest this time of year.

Also, looking to the fall, my volunteer Brussels sprouts plants have survived from last year and have started to make side sprouts! I planted Swiss chard in the border of my garden and the plants are struggling right now, but still have plenty of time to come into their own.

Some of you may have already seen the Instagram posts  of my garden and the dishes I’ve been making with my fresh tomatoes and zucchini.  I will post the links and include the recipes after the update on how each section of my garden is growing.

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens, and all the wonderful Italian vegetables that can be grown in the suburbs, even in a small space.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on growing and harvesting lettuce, zucchini and their flowers and “new potatoes,” along with recipe ideas.  And an update on growing tomatoes is here also, with recipes soon to follow!  

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on and Learn Travel if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel


The Continuing Saga of San Marzano Tomatoes

Summer 2020

If you’ve been following this blog series, you already know that this year I tried growing several different varieties of tomatoes in several different places in my back yard in the Chicago suburbs.  For the first time, I obtained seeds for San Marzano tomatoes and started them indoors before transplanting them into a raised garden bed and two large pots.  Please see my previous blogs for more information about growing tomatoes from seed and the best conditions to plant tomatoes. 

So, how are  my San Marzano tomatoes doing?  I’m happy to report that my plants have flowered and I now have tomatoes that will soon ripen But, you’ll notice from the photo below that the tomato plants in the far west side of the bed have grown out nicely, although those on the eastern side, just a few feet away, have lagged behind.  I am not sure why. But  I believe the problem is the plants were too weak when I transplanted them into the bed and they were not hardened off properly to the harsh Midwest summer sunlight. Lesson learned. Next year I will buy a grow light for the seedlings so that my plants are strong enough when it comes time to transplant. (Note: the plants in the center are eggplant. San Marzano tomatoes are on the perimeter of the bed.)

raised garden bed shows San Marzano tomato plants in the perimeter, with the larger plants in the back of the image. Marigolds in the perimeter and eggplant plants in the center.
San Marzano Tomato plants growing in the perimeter of a raised garden with marigolds. (Eggplant plants in the center).

The San Marzano tomato plants in pots are producing tomatoes as well, and have grown up a bit, but the plants are still not as full as I would have liked. These tomato plants are in the shade about half the day, which could account for the lack of growth, although they are a bit larger than some in the raised garden bed. This should be encouraging for those who do not have much outdoor space but want to grow some fresh tomatoes.

San Marzano tomatoes growing in a terracotta pot outdoors.
San Marzano tomatoes growing in a terracotta pot outdoors.

The surprise for me was how well my volunteer tomato plants have done. I call them “volunteers” because they grew up in the lettuce and pea/green bean patch on their own, from seeds left in the ground after last years’ crop.  They started out late and originally were much smaller than the tomatoes I bought from the garden store (not shown in this blog).  Yet they are now about as big and producing tomatoes, even in the raised bed that is in the shade for about half the day. If you look closely in the photo below, you can just barely make out the tomato plants with their spiral steak and orange string.

Volunteer tomato plants growing in the raised bed with the Italian beans
Volunteer tomato plants growing in the raised bed with the Italian beans

So far, I have been able to harvest heirloom and cherry tomato seedlings that I bought from the garden store (not pictured) and these plants are still producing. The only problem I’ve had with any of my tomato plants so far was during a period of heavy rain, when a few split their skin, as I noted in the previous blog. I’ve also found a half-eaten tomato in my bed. Not sure what critter did this, but I have not seen any slugs, so am thinking it was birds or a small mammal. Usually the marigolds I plant in the perimeter and the egg shells I sprinkle around the plants keep detrimental insects and slugs away from my tomato plants.

Partially eaten tomato in raised garden bed
Critter partially ate my nice, ripe tomato!

Now, it is very hot and dry so I have been watering my garden about every other day.  I’ve read it is best to water in the morning so that the water can evaporate and mold does not set in and kill off the tomato leaves.  I found this blog  Troubleshooting Tomato Problems, on the website, with some very helpful tips and lots of pictures that I am keeping for future reference.

If you’ve tried growing tomatoes this summer, I’d love to hear what part of the world you live in and what your experience has been like.  Do you have any tips for handling tomato problems?


Pasta with Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce Recipe

Last year, I used my garden tomatoes to make a wonderful cold caprese salad and a hot tomato and zucchini side dish . This summer, I’ve been making one pan pasta dishes and posting them on Instagram.

The recipe for my favorite fresh tomato and basil “sauce” is below.  As I noted in the introduction on my Instagram post, when I first tasted angel hair pasta tossed with gently cooked tomatoes and fresh basil in Northern Italy, it was a revelation to me just how good a pasta dish can be.  I think this is the same dish that the Stanley Tucci character, Chef Primo makes for his girlfriend in the movie “Big Night.” After tasting this dish he says something like, “You see?  To eat food like this is to be close to God!”

Primo may be exaggerating… but in my mind, only a little bit. Try this simple method yourself at home, with just-picked, ripe tomatoes and basi and extra-virgin olive oil and I am sure you will agree!

If you’d like to watch me as I cook this one pan pasta dish, here is the link on Instagram:

Bow-Tie Pasta with Fresh Tomato and Basil Sauce


1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic
4 garden-ripened tomatoes
1 bunch of freshly picked basil
1 lb. box bow-tie pasta
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese


  1. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil  for the bow-tie pasta. When the water has boiled, add salt, cover and bring to a boil again. Uncover when boiling.
  2. Chop the tomatoes and prepare garlic by removing skin and crushing with a large knife. Have fresh basil picked and rinsed nearby.
  3. Add the pasta to the boiling water and then start to make the sauce.  You will have to keep an eye on the pasta while cooking the sauce, stirring and checking until the pasta is al-dente.
  4. Pour the olive oil into a large pan with high sides. Add the garlic to the olive oil and let cook a couple of minutes on medium heat to flavor the olive oil, but don’t let brown.
  5. Reduce the heat to low. Add the chopped tomatoes and their juices to the pan and cook very gently for just a few minutes, so tomatoes soften but hold their shape.
  6. Remove the garlic.
  7. Off heat, shred a few basil leaves and mix into the tomatoes in the pan .
  8. Drain the pasta and add to the tomato and basil sauce.  Mix gently and serve immediately, with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on the side.


Another of my favorite one pan pasta dishes that uses fresh tomatoes, this time paired with eggplant, is called “Pasta alla Norma.”  I tried this dish when in Sicily last year and loved it so much I made it this summer. Click on the Instagram post for the method and to watch me cook!

View this post on Instagram

One pan pasta is penne with eggplant for Thursday night! This pasta dish is known as “Pasta alla Norma.” I had this dish in Sicily with the eggplant skin on, but I always peel the skin of the eggplants I buy in the US as the skin of eggplants here seems tough and bitter to me. Recipe: start with about 1/3 cup olive oil. Add 1 small chopped onion, 2 cloves of garlic, chopped, and 1 medium size eggplant peeled and chopped (about 2 cups chopped eggplant), couple of pinches of salt and pepper. White pepper is nice if you have it. Cook over medium heat until eggplant softens but do not let brown. Add 1 cup dry white wine and a few leaves of hand torn basil. Cook on high heat to reduce wine by half. Add 28 oz. chopped crushed canned tomatoes and cook over medium low heat to let flavors blend for 10-15 min. Cook pasta in salted water until al dente. Reserve one cup of pasta water. Drain pasta and add pasta and a bit of pasta water to sauce. Mix and add more pasta water if needed. Add about 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan. Mix again and serve with Parmesan on the side. Enjoy with crusty bread dipped in olive oil! #osnap #eggplant #pastaandeggplant #pastaandeggplantsauce #pastaandeggplants #onepanmeal #onepanmeals #onepanpasta #onepanpastachallenge #onepanpastarecipes #onepandinners #onepanrecipe #onepanrecipes #onepanmeal #eggplantandpasta #pastaallanorma @niaf @osia_su @chicagolanditalians @rossellarago

A post shared by Kathryn Occhipinti (@conversationalitalian.french) on


The Zucchini Harvest and Zucchini Pests

As I’ve discussed in the first blog in this series, “Zucchini, Tomatoes, Strawberries and More!” this spring I started zucchini from seed in my backyard in three separate mounds  I reserved the third mound in the back for the cucuzza plant, a very long gourd that matures in the summer and is eaten like a zucchini. I’ve already written about cucuzza in last year’s blog: Oregano and Zucchini.

In the blog earlier this month, Zucchini Flowers, New Potatoes, and Tomatoes, I showed this image below of how far the plants had come along by July 31st.

The three zucchini mounds are no longer visible, covered in zucchini plants that are flowering
Zucchini plants flowering on July 3

I have harvested many zucchini, despite pilfering many, many zucchini flowers for my favorite fried appetizer in the summer, fried zucchini flowers.  If you are interested, the method is in my previous blog.   The bees have been happily pollinating my zucchini flowers all summer, flitting from one plant to the next, which is necessary to fertilize the flowers and grow zucchini. Unfortunately, I recently discovered that another pest was hard at work at the same time to destroy my zucchini plants, even though they outwardly looked very healthy.

To make a long story short, squash vines are hollow, and the the base of a zucchini plant is the  perfect place for the squash-vine borer to lay eggs. The eggs then hatch into larvae that live inside the vine and eventually destroy the main stem and kill the entire plant. Below is a close-up photo of what one of my main zucchini vine looks like because of this pest.  Other vines have turned brown and dried up completely.

Luckily, several zucchini plants did survive and are not growing healthy vines and producing flowers outside the garden bed, as in the photo that follows. And since all the eggs have hatched by now, this pest should not be providing any more problems.

Next year I will have to check for the tell-tale signs of eggs and remove the larvae before it can do any damage.  For more information on how to control this pest, check out this blog Squash vine borer from the very helpful website,

Zucchini with evidence of squash vine borer. The vine has turned brown and dried out and has brownish debree.
Zucchini with evidence of squash vine borer
Late summer zucchini plants have healthy, large, leaves, but are growing outside of the garden.
Late summer zucchini plants growing outside the garden

Meanwhile, the cucuzza zucchini, known for their exceptionally long vines and long gourds, have predictably grown out of their original garden mound.  I’ve trained them to grow behind the mound into a bit of space I have by the raised garden bed.  I assume they will continue to grow along the raised garden bed and onto the grass in a month’s time!

Cucuzza vine growing in back of original mound, along raised garden bed
Cucuzza vine growing in back of original mound, along raised garden bed

If you’ve tried growing zucchini this summer, I’d love to hear what part of the world you live in and what your experience has been like.  Do you have any tips for handling tomato problems?


Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes and Zucchini  Recipe

Last summer, I posted a one pan pasta dish with tomatoes and zucchini on Instagram.  The method is similar to the one pan pasta dish Angel Hair Pasta with Fried Zucchini  that I posted in my last blog.  The addition of fresh tomatoes and basil adds another dimension to the flavor of the zucchini. And remember, freshly grated Parmesan cheese is essential to this dish! Watch me on Instagram and then try the recipe yourself!

Bow-Tie Pasta with Zucchini, Tomatoes and Basil 


1/4 cup olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 -3 medium-sized zucchini
4 garden-ripened  plum tomatoes
1 bunch of freshly picked basil
1 lb. box bow-tie pasta
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese


  1. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil  for the bow-tie pasta. When the water has boiled, add salt, cover and bring to a boil again. Uncover when boiling.
  2. Pour the olive oil into a large pan with high sides. Add the chopped garlic to the olive oil and then the zucchini. Cook over medium heat, stirring, so the vegetables soften but don’t burn.
  3. Add the tomatoes and a few leaves of hand -torn basil. Salt to taste.
  4. Cover pan and cook vegetables to further soften.  Add a few laddles of pasta water as needed so vegetables do not dry out.
  5. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook pasta while the sauce finishes cooking.
  6. Drain the pasta (reserving pasta water) and add to the tomato and basil sauce.  Mix gently.
  7. Add pasta water as needed. Add the Parmesan cheese.
  8. Serve immediately, with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on the side.


Italian Beans

I’ve posted about planting Italian beans on Instagram, and from the image above of the bean plants growning with the tomatoes in my raised bed you can see how nicely they’ve grown. Beans need to be planted when the soil is warm, in mid summer, and this was perfect for me since the spring peas and broccoli rabe in my partially shaded garden bed had died out and I had the space.  I planted two types, Roma and Borlotto.  And had my first harvest of the Roma beans last week.

I read that the beans will keep producing as long as they are picked.  I am looked forward to fresh green beans at least once a week.  I like to cook my Roma beans with… you guessed it — olive oil, a little chopped onion, pinch of garlic and some fresh tomatoes on the stove top. There is also a tradition of cooking these beans for a very long time until they melt in your mouth, but I think I will reserve this method for the store-bought beans. I am sure the Borlotto beans will be wonderful on their own or with… pasta, of course!

First harvest Roma beans in a collander
First harvest Roma beans
Borlotto beans still growing
Borlotto beans still growing in the garden


Volunteer Brussels Sprouts

Looking ahead to fall, it seems that one of my volunteer Brussels sprouts plant has grown up nicely in the corner of my garden, and is making new sprouts along the stem.  These sprouts are wonderful when homegrown, as one can wait until the first frost and then harvest when they are sweet. I was happy to have this plant survive last year’s winter and re-grow, as this year there were no Brussels sprouts seedlings to be found in the gardening shop in my neighborhood.

Brussels Sprouts plant
“Volunteer” Brussels Sprouts plant growing happily in a corner of a raised garden bed


Swiss Chard 

Finally, the Swiss chard seeds I planted in the perimeter of my zucchini patch (remember the chart I drew at the beginning of the season?) have been struggling.  Next year, I will certainly create an additional raised garden for them, as they in this location they have been crushed and light-deprived due to the zucchini growing way outside their mounds.  I also like to grow the cavolo nero (Italian “black” kale) that has become so popular in restaurants recently, but was not able to find the seeds this year.  We will see if the Swiss chard is able to take off once the zucchini die back.  In the past, I’ve kept these plants well into the fall.

Swiss Chard seedling dwarfed by a cucuzza zucchini plant.
Swiss Chard seedling dwarfed by a cucuzza zucchini plant.

For more (many more!) ideas about how to use those fresh tomatoes this summer, visit my Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french

3 thoughts on “Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes ) – Tomatoes, Zucchini, Italian Beans, Brussels Sprouts, Swiss Chard

  1. Complimenti! your orto looks great! My zucchine have been plentiful, but unfortunately the flowers have not. There are a few every few days, but not enough to make a decent serving at one time. I guess I need to plant more next year. I even planted some ‘Fiori’ only seeds brought from Italy, but they aren’t producing many. This has not been a good year for pomodori. mine are doing better than most of my friends, but not as good as usual. it is sunny her now, but it rained so much in the late spring that I think our crops this year have been cursed! Mannaggia! Ciao Cristina

    Liked by 1 person

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