Ingredient Intelligence

What Exactly Are San Marzano Tomatoes?

updated Aug 25, 2022
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Whether you’re perusing grocery store shelves or contemplating Italian agriculture, you might come across the San Marzano tomatoes. Praised for their special flavor, these tomatoes are often prominently labeled amid other seemingly similar canned goods.

But what are San Marzano tomatoes, exactly? And what makes them different from all the other types of tomatoes on the shelf or vine?

What Are San Marzano Tomatoes?

The term “San Marzano” refers to a variety of tomato grown in a specific region of Italy: the Agro Sarnese Nocerino of the Sarno River valley near Mount Vesuvius, where volcanic soils are said to produce sweeter, less acidic tomatoes. San Marzanos grown in this region are “true” San Marzanos. Their unique combination of varietal and terroir is so special that they’re given official status as a “protected designation of origin” or D.O.P. (Denominazione d’Origine Protteta).

The trouble is, any producer can slap the words “San Marzano” on their label and charge a premium, whether those tomatoes come from the certified D.O.P or not. Technically, that’s allowed if what’s in the can is the specific variety of tomatoes.

Complicating things further, San Marzanos grown in California are pretty tasty too (just look at our taste-test of canned tomatoes). As a result, some believe that Americans prefer the brighter, more acidic, and almost always far more generously salted flavor of American-grown canned tomatoes than “true” San Marzanos.

Are San Marzano Tomatoes Worth It?

It’s ultimately subjective. Maybe it’s my Italian genes, but I think the sweet, rich flavor of true San Marzanos gives them an edge, rendering them totally worth the higher price — especially for pasta sauces and other tomato-heavy dishes.

They have a fraction of the added sodium of American tomatoes and yet don’t taste bland at all. Additionally, they don’t have any calcium chloride, which is an ingredient that American processors often add to help tomatoes (especially diced) keep their shape. (I’ve checked more than 10 brands of American canned whole tomatoes and they all had calcium chloride added, which just makes it harder for the tomatoes to melt into a sauce.)

How to Identify Authentic San Marzano Tomatoes

If you’re going to pay the steeper price for imported tomatoes, then you want the certified real-deal — sweet tomatoes grown and hand-harvested in that volcanic Italian soil.

To be sure you’re buying the real stuff, look out for these clues.

  • They must be whole or cut in half and packed in cans to be certified as authentic. Any other preparation (diced, puréed, packed in boxes) is your first red flag.
  • Look for the words Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino, which indicates the tomatoes were grown in the designated region.
  • Most important: Look for the star-shaped D.O.P. certification symbol, which will have the words, Denominazione d’Origine Protteta. Next to it will be an I.D. number. This is guarantees they’re certified by the D.O.P. consortium as true San Marzanos.

The Best Recipes to Make with San Marzano Tomatoes

San Marzano tomatoes shine in all sorts of recipes that highlight their sweet flavor. Put them to work in these recipes.

Credit: Amazon

Buy: Strianese San Marzano Tomatoes, $21.99 for three 28-ounce cans