In the food-mad country of Italy there are several ingredients that are venerated above all others. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma ham, and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena vinegar are just a few that inspire a fanatical following. These ingredients are also well-known and widely available in the United States. However, one ingredient that is revered in Italy but is less well-known here is the San Marzano tomato.
Americans, of course, are quite familiar with tomatoes. Unfortunately many of us grew up with, and still mainly eat, the industrialized tomatoes we get at the supermarket. Certainly acceptable, but for anyone who has chomped into a Yellow Brandywine, Black Krim or other heirloom tomato variety, the difference is palpable. In Italy, the most famous variety (or cultivar) of tomato is the San Marzano. Ask any Italian, and he’ll tell you that this plum tomato is nothing less than God’s juicy Italian gift to the world.
What’s so great about San Marzano tomatoes? I’d eaten them on trips to Italy and even cooked with them here in Houston. For me, the reality matched the hype. Intense sweetness combined with a subtle acidity created the perfectly balanced tomato.
But to get an expert opinion, I contacted legendary Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone who is known for frequent travels to Italy to procure the best ingredients, as well as partnering with Italian producers to create his own brand of olive oil and wine.
“There are tomatoes and then there are San Marzanos,” Vallone explained. “And they’re the only type of tomatoes that I use. They have a unique blend of acidity and sweetness, they’re plump, and they’re easy to cook with. They’re truly unique.”
Acquiring real San Marzano tomatoes in Houston can be a challenge. Here are some tips and information that will help you to identify and locate them.
San Marzanos are almost exclusively canned. Fresh ones can be found in Italy, but almost never in the U.S (although there is an active community of home growers here). Canned San Marzanos are whole, peeled and packed in puree. They are mainly used for making tomato sauces for pasta and pizza. The sauce for true Neapolitan-style pizza, or Vera Pizza Napoletana, is made with San Marzanos.
These tomatoes are named after one of the comunes (towns) in which they are grown, San Marzano sul Sarno, in the province of Salerno and region of Campania in Southern Italy. This area south of Naples is known for volcanic soil courtesy of nearby Mount Vesuvius and a temperate climate. It is believed that the soil and climate combine with the specific characteristics of this tomato cultivar to create its unique flavor.
Its elongated shape, ease with which it is peeled, lack of seeds, and firm flesh are all qualities which lend this cultivar to the canning process and its reputation as an unsurpassed tomato for making sauces.
For all practical purposes, you will find three distinct types of canned San Marzanos in Houston: those that are grown and canned in the U.S., those that are grown and canned in Italy but are not certified, and those that are certified and guaranteed to have been grown and processed in the Campania region of Italy.
Yes, there are some companies that grow and can San Marzanos in the U.S. (one company is called Simpson Imports). These are not ideal and certainly not authentic, but if they are the only ones available, they are better than most supermarket tomatoes (for purposes of making sauces, etc.). The can will say “San Marzano” but it will lack the “Product of Italy” label. In that case you can assume it was grown in the U.S. (usually California).
You will also find canned tomatoes labeled “San Marzano” and “Product of Italy.” Some may even say “Certified.” In most cases, these will be true San Marzano tomatoes grown and processed in Campania though not actually certified by the European Union and Italian government (more on that below). A typical brand found in Houston is Cento Fine Foods.
Unfortunately, there are some producers who sell lower quality, counterfeit versions of San Marzanos that include the correct labeling but are not grown in Campania and may not even be the right cultivar. For this reason, a “protected” version of San Marzanos was created.
A can of true San Marzano tomatoes will be labeled “Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino DOP”. The most important label to look for here is “DOP” which stands for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin). This is a certification bestowed by the European Union and administered by the Italians that guarantees the can of San Marzano you are buying is the real deal.
In Italy, this certification is administered by the Consorzio di tutela del Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino, or the “San Marzano Consortium”. To guarantee that the San Marzanos you are buying are real, look for labels from both the European Union DOP and the San Marzano Consortium.
In all honesty (and with apologies to the Consortium), it is often difficult to taste the difference between non-DOP San Marzanos from a reputable company and their DOP brethren. But if you have the option of choosing between the two, I recommend paying a bit extra for the DOP version to support the protection effort.
In Houston, non-DOP San Marzanos can be found at specialty supermarkets like Hubble & Hudson and Central Market. Central Market also has its own store brand DOP San Marzano (complete with E.U. and Consortium labels). Phoenicia Specialty Foods carries a true imported, DOP San Marzano (Rega brand). Note that supplies and availability may change – always call ahead to see if your preferred brand/type is in stock.
Now that you have the knowledge to acquire these tomatoes that inspire such devotion among chefs and connoisseurs throughout Italy and the U.S., try some recipes for yourself: spaghetti all’amatriciana, marinara sauce, or a pizza sauce.