There was an article recently in my hometown paper about San Marzano tomatoes, the famous and flavorful tomatoes that are perfectly suited for most Neapolitan and Neapolitan-inspired preparations. San Marzanos have gotten more attention since the New York Times picked up a mid-August blog post from Beatrice Ughi at the importer gustiamo.com who highlighted the fraud involved in many San Marzano-labeled tomato cans. San Marzano tomatoes are excellent products that have become an enviable brand name, one that was bound to be abused, just as “Italian” extra virgin olive oil has been in recent years.
The local article about the tomatoes mentioned their balance and sweetness as the reason for its renown. It mentioned it twice, in fact, though when it quoted a prominent Italian-American restaurateur in the area he added that San Marzanos were also “easy to cook with.”
These things are true, but there is more to the popularity and reputation of these tomatoes than the interplay of sweetness and acidity and cooking, plus their wonderful flavor. San Marzanos are “comparatively thin-skinned, meaty, and with less water and fewer seeds,” as Julia Della Croce described them in Salse di Pomodoro. The thin skins are much easier to peel than most tomatoes. You’ll find far less in the way of skin – most likely none – in San Marzano canned tomatoes than in cheaper products. Fewer seeds mean less potential off-tasting bitterness. More flesh and less water make for a more-robustly flavored sauce.
Other tomatoes have their uses such as the large cuore di bue tomatoes, which are the ideal tomatoes for instala caprese. But, San Marzanos are “the best sauce tomatoes.” They are so suitable for Italianate sauces that canned San Marzano tomatoes are an example where processed is better than fresh. In David Ruggerio’s Italian Kitchen, the author – a once well-regarded New York chef recently in the news again – opined that, “more often than not the genuine San Marzano tomatoes in a can are going to yield a better sauce than the fresh plum tomatoes.” If you don’t mind spending the additional money for them, San Marzanos can certainly make your sauce, and most things, better.
Though their reputation is widespread, an interesting and very surprising tidbit is that the San Marzano was initially developed for the export market, without any thought for salsa di pummarola , marinara, or ragù. That is another story.