Should you splurge on this famed Italian food product?

By Peggy Kieran
February 11, 2020

Have you heard of San Marzano tomatoes? They're considered the Ferrari or Prada of canned tomato varieties, and loyalists say they are well worth the higher price tag compared to other canned Italian tomatoes or domestically produced canned tomatoes. Recently there has been some controversy about this famed Italian food product, so we set out to find out why San Marzano tomatoes are so beloved and whether or no they are actually as good as fans believe. Let's start by getting something straight: Canned tomatoes are a wonderful pantry ingredient and something our editors always have on hand; they're ideal for Marinara sauce and so many other recipes.

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Related: What's the Difference Between Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan?

How Are San Marzano Different to Other Canned Tomatoes?

San Marzano is both a type of tomato and a region in Italy. The San Marzano tomato is a type of plum tomato, and it's longer and thinner than the typical plum tomato you might see sold fresh in grocery stores or buy canned. They also have fewer seeds than typical plum tomatoes. Not all canned tomatoes from Italy are San Marzano, and, to make things more confusing, San Marzano tomatoes grow outside of Italy, too. In fact, they are now also grown in the U.S., and their seeds are widely available, which means you could grow San Marzano tomatoes in your vegetable patch.

What first made American cooks seek out San Marzano tomatoes were cans of the official DOP San Marzano tomatoes, grown in a relatively small region between Naples and Salerno. DOP is the Italian abbreviation for Protected Designation of Origin, similar to the protected status of foods like Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar. These tomatoes were famed for their balanced flavor that combines sweetness, tomatoey intensity and just the right amount of acid.

How Do You Know If Your Tomatoes Are San Marzano?

Like honey and olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes have been the subject of fakery. There are a few different aspects to this. Over time Italian San Marzano tomatoes grown outside of the official region have also became available in the U.S. They may be the same type of tomato, grown in similar soil, and canned in a similar manner, but they are not DOP San Marzano. Several American canned tomato companies now sell domestically raised San Marzano tomatoes, and these may be more affordable alternatives. You may also prefer their taste to the DOP ones (or you might not).

There's also the outright fakery to be aware of; shoppers are told to look for the designation DOP on the can, which indicates the much-vaunted tomatoes are inside. But frauds exist, and there are stories of DOP labels being put onto imported Italian tomatoes once they have reached the U.S. If the DOP San Marzano tomatoes in a store are a steal, they may well not be the genuine item. If you're curious about authentic San Marzano tomatoes, we suggest you track down a can and use it in a favorite recipe. Then try making that same recipe using a can of Italian San Marzano tomatoes grown outside of the DOP region, then test the same recipe using a can of American San Marzano tomatoes. Compare the final results from each type of tomato and determine which you actually prefer.

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