The Real Deal on San Marzano Tomatoes

In Foodie Tips & Tidbits by Les Kincaid

Only Buy Real San Marzano Tomatoes….. If You Can

 by Les Kincaid

The hype around San Marzano’s, the sweet Italian plum tomatoes from Campania, has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I thought I was buying the real thing. The label said San Marzano tomatoes. Sweet, pulpy, low in acidity, and containing few seeds, they are said to be extraordinarily good for making sauces—and basically the only recognized name in the canned tomato game. The long meaty tomatoes are structurally distinct from most other plum tomatoes, containing only two seed pockets instead of the typical five. And in near mythical fashion, old Italian farmers grow them in the volcanic soil around Mount Vesuvius, which famously erupted in AD 79, leveling the Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in a vicious flood of molten lava. I have told this to my classes for years.

Out of all that devastation comes the beauty of San Marzano’s. It’s that volcanic soil and the microclimate—fanned with sea breezes from the Gulf of Naples—that accounts for their prized balanced flavor and tomato-ins. In Italy, tomatoes labeled as “San Marzano” must adhere to strict DOP (the Italian protected designation of origin) guidelines, which governs where they’re grown and how they’re processed. If you try growing the same seeds— “San Marzano” refers to both the plant and DOP—elsewhere, you just won’t get the same thing. The tomatoes are so revered in Italy that to make true Neapolitan pizza, according to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, you must use San Marzano tomatoes. Anything else will not do.

And yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a cooking magazine or website here in America that recommends them. Among the most essential of essential pantry staples, the quality of canned tomatoes can make all the difference in a dish, as opposed to, say, flour. It seemed worth an investigation.

The president of the Consorzio San Marzano says that at least 95% of the San Marzano tomatoes in America are not San Marzano.

How do you make sure they are?

First thing you do, you check the tin’s label: it MUST say “Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino D.O.P. “ One telltale sign that your can of San Marzano’s is a fake, according to Ruggiero, is that it contains crushed or diced tomatoes. San Marzano’s are only certified whole or in fillets, peeled, and canned. And like those designer bags sold on a table on the street, if the price seems too good to be true, it is probably not San Marzano.

It MUST have the symbol of the Consorzio; it MUST have the symbol of the DOP.

It MUST have a “N° XXXXXXX”, which is the Number assigned to the tin by the Consorzio.

But even if these apply, the President of the Consorzio says they have seen cases where labels were printed NOT in Italy, completely fake. Of course! Who is here in the USA to watch??? Very complicated!!! So, what do you do?

As always, best thing is to shop from a merchant you trust!!! And look at the price. If it is too good to be true, it is not true!!!

Also, beware that the Consorzio says that San Marzano tomatoes can only come in tins; the tomatoes can only be peeled whole or fillets. Therefore, Eduardo says that if you see the words “puree”, “sauce”, “chopped”, “diced”, “organic” (also, not regulated by the Consorzio) on the labels, they cannot be San Marzano. Very complicated. Have questions? Send a picture of the label of your San Marzano and we’ll ask the President of the Consorzio what he thinks.

The reason there are so few true San Marzano brands is that the DOP-designated area for San Marzano’s, the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino between Naples and Salerno, encompasses a relatively limited number of small plots. It’s not just the San Marzano tomato fakes and the much-publicized olive oil fraud, either. Italy is the biggest importer of Chinese tomato paste, and you can guess where that is going. “And Castelvetrano is a tiny town in Sicily—there’s no way all those olives are coming from there,” adds Aquino Roitmayr. “I would not buy anything in a grocery store that says “Italian” on it.”

With all this fraud going on, I wondered if chefs even used San Marzano’s. What seems to be the issue with San Marzano tomatoes is widespread fraud. They command a higher price than regular canned tomatoes, and as with any other premium brand, counterfeits follow. Unlike faux Chanel bags, though, you can buy San Marzano’s in legit stores, which is why the sheer number of knockoffs is jaw-dropping.  I polled a bunch of chefs cooking Italian food in the U.S. to find out what tomatoes are best for cooking pasta sauces (or braises or shakshuka or whatever else you want to put canned tomatoes in). Some favored DOP San Marzano’s or other Italian tomatoes; others liked California brands. None mentioned a grocery store brand. And perhaps that is where the breakdown between San Marzano–skeptical cooking experts and chefs originates. Food writers are working with ingredients that home cooks can easily find at the neighborhood grocery store, where all the San Marzano’s are fakes. If you’re at the grocery store, Muir Glen is your best bet. But good chefs don’t shop at the grocery store and test out all sorts of specialty suppliers to find the best possible ingredients available.

One of the things that incenses the folks at Gustiamo is not just that the fake San Marzano’s are low-grade products; it’s that large industrial companies are profiting off the name of poor, small farmers hand-picking their tomatoes and submitting to the consorzio’s strict regulations. DOP-certified Gustavo’s doesn’t even use the word “San” on its label. A true San Marzano is labeled as “Pomodoro S. Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino.” The long, unwieldy phrasing doesn’t have the same marketing punch as those two easy-to-pronounce words, perhaps another clue to its realness. Better to find a canned tomato that specializes in tomatoes, not advertising.