San Marzano tomatoes are often considered the Ferrari of all canned tomato varieties, due to their sweet and distinct tomato intensity. As well as that, there’s a little bit of an acidity, which is perfect for balancing out the richness of cheese and meat.

There was once a time when it was almost impossible to find a can of San Marzano tomatoes, but nowadays the supermarkets are stocked with several different varieties for you to choose from.

They may come with a higher price tag, but loyal fans of these tomatoes will convince you that they’re worth every penny in comparison to domestically produced canned tomatoes.

But what makes these tomatoes so popular, and why is there so much hype surrounding them? In this article we’re going to look into what San Marzano tomatoes are, how they’re grown, why they’re so popular, and how they taste.

What Are San Marzano Tomatoes?

San Marzano is a type of plum tomato which hails from the Campania region in Italy. The Southern region is also the birthplace of Neapolitan pizza, one of Italy’s most famous and classic dishes.

As San Marzano is a type of plum tomato, it’s a lot longer and thinner than the tomatoes you would usually see in the supermarket.

As we mentioned briefly, San Marzano tomatoes are highly-regarded for their balanced, sweet flavor which has just the right amount of acidity thanks to the volcanic soil that they’re grown in at the base of Mount Vesuvius.

They are only harvested between August and September, but there are some strict guidelines on how they must be grown if you want to class them as authentic San Marzano tomatoes.

These specific guidelines are enforced by Italy’s DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), and are grown in a relatively small region between Naples and Solerno.

San Marzano tomatoes are so revered in Italy, that if you want to make a true Neapolitan pizza, you must use San Marzano tomatoes according to the True Neapolitan Pizza Association (AVPN), as any other variation of tomato simply won’t do.

However, to make things a little more confusing, not all San Marzano tomatoes are grown in Italy. As their seeds are widely available, you can grow San Marzano tomatoes in your very own garden if you wanted to.

But if you were to grow these tomatoes anywhere other than at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius, they just won’t be the same thing.

How To Tell If Tomatoes Are Genuine San Marzano Tomatoes

One of the biggest issues with San Marzano tomatoes is that they’re subject to widespread fraud. As they command a higher sale price than regular canned tomatoes, like most premium products/brands, many counterfeits are produced.

Although legitimate San Marzano tomatoes are available in American supermarkets, the sheer number of counterfeits is actually shocking.

In 2011, the president of Consorzio San Marzano, Edoardo Ruggiero, told Italian importing company Gustiamo that only 5% of San Marzano tomatoes sold in the U.S. are actual San Marzano tomatoes.

One of the first things to look out for as a shopper is that genuine San Marzano tomatoes will have a DOP seal on the can, as well as a certification number printed on the bottom of the tin. Another telltale sign is that fake San Marzano cans may contain crushed and diced tomatoes.

This is important to remember as certified canned San Marzano tomatoes are whole/filleted, peeled, and canned. But even with these tips it can be hard to tell if a brand is legit, as there are stories of DOP labels being slapped onto fraudulent cans.

If you are worried about getting scammed, there are cans of domestically grown San Marzano tomatoes available to buy, which come with a much more affordable price tag.

How To Identify Authentic San Marzano Brands

How To Identify Authentic San Marzano Brands

Following on from our previous point, the most important things that you should look you for when shopping for San Marzanos are:

  • The star-shaped DOP certification symbol, which will also have the words “Denominazione d’Origine Protetta” next to it. There will also be an ID number printed somewhere on the tin.
  • They must be packaged either whole or filleted, as diced, chopped or pureed tomatoes will not be certified San Marzanos.
  • The words “Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino” should be printed somewhere on the can, which is a reference to the special region in which the tomatoes are grown.

Why Are There So Few Authentic San Marzano Brands?

The reason as to why there are so few authentic San Marzano brands is because the DOP-designated growing area for San Marzanos in the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino area (between Naples and Salerno), contains a relatively limited number of plots.

There is simply not enough produce to support the entire San Marzano industry.

What do San Marzano Tomatoes Taste Like?

Unlike most plum tomatoes, San Marzanos contain very few seeds, which alongside their sweetness, low acidity, and pulpy texture, makes them perfect for making sauces. They’re structurally distinct to other plum tomatoes, containing just two seed pockets, in comparison to the usual five. They’re also known for having a slight meaty texture, thanks to their thicker flesh.

But unless you live near Mount Vesuvius, the San Marzano tomatoes you’ll find in your local farmer’s market are hardly going to taste like they were grown in volcanic soil.

How Do San Marzano Tomatoes Compare With Domestically Grown Canned Tomatoes?

Despite their popularity, San Marzano tomatoes don’t always come out on top when it comes to taste.

San Marzanos that are grown in California can be pretty tasty too, as various different food publications have found that Americans prefer the brighter, more acidic and salty flavor of domestically grown canned tomatoes in comparison.

In fact, authentic San Marzano tomatoes rarely ever take the top spot.

However, authentic San Marzanos have a rich, sweet flavor which gives them an edge, and that’s why many people believe the higher price is justified. As there is a distinct tomatoey flavor, they’re perfect for making pasta sauces, or tomato-heavy dishes.

They also have a fraction of the sodium content found in American tomatoes, which surprisingly doesn’t give them a bland taste.

In addition, they don’t contain any calcium chloride, which is used by American processors when canning to help tomatoes (particularly diced) to keep their shape. A downside of calcium chloride is that it makes it much harder for tomatoes to melt into a sauce properly.

Are San Marzano Tomatoes The Same As Roma Tomatoes?

Although both San Marzanos and Roma tomatoes look pretty similar in appearance, there are a few different ways in which you can tell the difference between the two. Firstly, San Marzanos are plum tomatoes, but they are far thinner and have a more pointed end in comparison to Roma tomatoes.

Also, they have much thicker walls which are lined with fewer seeds, which is what makes them less acidic and sweeter in comparison. Because of their thick skin, they are easy to peel and have a deep red color.

Final Words

It seems that there is still a lot of conflict when it comes to crowning San Marzanos as the King of all tomatoes. It really comes down to taste preference: If you prefer a tangier, saltier tomato taste, stick with American tomatoes, however, if you prefer to have a richer, sweeter tomato taste, it’s worth giving San Marzano a try.

One thing is most certainly clear, that San Marzano tomatoes are definitely worth the steeper price. As they can only be grown under strict rules and conditions, it adds another level of specialness to the tomatoes.

However, you do need to be wary of fakes, as like most luxury products, the market is flooded with knockoffs who are trying to take advantage of the price difference.

Rick Zullo

Former doctor, current science teacher, and life-long food lover, Rick's passion for Mediterranean cuisine was ignited while living as an expat in Rome, Italy. 


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