My father was a proud Sicilian – proud of his heritage, especially its food. At the center of many great Italian meals, one ingredient can often found: the beloved tomato. This sweet vegetable took center stage in fresh salads, hand crafted pasta with pomodoro or simply paired with fish. Growing up, the tomato was a regular ingredient at our dinner table.

I’ve carried on this admiration for tomatoes in my life and career. Growing up in Detroit we had four distinct seasons. While most residents of the Midwest wait all year for summer to bring the much anticipated warm weather, I was more interested in the tomatoes. I can still recall the sweet taste of the first tomato of the year. My family canned this prized product so we could taste summer all year long. We would even oven dry tomatoes, vacuum pack them and freeze them so that our favorite ingredient was always within easy reach.

Recently on Maui, my `ohana began a ritual of planting several tomato plants every spring. Besides playing in the dirt, my toddler is enamored with watching his prized tomato crop grow. It will likely create one of his favorite dishes – a classic caprese salad. He may like the mozzarella cheese more than the tomato, but none-theless he still eats his vegetables.

The tomato is so versatile and satisfying. Raw or cooked, it can take on a variety of textures and flavor profiles. From simple appe-tizers, to comforting soups, to accenting a great steak, to flavoring sorbet this ingredient can do it all.

While I’ve spent my career in various locales – San Francisco, Phoenix, Aspen and now Maui – my Italian upbringing often shines through in my cooking. Naturally, a variety of tomato preparations are always in my arsenal.

In Hawaii, Kamuela tomatoes are cherished products from our local farmers. These plump, sweet tomatoes work well with just about any recipe. I also utilize heirloom tomatoes from Upcountry Maui. When combined with other Hawaii-grown ingredients I am able to create distinct dishes not possible on the mainland.

A dish highlighting the bounty of summer is an heirloom tomato and melon salad with burrata, prosciutto and Thai basil pesto. The acid from the tomatoes and the sweetness of the melon naturally complement the rich buratta cheese. The saltiness of the prosciut-to accents the ingredients while the sweet basil condiment brings it all together, coating each element of the salad.

One of my favorite local artisan products is Surfing Goat Dairy Cheese. In a dish that actually got me the job at Montage Kapalua Bay, I craft goat cheese tortellini bathed in tomato water. The season’s finest baby squash completes the dish. Tomato water is so beautiful and vibrant, its taste floral and refreshing. This dish screams summer with each bite!

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a recipe highlighting Hawaii’s treasured seafood. I suggest pan searing Opakapaka and serving it with a classic Southern Italian tomato sauce: puttanesca. Tra-ditionally served with spaghetti, this sauce also pairs well with seafood. The sweetness of tomatoes is offset by briny capers and olives. The faint flavor of anchovy reaffirms the taste of the sea. Finish with lemon oil to add a richness and brightness to the dish.

I will always have a love affair with tomatoes. Eating and cooking with this incredible ingredient will forever be a nostalgic event sig-nifying the beginning of summer. Support local farmers and begin designing the perfect tomato inspired menu to kick-off the season.

Upcountry Heirloom Tomato & Melon Salad

Surfing Goat Dairy Cheese Tortellini

Pan-seared Opakapaka