If you’re a fan of Italian food, you’ll know that one of the fundamental rules of their cuisine is that a dish is only as good as the sum of its parts. The beautiful simplicity that characterizes a lot of Italian cooking is undermined by the necessity that the ingredients be of the utmost quality. Despite the deceptively simple-seeming recipes requiring only a few ingredients, it is the special quality of the olive oil, the cheese or the basil that make such famous dishes as cacio e pepe, eggplant parmigiana and of course, pizza napoletana, so lip-smackingly delicious. Therefore, if you are attempting to cook an Italian recipe and you don’t pay serious attention to the specifics of the ingredient list, you will find yourself sorely disappointed by the end result.
One of the most common examples of this is San Marzano tomatoes. Let’s say you want to make tomato gravy. You could be following the most authentic recipe in the world, passed down through generations of Italian mammas but if you use any old canned tomatoes from the back of your store cupboard, you will be committing the culinary equivalent of blasphemy. It is the superior quality of San Marzano tomatoes that make for a velvety, slightly sweet tomato sauce. They are, for example, the only type of tomatoes permitted by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana to be used in a real Neapolitan pizza sauce. So they’re kind of a big deal. But what is it that makes them so special?
Why are San Marzano tomatoes such a big deal?
San Marzano tomatoes are a produce that has an official DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta), which basically means that they are regulated by a body whose sole purpose is to ensure their quality. Other DOP products include parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella di bufala and prosciutto di Parma and, as you’ll know if you have tasted any of them, these guys are the real deal. A tomato can only be officially recognised as San Marzano if it has been grown in the region of Campania, specifically in the rich, volcanic soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius. They must be cultivated according to strict guidelines, namely that they are grown vertically in rows, with the fruit not touching the ground and are harvested by hand. Rather than dismissing these regulations as unnecessary food snobbery, most chefs understand that it is the strict growing conditions of San Marzano tomatoes that render them the ideal variety for making a perfect tomato sauce.
A tomato like no other
To put it plainly, San Marzano tomatoes are divine. They are long and oblong-shaped with a deep red color, a firm pulp, a low seed count and easy to remove skin: all of which are essential elements in ensuring the production of a smooth, rich tomato gravy. Because they are hand-picked at the peak moment of ripening, they have a wonderful sweetness and a low level of acidity. They taste, in essence, exactly like a tomato should taste.
Due to the regulations, authentic San Marzano tomatoes obviously cannot be grown in the US but luckily, it is easy to find the canned variety in US supermarkets. If you don’t believe the hype, do yourself a favour and conduct a little taste test with a selection of tinned tomatoes. We promise, you’ll notice the difference.
Unlike French cuisine, anyone can master the art of Italian cooking so long as they commit to using only ingredients whose excellent quality has been verified. The good news is that so long as you make sure to source some authentic San Marzano canned tomatoes, you can soon be on your way to making the perfect pasta al pomodoro or meatballs in gravy at home!