San Marzanos, ‘the Bible of tomatoes’

August 13, 2013

As I peel and seed a small batch of heirloom Brandywine tomatoes, I feel, fairly or not, as if I’ve figured out half of the reason why so many cooks rely on canned San Marzanos instead of these misshapen globes that get all the attention in late summer. San Marzanos are way, way easier to turn into sauce.

Ease of preparation, of course, is not the main reason chefs and home cooks turn to this plum tomato, a fruit so tied to the fertile soil of the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino region in Campania, Italy, that the European Union awarded it Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) protection in 1996. They love the San Marzano tomato for its sweetness, its low acidity, its meaty flesh and, mercifully, its low seed count.

“I really think San Marzanos have a better flavor, and they have a better texture,” says pizzaiolo Edan MacQuaid, who worked wood-burning ovens at 2 Amys, Pizzeria Orso and Range, among other places in the D.C. area, before recently relocating to Maine. “I really prefer them.”

MacQuaid, in fact, says he would opt for San Marzanos even if he weren’t a servant to Neapolitan pizza traditions, which recommend that piemakers use the canned or fresh peeled DOP tomatoes from Campania.

Echoes Enzo Fargione, chef at Osteria Elisir: “San Marzanos are pretty much the Bible of tomatoes.”

Opinions like those are, in part, what drove me to look more closely at the San Marzano, a curvaceous torpedo of a fruit that author and gardener Amy Goldman calls “the most important industrial tomato of the twentieth century” in her book “The Heirloom Tomato” (Bloomsbury USA, 2008). I was hoping to understand whether San Marzanos are indeed better than other canned plum tomatoes — or even fresh summer heirlooms — when it comes to making pasta and pizza sauces. Or whether San Marzanos are just the beneficiary of the gastronomic equivalent of pack reporting: Once a group of famous cooks recommends the tomatoes, everyone else follows.

San Marzanos already have their own creation myth: something about Peruvian royalty bestowing seeds upon the king of Naples in the 1770s, a tale that Oklahoma-based reporter-turned-Internet-marketer Jason Morrow debunks on his SanMarzanoTomatoes.org site. Goldman’s “The Heirloom Tomato” notes that San Marzanos, named after a town where the tomato flourished, were “introduced commercially circa 1926.” Their popularity took a nose dive in the 1970s as canners favored hardier varieties, Morrow explains in his essay, but rebounded in the 1990s as farmers and researchers looked to reclaim the tomato’s glory days. The EU designation sealed the fruit’s iconic status.

Peter Pastan, proprietor of 2 Amys and one of the players behind Etto on 14th Street NW, has never been one to buy into the San Marzano DOP hype. Almost every year, Pastan and a small group of tasters test canned plum tomatoes from all over Campania. Some are DOP-certified San Marzanos, some aren’t. For now, at least, Pastan relies on a Campania plum tomato grown outside the official DOP area.

“There are a lot of good tomatoes out there,” Pastan says. “I think [San Marzanos] have just done a really good job branding themselves.”

Like Pastan, James Alefantis, owner of Comet Ping Pong, doesn’t build his pizza sauce with DOP San Marzanos. For seven years, he has been buying late-harvest tomatoes from Toigo Orchards in Shippensburg, Pa., and canning them at nearby Stello Foods for use at Comet. Last year, Alefantis estimates, he bought 12 tons of Toigo tomatoes, which Stello turned into sauce and canned before trucking the jars to the basement at Buck’s Fishing & Camping, Alefantis’s other restaurant just a few steps down the block on Connecticut Avenue NW.

Alefantis views his choice of tomato not as a dismissal of San Marzanos from Italy but as a reflection of his drive to build a more District-oriented pizza, one that would rely only on regional ingredients. Comet’s lightly cooked sauce is created from a combination of tomatoes, including heirlooms (such as Brandywines), beefsteaks, romas and some Pennsylvania-grown San Marzanos, says farmer Mark Toigo of Toigo Orchards.

Toigo says the Brandywines and beefsteaks help add much-needed moisture to the sauce. Toigo, for one, finds San Marzanos a tad too meaty for sauce. (You can test that theory yourself with Toigo’s San Marzanos, which he will start selling next month — if they’re ripe enough — at the FreshFarm Markets in Dupont Circle and Penn Quarter.)

Alefantis’s efforts to preserve the tomato flavors of the mid-Atlantic year-round carry an inherent risk: The pizzeria might run out of the sauce. “We’ll probably be out in the next few weeks,” Alefantis predicts about the current batch. “So for a few weeks, we’ll be making our own sauces.” Comet will rely on canned San Marzanos for the stopgap sauce, he adds.

Supplies notwithstanding, one of the significant differences between Comet’s pizza sauce and one made with DOP San Marzanos is consistency. Chefs and cooks say that San Marzanos maintain a consistent flavor and texture, year in and year out. Comet’s pizza sauce, because it’s built from tomatoes that vary from year to year, can taste different each season, which is not a problem for Alefantis. He views his sauce as tantamount to wine: It will naturally fluctuate depending on agricultural conditions. Stello will soon be jarring Comet pizza sauce, vintage 2013.

As Toigo notes, heirlooms such as Brandywines carry a lot of moisture, which is largely why cooks prefer to use them in salads and sandwiches rather than in sauces. But as Jeffrey Buben demonstrates to me, heirloom tomatoes may also have the wrong flavor profile for a pasta or pizza sauce. The chef-restaurateur behind Bistro Bis, Vidalia and Woodward Table slices a couple of heirlooms to illustrate his point. Both varieties — Buben isn’t certain what kind they are — have a far fruitier flavor than a typical plum tomato. One tastes almost like a melon. To make a good tomato sauce, Buben emphasizes, you need a fruit whose flavor most diners would identify as “tomato.”

It’s a good thing I didn’t talk to Buben before I started my experiment at home. My goal was to create four no-cook sauces, using four kinds of tomatoes, and then conduct a blind taste test with Post staffers. I used two tomato varieties from my local farmers market: a beefsteak and a Brandywine, which I blanched, peeled, seeded, pureed and then ran through a fine-mesh sieve. (I incorporated some of the juices back into the strained puree to get the right texture.) Neither the beefsteak nor the Brandywine produced a lot of sauce; both varieties turned my cutting boards into killing floors, their red juices bleeding all over the place. I couldn’t help but think the best part of these tomatoes would never make it into the sauce.

For the other two sauces, I pureed and strained Whole Foods canned whole peeled tomatoes and canned DOP San Marzanos. I lightly salted the sauces to give them roughly the same level of sodium.

The taste test produced surprising results: No one picked the San Marzano sauce as his or her favorite, though it did receive a few kind comments. “Complex, rounded, almost meaty,” noted one judge. “This could go straight on a plate of pasta.”

The favorite sauce, by a nose, was the one built from Brandywine tomatoes. “This tastes most like fresh tomato,” wrote one judge. “Though watery, it’s my favorite.”

The problem, as more than one chef pointed out to me, is that you can’t realistically use heirlooms for sauces in restaurants. Finding consistent, perfectly ripe specimens would be nearly impossible. And even if you could, the expense of turning those heirlooms into, say, a pizza sauce would be prohibitive. It might cost you $16 in heirloom tomatoes to make enough sauce for a single pizza, MacQuaid guesses. That pie would have to sell for about $45, he suggests.

Then again, DOP San Marzanos aren’t cheap, either. The tomatoes generally cost about twice as much as your standard Italian plums. “That’s why a lot of people cut corners with the tomatoes,” MacQuaid says.

If you really want to create a fresh summer tomato sauce with heirlooms, cookbook author Domenica Marchetti has a suggestion. The Alexandria resident and author recommends dicing about four of your favorite heirlooms and mixing them in a bowl with about 1 / 4 cup of olive oil, 1 / teaspoon of salt, two julienned basil leaves and two crushed cloves of garlic. Let the mixture sit on the counter for 30 minutes to two hours. Remove the garlic and toss the sauce with pasta, or use it as a topping for pizza or bruschetta. It should yield enough sauce for four servings of pasta.

“Because summer tomatoes have so much flavor,” Marchetti says, “you should take advantage of them and have a little fun.”

The San Marzanos can hold till winter.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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