Let's look at another staple of Italian cuisine, tomatoes. Many people think that Caesar ate tomato sauce. Not true. Tomatoes were not introduced into Italian food culture until the late 17th or early 18th century. When the great explorers first brought them back from the New World, Europeans believed tomatoes to be poisonous. As ornamentals they were okay to look at, but because they are botanically members of the nightshade family, nobody was brave enough to actually eat them! Happily, things changed.
Now, tomatoes are tomatoes, right? They're round and red and grow on vines and you make spaghetti sauce out of them, right? Wrong. If you want an authentic Italian taste from an authentic Italian product, look for tomatoes that are specifically labeled as “San Marzano” tomatoes.
San Marzano tomatoes are a delicate, thin skinned variety of plum tomato grown in an area near the Italian village of San Marzano sul Sarno, which is located southeast of Naples in the fertile valley of Mt. Vesuvius. The DOP* certification area for San Marzano tomatoes actually involves 39,540 acres in three of the provinces of Campania, including a rough triangle formed by Salerno, Naples and a small part of Avellino.
There are numerous myths and legends regarding the origins of the San Marzano tomato, such as the historically ridiculous premise that the seeds were a gift to the King of Naples from the King of Peru back in 1770. Although it's true that tomatoes probably did originate in or around Peru, the little fly in the ointment here is that Peru was firmly and somewhat brutally under Spanish control in 1770. There was nothing even remotely resembling a “king” of Peru by that time. But the story is told.
San Marzanos are thought to be a hybrid of three different varieties including the King Umberto. (The other two, the Fiaschella, and the Fiascona, have faded into agricultural insignificance.) They started catching on around the turn of the 20th century. Ferruccio Zago, a professor at the University of Naples, writing in Nozioni di Orticultura (Concepts Of Horticulture) in 1920, noted, “The peeled tomato industry is a source of pride for Campania. People use a variety known as san marzano.... The plant can bear up to 10–12 bunches of fruit.... The skin has a bright red color and is easily removable, an indispensable characteristic for preparing peeled tomatoes. The pulp is dense and only slightly sugary in flavor....”
It is said that San Marzano tomatoes owe their unique flavor to the rich volcanic soil in which they are grown. They have a deep red color and an unmatchable sweet taste. They are sought after and preferred by cooks and chefs around the world as the absolute best tomato for use in a tomato sauce.
No, you won't find them fresh in your neighborhood supermarket. Tender little fruits that they are, (and yes, tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables) it's hard enough for grocers to import fresh tomatoes from Florida or California, let alone Italy. So off to the canned food section we go.
There are dozens of brands of San Marzano tomatoes available to American consumers. The tomatoes packed by Cento are the ones I usually use, mostly because they are the most widely marketed in my area, but I've purchased other good brands as well, depending on availability. Brand is not really a consideration. It's the variety that counts.
Bear in mind that San Marzanos are only one of several varieties of plum tomato. Don't be fooled by labels that say “Italian” or “Italian-style” tomatoes. Most authentic San Marzano tomatoes will be identified as such and will bear the DOP seal on the label. Most will also carry authentication from the Consorzio di Tutela del Pomodoro San Marzano - Agro Nocerino Sarnese, a consortium dedicated to the protection of San Marzano tomatoes. There are a few growers who object to paying for the DOP and Conzorio stamps and choose to market their produce without the certifications. I've never encountered any, although at least one such company ships its unstamped San Marzano tomatoes directly to the North American market. I can't say whether or not the seal makes a difference. But the variety definitely does.
San Marzano tomatoes have the distinction of being the only tomato permitted for use on Vera Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza) as defined by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana. If you want real authentic Italian tomatoes, these are your babies. If you don't care, buy Hunts or Del Monte.
While we're right there in the neighborhood, let's take a look at the tomato paste.
When I was a kid, my uncle told me that tomato paste was the stuff they used to hold tomatoes together. Fortunately, I was a smart kid. Tomato paste is actually just that – a thick paste produced by cooking and reducing tomatoes down to a thick, rich concentrate.
You'll see lots of little cans of tomato paste on store shelves. Some sound really Italian. One such can is labeled “tomato paste product” made from “Roma style tomatoes” and containing “Italian herbs.” Oh, and catch the ingredient list: “Tomato puree (tomato paste, water), high fructose corn syrup, salt, dried onions, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed), spices, hydrolyzed corn gluten, soy & wheat gluten proteins, grated Romano cheese made from cow's milk (cultured milk, salt, enzymes), garlic, citric acid, yeast, soy flour.” Wow! You think this is going in my tomato sauce?
Actually, I prefer my tomato paste in a tube rather than a can. Easier to use, easier to store. My choice is Amore Italian Tomato Paste. Now, Amore is not DOP or IGP or anything of the sort. But the company's literature says the tubes contain “fresh Italian ingredients,” and the ingredients listed are tomato paste and salt. So is it certifiably authentic Italian? No. Is it kind of Italian? Yeah, probably. Is it better than the chemistry set in a can? Definitely!
Actually, Amore, like many, many other manufacturers, labels its goods as a “product of Italy.” What does this mean? It kind of means “caveat emptor” because it only indicates that either some component of the overall product comes from Italy or that the processing and/or assembly are done in Italy or even that the company's facilities are located in Italy. Take olive oil. You can have olives that are grown in Greece, bottles that are made in Germany, bottlecaps produced in Spain, and labels printed in France. As long as they are all assembled in a factory in Italy, the finished product can legitimately bear the phrase “product of Italy” on the label. Not saying that's the case with Amore – because they do make some pretty good stuff – but keep that idea in mind when you buy. A “product of Italy” is always my second choice. DOP or IGP stamped products always rank first.