San Marzano Tomatoes: Fact vs. Fiction


We’re nearing the end of tomato season, so why not discuss the most misunderstood tomato available? The single variety with the highest degree of name recognition is clearly the San Marzano. Heralded by chefs and home cooks alike, this bittersweet pear-shaped fruit has found its way onto food obsessives’ lists of buzz words. Yet somehow a cloud of mystery surrounds the San Marzano, with plenty of myths and legends to make even the simplest of ingredients sound intriguing. Let’s scrape away the hearsay and take a look at the facts behind pizza’s most popular pomodoro.

The San Marzano tomato arrived in Naples as a gift from the King of Peru in the early 1700s.

Strange fruits arrived in the Spanish colony of Southern Italy by the mid 16th century. The tomato was one of the specimens brought back from the New World but it most certainly was not the San Marzano. Artwork from the time depicts only large, round, furrowed tomatoes unlike the long, slender, pear-shaped San Marzano. While Peru is accepted as the origin point for tomatoes, they were more likely first cultivated in Mexico because more tomato varieties are in use there.

The San Marzano is a pure-blood ancient heirloom variety that has been used in Italian cooking for centuries.

After its introduction to Europe, the tomato was grown as an ornamental fruit. It makes its first culinary appearance in a 1692 cookbook as a base for a sauce recipe. The San Marzano itself doesn’t show up until much later. According to a tomato manual published in 1940, the San Marzano is listed as a “recent cross” between the Re Umberto and Fiaschetto varieties.

A late 19th century drawing of the Re Umberto tomato, named for King Umberto I.

The San Marzano tomato adorned the historic mozzarella and tomato pizza that was served to Queen Margherita in the Summer of 1889.

The pizza served to the queen, which later received her name, was more likely topped with the tomato that was named in honor of her husband. The Re Umberto tomato was named for King Umberto in 1878 ion the occasion of his first visit to Naples. This tomato is smaller and more plump than the San Marzano. So why is the San Marzano listed as a requirement on VPN pies? As you’ll read below, its current form is better suited for industrial canning. [Note: San Marzanos are not a requirement for Pizza Margherita TSG, the European Union’s protective seal for traditionally crafted foods.]

The San Marzano is grown for fresh use in Italy and we are lucky to get cans of it here in the USA.

One of the earliest literary references to the San Marzano appears in the 1894 USDA Agricultural Yearbook in an article titled “Redesigning the Tomato for Mechanized Production.” With the growing diaspora of Southern Italian immigrants who demanded goods from the mother country, the canning industries in both Italy and the US exploded to fill the demand. Prohibitive tariffs on imported tomatoes allowed American canneries to claim a huge amount of business. A Brooklyn woman named Tillie Lewis saw an opportunity and teamed up with Florindo Del Gaizo, a Naples-born tomato importer, to bring San Marzano seeds to California’s San Joaquin Valley. They opened a cannery in the 1930s and eventually became the country’s 5th largest. The San Marzano is excellent for canning because of its relatively low moisture content and thick flesh. It’s safe to say this variety wouldn’t have a life without the American canning industry.

All San Marzanos are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

As Adam Kuban wrote in a recent post for the pizza blog Slice, San Marzano refers both to a tomato variety and a small town on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius. A tomato grown in the EU-approved region and handled in the proper manner is eligible for DOP certification (or Protected Designation of Origin in English). Not all tomatoes grown in the approved area are actually certified, but the stamp certifies the geography and production methods approved by the European Union. At the same time, you can grow the San Marzano variety in your garden and, even though it might taste better than any canned tomato you’ve ever had, you still aren’t eligible for DOP bragging rights.

All DOP San Marzano tomatoes are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

If the DOP mark was upheld, the above would be a true statement. Unfortunately, the incredible value of this mark on a can of tomatoes has encouraged quite a few Italian canners to falsely label their products to justify DOP markups. In 2010 alone, nearly 500,000 cans of counterfeit tomatoes were caught at the port of Naples. Trust your taste buds, not a label.

Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes.

Correctly labeled San Marzano DOP tomatoes are the purest San Marzano tomatoes available.

Widespread blight pretty much knocked out the San Marzano tomato in the 1970s, forcing canning companies to produce more disease-resistant hybrids. Interest increased in the 1990s, and several companies tried to recapture the genetic code to the lost tomato. Two cultivars prevailed, the Cirio Selection 3 and the SMEC-20 (aka San Marzano 2). Unfortunately, neither have been been deemed fit for mechanical harvesting but the SMEC-20 is currently in use by Sabato Abagnale and his Miracle of San Gennaro brand. Abagnale is a real tomato rebel because he doesn’t remove the tomato skins as required by DOP regulations. When I visited Sabato in 2009, he told me that much of the flavor is in the skin and he refuses to remove them. In reality, the SMEC-20 isn’t in wide production because it falls apart easily without the skin to hold it together.

Just a few weeks ago, I held a blind tomato tasting at the Brooklyn Brainery. We tasted a variety of products from Italy, California, Canada and New Jersey. The vast majority of our group preferred the tomatoes from California and New Jersey over the Italian imports. We even tried some DOP and Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes, the latter of which hailed $10 for a 28 oz can! It’s too bad because those cans came in last, way behind the more available and cost-effective options available at my neighborhood grocery store. I don’t mean to say these tomatoes are necessarily better, it’s just interesting what decisions one makes without the burden of a fancy label.

For further tomato reading, check out these fantastic resources:
Ripe by Arthur Allen
Pomodoro! The History of the Tomato in Italy by David Gentilcore
The Tomato in America by Andrew F. Smith

** I originally wrote this piece for the pizza blog Slice.


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