If you do your share of Italian recipes, a common product that you can find in just about any store has many people confused: San Marzano tomatoes. Most good cooks agree that San Marzano tomatoes are some of the best canned tomatoes you can buy.
But unfortunately, the label can say “San Marzano tomatoes” even if they are not real San Marzano tomatoes.
San Marzano is a region in Italy near Naples and Mt. Vesuvius, and the special combination of climate and volcanic soil make these plum tomatoes world famous. They have less water, fewer seeds and are picked off the vine when perfectly ripe and processed the same day.
But San Marzano is a variety of tomato, too…and so you can have a can of San Marzano tomatoes that are not from San Marzano. And to add to the confusion, there’s actually a brand of tomatoes called San Marzano, with tomatoes grown in the United States. You can bet that the sellers of these tomatoes are counting on us not to know the difference!
Real San Marzano Tomatoes are a very old variety, extremely limited in quantity, grown and produced exclusively in the San Marzano region of Italy. Because production is so very limited, the Italian Government and the European Union have formed a way of protecting consumers from fraud by having San Marzano tomatoes tightly controlled. DOP, or denomination of protected origin, is the mechanism that the government is using to tightly control the production and marketing of genuine San Marzano tomatoes. Labels for DOP products must be individually numbered and manually applied to each and every can in specific lots and government officials must oversee this application. So here’s the deal: unless you see “DOP” on the label with a hand-stamped number on the can, it’s not a San Marzano tomato.
Another way to tell when you’re in the market is simple. Check the price. Your average can of tomatoes will be in the $2 range. Real DOP San Marzano tomatoes: about $4–$5 a can. It’s all about quality.